Déjà Vu Linked to Feelings of Prediction
New research demonstrates an illusory sense of prediction during deja vu.
Posted Mar 06, 2018
Déjà vu—the strange feeling of having been to this very place or done this very thing before when you know you haven't—happens to most people at some point in their lives. But did you know that for many people, this feeling is accompanied by a feeling of knowing what will happen next? Maybe this even happens to you sometimes. New research is finally shedding light on this strange association.
For many years, I have approached déjà vu from the perspective that it is a memory phenomenon—that déjà vu occurs because something relevant to the current situation resides in our memory but we fail to call it to mind. The concept is humorously illustrated in this commercial from years back, where a man experiences deja vu upon entering his hotel room for the first time, and his partner points out that it is only because he had previously done the virtual tour at hotels.com.
However, for many people, the experience of déjà vu is more than just a feeling of a memory. For many people, déjà vu is also a feeling of knowing what will happen next. For them, the experience illustrated by the hotels.com commercial seems incomplete. Their experience might instead additionally include a feeling of knowing what was around the corner in the room.
In my 2017 TEDxCSU talk, I described a phone call from a man in Alaska who was searching for information that might explain this type of freaky mind-boggling experience of premonition during deja vu. His experience really bothered him because he wasn't superstitious and couldn’t explain it, and he’d been searching the web for explanations. At numerous presentations on déjà vu over the years, my students and I have heard similar stories from people about their experiences with déjà vu.
“Is there something to this?” I wondered.
Digging into old research, hints of an association between déjà vu and feelings of prediction could indeed be found. In a 1959 publication, Mullan and Penfield describe electrically stimulating a patient’s brain in a way that not only induced déjà vu in the patient, but also a feeling of knowing exactly what was going to happen next. The patient reported knowing exactly what the doctor would say and do next during the electrically-induced déjà vu experience.
In this case, the feeling of prediction during deja vu was illusory. But might it be possible for the feeling to be accurate if it is rooted in a memory?
Thinking back to the man in the hotels.com commercial, if the man's initially mind-boggling sensation of déjà vu was rooted in memory, might his unretrieved memory for his virtual tour could also drive a mysterious sense of prediction regarding what was around the bend in the room?
Anecdotally, some people even have examples where they do seemed to have been able to predict, and it turns out to have likely been rooted in an initially unretrieved memory. In September, 2016, a famous memory researcher—Dr. Elizabeth Loftus—was visiting Colorado State University to give a talk on our campus. In conversing briefly about some of my work on déjà vu, she told an interesting story about something that had happened to her. She was visiting someone’s house for the first time (or so she thought). She walked in and had a strange sense of déjà vu. She also felt that she knew what was behind an interior window within in the home—like she’d been there before and knew. Later on, she discovered she had been there. Years earlier, she had attended a wedding at that very house as a guest of a friend, but failed to recall that when first walking in. In a strange coincidence, she was now meeting the homeowner, and in an entirely different context.
Many notable memory researchers have suggested that the real adaptive purpose of memory is to predict the future from our past experiences. Might this explain the strange association between deja vu and feelings of prediction?
We examined this in our new study recently published in Psychological Science. In it, we built on previous work that showed that spatial similarity of a new scene to an unrecalled scene in memory can contribute to déjà vu reports. We had participants view videos that were much like taking virtual tours through rooms and landscapes. For each scene, participants were taken through a series of turns while on the tour. Later, they virtually toured new scenes, some of which spatially mapped onto an earlier-toured scene and followed the same navigational path as in that earlier scene—up to a point. At that point, the movement stopped short of the next turn. We wanted to see if participants would feel a sense of knowing the direction of the next turn when experiencing déjà vu, and if any such sense would be accompanied by actual predictive ability (that was rooted in memory for the direction of the turn taken in the earlier-viewed but unrecalled spatially similar scene).
We found that there was an association between reports of déjà vu and feelings of prediction. During déjà vu reports, people reported stronger feelings of being able to predict the direction of the next turn than when they were not experiencing déjà vu. However, the feeling of prediction turned out to be illusory. Participants’ ability to select the correct turn during déjà vu was at the level of random guessing.
Why should déjà vu be accompanied by an illusory sense of prediction? We surmise that, in much the same way that a tip-of-the-tongue state feels as if retrieval of a word is imminent, the déjà vu state may feel as if retrieval of the current situation is imminent--as if it isn't new and the whole thing is about to come to mind. If so, it makes sense that a person might also feel that retrieving how this whole event unfolds is also imminent—maybe it feels like whatever is around the next bend is just about to come to mind. This could conceivably give rise to a feeling of prediction. But, there is a difference between feeling as if one is about to access something from memory and actually accessing it in time to predict what is going to happen.
So, if you’ve ever experienced a feeling of prediction during déjà vu, you’re not alone. It appears from our work to be a common experience. However, be skeptical of your actual ability to predict when you have this feeling—your mind may be tricking you.
Cleary, A.M. & Claxton, A.B. (2018). Deja vu: An illusion of prediction. Psychological Science. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956797617743018
Cleary, A.M., Brown, A.S., Sawyer, B.D., Nomi, J.S., Ajoku, A.C., & Ryals, A.J. (2012). Familiarity from the configuration of objects in 3-dimensional space and its relation to déjà vu: A virtual reality investigation. Consciousness and Cognition, 21, 969-975. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810012000049?via%3Dihub
Cleary, A.M. (2008). Recognition memory, familiarity, and déjà vu experiences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 353-357. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00605.x