How do you interpret deja vu experiences?
March 6, 2009 9:36 PM   Subscribe

How do you interpret deja vu experiences?

Do you think of them as positive reinforcement that you're on the right track in your life or a warning that you're about to "repeat" a mistake you could have avoided? Have you ever been able to change the outcome of a situation based on your prescience? How do your deja vu experiences generally manifest? Through dreams? Spaced-out moments? Or some other way entirely? (Note: I'm not really interested in those induced by chemicals or mind-altering substances, just real, honest-to-goodness foresight.)
posted by Sal Monella to Science & Nature (42 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I just think deja vu is a false emotion, a neuron somewhere mistakenly sending out the signal "i've seen this situation before, guys!" when in reality it and I haven't.
posted by troy at 9:42 PM on March 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure I believe deja vu is anything other than a misfiring neuron - maybe you tell yourself you've done this thing before because your brain just got a signal a second ago, and your conscious mind just hasn't realised it yet.

But on the other hand, I suspicious that this 'misfiring neuron' theory explains nothing at all, and that maybe deja vu is true, and we all have done these exact same things before. I like to interpret it as a warning that I'm not varying my experiences in life enough, and a reminder that human beings are mostly conservative creatures of habit.
posted by dydecker at 9:45 PM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you are experiencing deja vu with any regularity, please go see a neurologist. It can be a sign of a particular type of epilepsy.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:46 PM on March 6, 2009

What you're describing isn't déjà vu, which means a sense that what you're experiencing has happened to you before, but precognition, which doesn't exist.
posted by abcde at 9:49 PM on March 6, 2009 [7 favorites]

my understanding of deja vu was the short term and long term memory signal 'misfiring' ... so not a premonition at all but a trick of the mind.

I think I like that idea better...
posted by Weaslegirl at 9:50 PM on March 6, 2009

Usually I interpret deja vu as a flashback to a prediction I had while sleeping. Sounds improbable, I know, but what if everyone who experiences deja vu is recalling the psychic prediction of the subconscious?
posted by big open mouth at 9:53 PM on March 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

(To be precise, déjà vu refers to the sensation alone and most often refers to a very strong sense of familiarity with no specific recollection of when it happened before, whereas "genuine" precognition would involve a real memory that might come to you when you encounter the event in real life.)
posted by abcde at 10:01 PM on March 6, 2009

I usually just chalk it up to a glitch in the Matrix.
posted by roomwithaview at 10:05 PM on March 6, 2009 [6 favorites]

I've had deja vu about ten times in my life where everything happened exactly the same as a dream I had days to months prior to the experience.

Granted it wasn't an earth shattering premonition any of the times but it was quite shocking where I was sort of overcome with WTF like I was in the matrix or something.

Usually what sets it off is some series of events will happen and then sort of a shiver type wave goes throughout my body and then I remember that I had a dream where everything exactly happened like that.

Maybe it's self-fulfilling? Dunno.
posted by zephyr_words at 10:06 PM on March 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

While I've definitely had the sensation of being able to "predict" what happens next during an episode of deja vu, I find that I only get this notion of precognition after the fact (i.e. a split second after the event actually occurs), so I assume it's just another trick of the mind.

I'm generally with the neuronal-misfire crowd when it comes to deja vu. It's an interesting sort of experience when it happens, but is ultimately not a good source from which to draw conclusions on how your life is going.
posted by wsp at 10:09 PM on March 6, 2009

I know what zephyr_words is describing, and I can confirm through a dream journal that, at least in my case, I never had dreamed what I thought I had dreamed. Basically, my mind was creating the memory of a dream or the feeling of a dream based on a present situation. It feels so real but it never is.
posted by muddgirl at 10:09 PM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

zephyr_words is me ... I've had exactly the same type of thing happen about 5 or 6 times in my life.
posted by gudrun at 10:09 PM on March 6, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, abcde. To clarify, then, I guess what I'm talking about is genuine prescience, which I have experienced on at least three different occasions. In two of those, I actually dreamt about particular situations months before they occurred (and I know, because I keep a detailed dream journal)...and these were places I had never been before, featuring people I had never met until those moments arrived. At the time, I dismissed the dreams out of hand as ridiculous nonsense, because I didn't even know those people, and the situations made no sense in the context of my life as it was. But once I was actually *living* them, little flashes started coming back to "Holy sh**. I was sitting on a couch this color, and she was sitting there, and he said this…so THAT’s who those people were!" and it freaked me out a little bit to watch it all unfolding. I have my own theories about what those types of experiences mean. I'm just curious to see how other people think of them.
posted by Sal Monella at 10:15 PM on March 6, 2009

Deja vu can be like a precognitive thingy. The wiki article you linked to even mentions that exact word.

