By: Chris O'Shea
Deja Vu, that feeling you get that something new is actually something old — something that you've experienced before — hasn't been easy for scientists to pin down. Sure, the creators of The Matrix film franchise tried to explain it away as a "glitch," but in reality (or maybe we should say perceived reality?) it's much more complicated than that.
When researchers first started trying to unravel the phenomenon, they thought it might be a symptom of schizophrenia or other serious ailments. However, this was quickly disproved. As Alan Brown wrote in his book, The Deja Vu Experience, while it might seem like schizophrenics would be connected, "there have been surprisingly little documentation" of this happening.
It's been like that for years: Someone presents a theory, it's proven wrong. Someone else comes up another association and that too, is incorrect. But thanks to Anne Cleary, a cognitive scientist, and her team at Colorado State University, the mystery behind Deja Vu is coming to an end.
Cleary and her colleagues conducted experiments using virtual reality to try and figure out just how Deja Vu happens, and why. To do that, Cleary and the other scientists asked a group of college students to don video equipment on their heads that projected virtual reality layouts. The layouts were settings created using the Sims 2 video game. A total of 128 settings, divided into pairs, were shown to the students. Each had some items cleverly set up like other settings in the experiment. So for example, one setting would have a vase on an end table, the next would have a plant similar to the size of the vase on the end table.
What Cleary and her team found was that Deja Vu happened the most often when a new setting was similar to an old one, but not too similar that the student was able to outwardly figure that out. "One reason for the jarring sense that accompanies déjà vu may be the contrast between the sense of newness and the simultaneous sense of oldness—something unfamiliar should not also feel familiar," Cleary said in her paper, according to Scientific American. "A situation that resembles one in memory may be a particularly good candidate for producing that simultaneous recognition of newness alongside a sense of familiarity."
Cleary said that while her work has been able to replicate Deja Vu, it doesn't mean this is the only reason why we experience it. She said that one other possibility could be that we miss something the first time we see it, and the second time we do, that could be enough to tip the scales toward Deja Vu. Her team is actually trying to make that happen too, again with the virtual reality world that they created.
We may never know the exact reason for Deja Vu, but we're kind of okay with that. Life has very few unexplained items — and Deja Vu is harmless, so it's not like we need to know its origins. Until Cleary cracks the code, let's all enjoy the experience for what it is: A reminder that the complex workings of our minds can be quite entertaining.
[Pic via Flickr - DigitalBob8]