Déjà vu, the eerie sensation that you’ve lived through a situation before, may feel like a glitch in The Matrix or the recollection of a past life. It isn’t, of course, but scientists don’t deny that the unsettling experience may feel viscerally real. That’s because the phenomenon is actually linked to the brain’s center for memory, researchers write in a new paper in Psychological Science.
In the paper, released Thursday, cognitive psychologists from Colorado State University explain that déjà vu is simply a memory phenomenon — one that can be induced in a lab. They demonstrate this in their study using the popular simulation game The Sims by showing that triggering déjà vu can be as easy as recreating the spatial arrangement of objects in an environment.
In the experiment, the researchers created virtual reality scenarios within The Sims and instructed study participants to move through a scene via a series of confusing turns. To induce déjà vu in the next trial, they asked participants to move through different scenes that were spatially mapped in the same way as the first — except at the very end of the trial the participants were asked to choose their own final turn and explain why they felt it was the right way.
Half the respondents said that when it came time to choose a path, they experienced a strong sense of déjà vu. This sensation was “accompanied by increased feelings of knowing the direction of the next turn,” the researchers write. But just because they felt that way doesn’t mean it was true. These respondents weren’t any more accurate in choosing the right direction than the other half of study participants. To the researchers, this indicated that déjà vu can manifest a confident feeling of premonition but doesn’t actually help people predict the future.
“We cannot consciously remember the prior scene, but our brains recognize the similarity,” lead author Anne Clearly, Ph.D., explained in a statement released Thursday. “That information comes through as the unsettling feeling that we’ve been there before, but we can’t pin down when or why.”
Déjà vu, much like the experience of having something at the “tip of your tongue,” is an example of the “metamemory” phenomena. This is when a person feels familiar with a concept because subjective awareness is pulled from their own memories; that is, somewhere in their past they experienced a similar situation, but they can’t place where. That jarring experience confuses the brain, and in the case of déjà vu, it feels like a mysterious moment of clairvoyance.
In reality, déjà vu is just seeing or hearing something similar to what you’ve seen or heard before. That’s less fun than being psychic, but at least it means there’s nothing spooky interfering with your reality.