I went on to read the rest of the deja vu wiki article and it has this in it which I found similar to what I have felt:

Kevin Heady suggested that a feeling of remembering occurs in a sense that he might realize that what he had dreamed is now a relevant present action that is taking place right here right now.

"I was once sitting down in the kitchen noticing that my plate seemed well too familiar, it seemed as if my head motions were foreseen, and that every move would trigger a continuation to happen or so, I had many déjà vus as a child but this was extraordinary, I knew from the bottom of my heart that I had dreamed this situation years ago, as a little boy, that amazingly an entire piece of memory was regained and I finally understood when and where I was dreaming and how long this dream was, and most importantly how many years ago did I dream."

posted by zephyr_words at 10:18 PM on March 6, 2009

Ditto zephyr_words & (on preview) Sal Monella. I had several of those over a few years; each time the dreams were so odd that I thought about them multiple times after waking up. The experiences happened within a few weeks of the dream. Nothing important, just conversations with unlikely people in unlikely places each time with the almost physical 'shiver' of recognition each time.

I read or was told that they were "The way you know you're on the right path", for whatever that's worth.
posted by Mamapotomus at 10:21 PM on March 6, 2009

It's interesting that your deja vu is in your dreams. I only get it when awake, with two notable exceptions.

If you are not already, I recommend joining the forum at Dream Views

They are very receptive and non-trippy (mostly) about dream journals, etc. They are focused on lucid dreaming, which is REALLY fun if you can do it, but they are a great community with which to talk about your dreams in any case.
posted by CaptApollo at 10:27 PM on March 6, 2009

zephyr_words: Right, I didn't mean to say that it couldn't feel like full-on precognition, but Sal Monella was asking specifically about how to interpret "actual" prescience, as (s)he just confirmed, not how to interpret déjà vu sensations per se, and that's the distinction I was making.
posted by abcde at 10:29 PM on March 6, 2009

Nthing many comments above, I occasionally get a sudden, intense sense that what I am seeing/hearing/processing in realtime has happened identically to me before. It lasts a few seconds only but can be quite disconcerting as it unfolds.

I can understand how people might feel like they have dreamt the moment or brief event prior to experiencing it in reality, but I don't believe that's what's going on and I don't think deja vu has any real meaning or any bearing on reality.

I have to believe we're all riding time's arrow and it's strictly a one way ride.
posted by longsleeves at 10:39 PM on March 6, 2009

I don't think there's any "genuine" prescience; there's déjà vu, in which your brain inserts a current experience into old memories; there's coincidence, since some percentage of people who keep dream journals will stumble into situations that mirror dreams they had; and there's fraud, where people back-date their predictions for attention or profit. To my knowledge, in the history of human experience, no-one has ever made their predictions or dream journal public and then had a recorded vision come true in unmistakably precognitive detail, so when I have the sense that I've done something before and know what will happen, I don't assume it's useful information of any sort, just an eerie and entertaining trick of the mind.
posted by nicwolff at 10:41 PM on March 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

I remember that MIT did a very interesting study about deja vu, which was reported in Science. I can't find the article or the paper itself online, but there are several brief news reports (at MIT news, Reuters, and Time).
They said neurons in a memory center of the brain called the hippocampus make a mental map of new places and experiences, then store them away for future use.

But when two experiences begin to seem very much alike, these mental maps overlap and start to blur.
According to this research, deja vu is basically a place or situation inappropriately matching a pattern stored in the brain. That theory of deja vu has nothing to do with prescience; it's just a little (but interesting) brain glitch.
posted by paulg at 10:41 PM on March 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think if the event is pretty generic it's likely that it did happen in a dream which causes the memory overlap.
With near hundreds of dreams one has a night mixed in with life events, that help make those dreams, it seems very probable that every once in awhile they will line up perfectly enough to cause a deja vu sensation.

