You visit a new country for the first time. As you walk along the streets, everything seems strangely familiar. The pastel-coloured buildings, the slow-moving cloudy sky, the aroma of the freshly brewed coffee from the cafe, even the sight of a father walking hand in hand with his daughters seems to derive a strange sense of familiarity as if you have seen it in the past. Perceiving this feels uncanny because it seems choreographed. But in reality, you know that everything is happening for the first time.

Psychologist Endel Tolving said, “Remembering is mental time travel”. It is one of the greatest potentials we possess. The ability to learn from our past, to return to where we have already been, so we can decide where we’re going is indeed a supreme ability. But can we return to where we have never been? The creepy sensation of “I think I have seen this before” or as the French men say “deja vu” is a feeling that no one can totally understand. Deja vu feels like a glitch in the matrix. It is said that an estimated 2 out of 3 people experience deja vu at least once in their lifetime.

But what really is deja vu?

Our memories are constantly accumulating information to figure out what’s useful and what isn’t. Deja vu is just your brain fact-checking that information. Since it happens quickly and randomly, deja vu is difficult to understand and even more difficult to study. Nevertheless, there are dozens of possible explanations as to why and how we experience such a phenomenon.

Some hypothesize that deja vu is a survival instinct. Our brains are persistently scanning our senses to determine if what we are experiencing is familiar and later play back memories to prepare for a flight or fight response. Scientists claim that deja vu might also be a hiccup in the process of memory consolidation. Instead of sending a memory to long-term storage, the brain shuttles it to a different destination and we are left with the feeling that we have seen this before.

Yet another theory states that deja vu is associated with false memories. This would be similar to the feeling when you can’t differentiate between something that really happened versus a dream. While some suggest that deja vu is an experience you might have had in a parallel universe, others think it could be a sign that you are recalling an experience from a past life. Spooky, isn’t it?

Though there are no straight answers as to which possible theory is right, we can certainly claim that no mind or memory is perfect. The only way we can get to the bottom of deja vu is to experience it… all over again.

Vardhah Anees