Deja Entendu: The Strange Feeling Something Was Heard Before

New research uses "Piano Puzzlers" to examine the auditory version of deja vu.

Posted Jun 12, 2019

You have probably heard of déjà vu—that sometimes eerie feeling of having experienced something before while also feeling like that could not possibly be the case because you’ve never actually done this before. Did you know that there are many other forms of the experience, each with their own label? In addition to déjà vu (a feeling of having seen something before), there is deja senti (a feeling of having smelled something before), deja entendu (a feeling of having heard something before), presque vu (a feeling of being on the verge of an epiphany), and jamais vu (a feeling of newness for something that ought to be familiar), to name a few. More terms for odd variants of the déjà vu experience can be found in Brown (2004).

Although déjà vu has begun to be explored in the scientific realm, other variants of the experience have rarely been explored in laboratory settings, if at all.

In my own lab, we developed a unique method for studying déjà vu years ago. Our method emphasizes the juxtaposition of familiarity and newness that characterizes déjà vu and distinguishes it from ordinary familiarity; the method focuses on this juxtaposition during instances of retrieval failure. In our method, people explore scenes that are novel but map onto previously-viewed but unrecalled scenes in their spatial configuration, as shown in the figure.

Anne Cleary
Examples of scenes used in previous research on déjà vu to juxtapose familiarity and novelty.
Source: Anne Cleary

We have published many studies using this method to study déjà vu, and a recent talk on the method is available at TEDxLiverpool.

For years, we wondered if an auditory form of déjà vu exists, and how we might create a juxtaposition of familiarity and newness with sounds instead of visual spaces. But we had yet to think up a good auditory paradigm that would be analogous to the scenes we had used to study déjà vu.

Then, serendipitously, a couple of years ago through a local community music organization in Fort Collins, I met Bruce Adolphe, a composer who has been creating Piano Puzzlers for radio shows for well over a decade (currently on American Public Media’s Performance Today). Piano Puzzlers are popular songs (e.g., “London Bridge”) that have been re-done in the form of a famous classical composer’s genre, such as Chopin. (Listen to some here or here.) The first time I listened to one, it reminded me of a phenomenon I study in my lab called recognition without identification.

Recognition without identification occurs when a person senses that something is familiar yet cannot identify what it is or why exactly it seems familiar. I have published many articles on recognition without identification; in fact, my research on this phenomenon is what prompted the development of my lab’s approach to studying déjà vu.

Piano Puzzlers reminded me of recognition without identification because they seem to elicit that experience: Initially, the piece seems strangely familiar but cannot be immediately identified. In fact, one of my earlier recognition without identification articles was on music recognition without identification. We halted song identification in the laboratory by isolating either the rhythm from a previously-heard song, such as “London Bridge” (by having the song tapped out on a wood block instrument with no tonal variation), or the pitch sequences (by attaching the ordered notes from the song to an arbitrary rhythm). People gave higher familiarity ratings to isolated features like rhythm or pitch sequences when they came from studied songs, even though they could not identify the songs from which those isolated features came. We called this song recognition without identification.

Piano Puzzlers seemed like a real-life example of song recognition without identification.

But Piano Puzzlers also seemed to carry that juxtaposition of familiarity and novelty during retrieval failure that characterizes déjà vu insofar as putting a well-known song like “London Bridge” to the genre of Chopin creates that sort of juxtaposition. The song seems novel yet has a strangely familiar feel upon first listening to it.

Could Piano Puzzlers therefore be the type of auditory analog to our déjà vu paradigm that we had been searching for?

In an article published this past month in New Ideas in Psychology, my co-author (Kat McNeely-White) and I attempted to find the song recognition without identification effect using Piano Puzzlers. First, participants heard a series of unaltered piano song clips like “London Bridge” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Later, participants listened to a series of Piano Puzzlers. Half of these Puzzlers were created from songs heard earlier. Song recognition without identification would be shown by higher familiarity ratings for unidentified Puzzlers that came from studied songs.

But how could we determine if any discovered song recognition without identification effect would relate to deja entendu? We looked to prior research on a similarly little-known phenomenon: Presque vu. In that prior work, the term was defined for participants so that they could indicate when they thought that state was happening. Following this approach, we defined deja entendu for our participants and asked them to indicate whenever it occurred for a Piano Puzzler. We defined deja entendu as a “feeling of having heard something before despite knowing that it is completely new.”

We found a song recognition without identification effect similar to that found for isolated song features in prior research: Familiarity ratings were higher for Puzzlers that came from recently heard songs. Interestingly, we found that this effect only occurred when deja entendu was reported. The song recognition without identification effect for Piano Puzzlers was dependent on reports of deja entendu.

This overall pattern suggests a relationship between the song recognition without identification effect with Piano Puzzlers and deja entendu reports.

Indeed, Piano Puzzlers may elicit an auditory version of déjà vu (at least sometimes).  You can listen to them here to see if you have the experience for any of them yourself!

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