I've had that "neuron misfire whatever" deja vu happen and the sensation is completely different than the "I dreamed about this before" deja vu for me.
posted by zephyr_words at 10:57 PM on March 6, 2009

What about dream deja-vu where you think the dream is the same as one you've had before, but it probably is the first time youve had the dream? I interpret it as the mind's infinite capacity for self-deception...
posted by Kirklander at 12:00 AM on March 7, 2009

Thanks, abcde. To clarify, then, I guess what I'm talking about is genuine prescience, which I have experienced on at least three different occasions. In two of those, I actually dreamt about particular situations months before they occurred (and I know, because I keep a detailed dream journal)...and these were places I had never been before, featuring people I had never met until those moments arrived.

Then you're mistaken about what you wrote in the journal, misremembering what actually occurred when you go back and re-read the journal for confirmation, or the experiences are very generic and you're overfitting them to what you wrote in the general.

Because there is no such thing as genuine prescience of the sort you describe. Really. It's flat impossible, right in there with astrology, leprechauns, and ghosts.
posted by Justinian at 12:55 AM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

"wrote in the general" = "wrote in the journal", obviously. Sorry.
posted by Justinian at 12:55 AM on March 7, 2009

The brain seems to want to make something as close to prescience as possible in the subconscious. I suggest checking out Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. The brain produces a variety of emotions, intuitions and suspicions subconsciously that can often be surprisingly accurate. If you think about it, it makes sense that one part of your mind (consciousness) would try to stick to empirically learned information and noticeable perceptions (ie something you focus on or hear clearly spoken) to form a conscious plan, while another part would simply go on loose correlations based on massive amounts of stimuli to come to sudden conclusions. Deja vu as you describe it is probably a form of that.
posted by mccarty.tim at 1:59 AM on March 7, 2009

Ok, this is a little unsettling, because the "experiencing something I felt in a dream the night before" is what I experience when my epilepsy acts up. I get it 2-3 times a year and one time I've had grand mal seizure after it. My neurologist explained that I have temporal lobe epilepsy.

I had the deja vu feelings from time to time for a year before the first grand mal seizure hit.

I suggest all of you going to a doctor.

Oh, and it is most certainly not real and your mind will be certain you really had that dream but I can assure you you never did.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:39 AM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

By the way, the correct term for the feeling that you've dreamed something before is "déjà rêvé".
posted by muddgirl at 7:43 AM on March 7, 2009

For me, deja vu is just having something happened in real life that was similar to dream I had in the past. The memory of the dream may not have been in my conscious, but when something similar to it happened, it triggered the memory associated with and brought it back.
posted by ShooBoo at 8:28 AM on March 7, 2009

Then you're mistaken about what you wrote in the journal

I think you are too quick to issue a blanket dismissal.
I'm very skeptical too, but once, when I was about 11, I dreamt of a normal boring conversation that ended when the schoolmate I was talking to suddenly started urgently asking me for no apparent reason, "what's wrong? what's wrong?" I woke up and remembered the dream and thought it was strange.
Some time later, maybe a week, I was talking to that girl and realized I knew what she was going to say next because it was the same mundane conversation from my dream. I must have blanched because she started urgently asking me, "what's wrong? what's wrong?"

For the record, this is the only "supernatural," unexplained thing that has ever happened to me, despite 40 years of looking for evidence of ghosts or ESP or aliens.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:47 AM on March 7, 2009

But CL, that's perfectly ordinary. You dreamed about a weird end to a normal conversation with a person you saw every day, then acted oddly during a similar real-life conversation and she asked "what's wrong?" — which is only what anyone would say. To whatever degree the conversations seemed eerily identical, you were having déjà vu as already described; memory is fluid, and memory about memories doubly so.
posted by nicwolff at 9:55 AM on March 7, 2009

CL - other people have pointed out the rational explanation, even assuming nicwolff isn't correct. The memories of dreaming about the conversation were false memories. It's a fairly common phenomenon.
posted by Justinian at 10:52 AM on March 7, 2009

It has been said a few times here but... déjà vu is not about seen in abcde's comments.

