Déjà vu – that sense that you’ve been somewhere or experienced something before – is a deeply unsettling feeling. Not just because it’s weird in itself, but because of what it could represent. Are you remembering a past life or did you already live this moment in a dream? And if so, does that mean you know what’s going to happen next?
Sadly not: it seems the brain is just odd. Having attempted to trigger feelings of déjà vu in 298 participants, Anne Clearly, a cognitive psychologist from Colorado State University, has come to the conclusion that it’s just a feeling – and those experiencing it are no more likely to know what’s around the corner than you or I.
I don’t use the term ‘around the corner’ as a figure of speech either. Clearly and her team created a number of environments in The Sims that spatially appeared the same but were thematically different, like in the image below.
Participants were walked through these worlds in VR, in an attempt to trigger feelings of déjà vu – and half of them duly reported a “feeling like you’ve been there before”. When you see how this looked to them, that’s not entirely surprising.
But despite having this sense of déjà vu, participants were no more likely to recall how the routine ended than if they were to choose randomly. In layman’s terms: those who felt déjà vu were supremely confident they knew what was about to happen – but they usually didn’t. In other words, feelings of déjà vu can’t help you predict the future, but it might make you believe you can.
Cleary – who has been studying déjà vu for over a decade now – is now looking to examine whether this sense of confidence is merely down to hindsight bias, or if there’s something else at play.
“I think the reason people come up with psychic theories about déjà vu is that they are these mysterious, subjective experiences,” she said. “Even scientists who don’t believe in past lives have whispered to me, ‘Do you have an explanation for why I have this?’ People look for explanations in different places. If you’re a scientist, you’re looking for the logical reason for why you just had this really weird experience.”
For more of Cleary’s insights on the strange forces driving déjà vu, here Tedx talk below on the subject offers some fascinating insights.
Cleary’s latest research is published in Psychological Science.