What you're describing isn't déjà vu, which means a sense that what you're experiencing has happened to you before, but precognition.

If you experience something that you dreamt would happen, while it may be a creepy feeling, it is not déjà vu.

Déjà vu is something almost all people experience for very rational, explainable reasons at some point in their lives (and some due to serious medical conditions)... precognition or premonition in the form of dreams, most definitely, is not.
posted by Weaslegirl at 10:58 AM on March 7, 2009

This is a relevant thread: the poster actually invites people to "debunk" the idea that his dream was prescient.

You're not going to get a lot of support for genuine precognition in this bunch.

Can you transcribe what you actually wrote down about this dream? If the specifics are convincing it could at least increase the hmm factor, but the theory that you simply took an archetypical sort of situation architecture from a dream and mapped specifics onto it via false memories (particularly immediate sensations misinterpreted as memories out of a false sense of recollection) is pretty hard to disprove otherwise, it comes down to what you felt to be true versus everyone else's belief that there's no such thing as precognition.
posted by nanojath at 12:20 PM on March 7, 2009

I think you're talking about two different experiences. Deja vu is moderately well studied phenomenon where the same signal takes two paths of different length through the brain resulting in a moment of "that already happened." There's nothing even remotely supernatural about it.

As for precognition, it's nothing more than an faulty memory, coincidence, and the innate ability of our brains to find (or make up) patterns. Human memory is truly amazing, but it's anything but reliable. The whole "witnesses at a crime scene" thing, only studies are finding out it much weirder and subtle than that. Plus our brains excel at filling in missing information. Sometimes we do it horribly wrong, but we do it automatically so it's almost impossible to notice without a lot of work. When you add in dreams... Oh boy. It's all out the window then. We're not totally sure what dreaming is all about yet, but we do know it screws with our memories.

And then throw coincidence into it. If an average person has four episodes of dreaming each night, and three things happen in each dream (a conservative number) then every year a person dreams of 4,380 things. That's a ton of events. It would be remarkable if more than one of those things didn't happen within a week of dreaming it. I had a dream the other night of a train crash, and guess what I see today if I search the news for train crash? Yup, somewhere there was a train accident.

"Yes, but my dreams were more specific" Hm. Dreams come from your brain, your motivations. I'm going to dream about funky bars because that's where I've already made lots of good memories. I'll dream about meeting a new creative person because I really like meeting creative people. And I like interesting and controversial conversations. So it's only natural that I would dream about meeting a creative person in a funky bar and having an interesting and controversial conversation with them. It's also only natural that, at some point, I would actually meet a creative person in a funky bar in the real world and have a similar conversation. Yeah, one "predicts" the other, but only because one came first. The order could have just as easily been reversed.

You keep a detailed dream log so of course you're going to find connections. That's a part of the reason you do it, isn't it?
posted by Ookseer at 12:22 PM on March 7, 2009

Best answer: If you are experiencing deja vu with any regularity, please go see a neurologist. It can be a sign of a particular type of epilepsy.

True. And yet I've had some that seemed like true presentiments, including one I had described to my partner as a dream the morning of the day it happened. I dreamed we were in a store and a glittering case of merchandise collapsed at my feet. That afternoon we were in a Starbuck's meeting a friend of hers I did not particularly want to meet, and as I waited by our table for them to go through the line, I replaced the thermos (I collect thermoses) I had been looking at on the shelf from which I'd taken it. The glass shelf collapsed, taking all the stuff on it with it to the floor, as well as some of the stuff on the shelf below it. I stood there kind of frozen, and one of the clerks rushed over. He pointed out, after a few moments, that one of the front shelf supports had been installed upside down. When I put the thermos back, the weight in a slightly different position caused the shelf to tilt toward the bad support, the shelf contents slid forward, the shelf tilted up behind and fell out of the case onto the floor. I turned around to see my partner looking at me with an almost comical expression of astonishment on her face.

The deja vu sensation began as I turned away from the shelf after replacing the thermos, triggered by the noise of the stuff sliding, I guess.

I hate deja vus. They cast a pall over the entire day. I feel like screaming out 'OK, but what am I supposed to do?'
posted by jamjam at 2:37 PM on March 7, 2009

I doubt I will convince any skeptics, but will tell my own story of one of my dreams that later became reality. When I was about 13, I dreamed that my father was talking to a woman at some social function. This in itself is not unusual, of course, though the woman was a stranger to me, and was of a different race/ethnicity from the usual people in my parent's social circle. What was most unusual was the very odd question my father asked this woman. It is not the kind of thing he would ever normally discuss, and is along the lines of someone coming up to you and randomly asking what you think about pink elephants. It was just not something that comes up in normal conversation. It was so odd that I made note of it after I woke up, thinking how odd it was, and thinking also, good grief, what a weird dream, why would I dream about Dad asking that question to that person. My father would *never* ever ask anyone that, I thought (in part because he is a flaming liberal to this day, and the question is not only odd but also kind of insensitive to ask someone of that woman's background.) Fast forward several months, and we are all at an art opening. I am wandering about checking out the art, and I then wander back over to my father just as he is asking the woman from the dream the question from the dream. I proceeded to tell all and sundry in the immediate vicinity that I had dreamed about that exact conversation a few months before (though no one believed me, of course).
posted by gudrun at 6:05 PM on March 7, 2009

Response by poster: “You're not going to get a lot of support for genuine precognition in this bunch.” —Nanojath

Clearly, based on the majority of the responses—which is kind of surprising, considering what I asked wasn’t “do you believe in this, and if not, why not” but rather, “if you’ve experienced this phenomenon, how did you elect to interpret it?”

I get that I wasn’t exactly clear at first about the distinction between déjà vu and prescience, but if you haven’t actually experienced it—or you don’t even believe it’s a possibility—then no offense, but perhaps this post is not the place for you.

While I’ll be the first to admit that the mind can play tricks on people (my SO regularly teases me about the number of “black cats” I see on the street while out walking at dusk that turn out to be fire hydrants or something else entirely), I’m not really interested in trying to “prove” to disbelievers that prescience is possible if they’re convinced it isn’t. That’s not really my goal here.

What I’m seeking is the theories of folks who have actually experienced these episodes, and what, if anything, they think they’re “supposed to do about it,” as jamjam put it. Are they just random heads-ups, as in, “hey, this is gonna happen; just notice?” Or are they warnings, as in “don’t pick up that thermos?” Or even, as mamapotomous opined, “the way you know you’re on the right path?” Or something else entirely?

As I said, I have my own theories about prescience and what it “means.” I just want to know how other folks have interpreted it when they’ve experienced it. Peace.
posted by Sal Monella at 10:09 PM on March 7, 2009

Best answer: Ah, okay.

I once had a dream about an airplane crash into the side of a mountain. The next morning a plane crashed into the side of a mountain and was plastered all over the news. No one I knew was on board.

My thought was "Wow, what a coincidence!"

Is that better, or still wrong?
posted by Ookseer at 10:52 PM on March 7, 2009

Response by poster: No, that’s absolutely better—and precisely what I am after. If you think it’s crap or coincidence or whatever, that’s cool. Call it however you see it. I just want honest opinions from folks who have actually experienced it—regardless of their interpretation. Thanks.
posted by Sal Monella at 10:28 AM on March 8, 2009

Years ago, we lived at a home that had beautiful shade trees at the perimeter of our property. Our HOA told us that tree-trimmers would be coming the following week to do minor trimming of two trees. That night, I dreamed that the tree-trimmers cut all perimeter foliage away, leaving a stark, barren expanse. At the time, I was studying Jungian dream analysis, so recorded that dream.

The following week, due to a miscommunication between the HOA and tree-trimmers, the workers actually did cut away all the perimeter foliage, leaving barren acreage.

I've had other dreams become realities like that, and I believe this may be because, subconsciously, I realize certain outcomes are possible, may harbor anxiety about them, and might be "working them through" as I sleep.
posted by terranova at 11:11 AM on March 8, 2009

What do dreams mean? Whatever your bias says, NYTimes, March 9
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 1:17 PM on March 10, 2009

You might try asking this question over at Soul Pancake.
posted by shannonm at 10:00 PM on March 10, 2009

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