Mind & Body

Scientists Gave People Déjà Vu and Told Them to Predict the Future

Most of us have had a feeling of déjà vu, that eerie feeling that you've experienced an event before, even though it's brand new. It's weird enough even without reaching for metaphysical explanations, like the idea that it's a memory of a past life, or you dreamed about this future event. Still, if it's a real premonition of the future (or even a lost memory of a real event), then you should be able to make testable predictions. That's what cognitive psychologist Dr. Anne Cleary set out to examine — and the results were less eerie than you'd think.

Been There, Seen That

Cleary has been studying déjà vu for more than a decade, and has made some solid discoveries about this mysterious phenomenon. In her research, she's found that it's a trick of memory that usually happens when you think you recall something but you can't quite place it — a little like having a word on the tip of your tongue. As a result, she's actually been able to recreate the feeling in a lab setting by creating scenes that are laid out identically, but with different scenery — a retail store arranged just like a bedroom you've already seen, for example, with a clothing display where the bed used to be.

For a new study published in Psychological Science in March 2018, Cleary and her team once again triggered déjà vu in study volunteers — and then asked them to predict what would happen next. Here's how they did it: first, the 298 volunteers watched 16 study videos of scenes the researchers had set up in the computer game "The Sims." The videos each began with a female voice announcing and then repeating the name of the scene ("This is an aquarium. Aquarium."), then volunteers watched as the camera moved through the scene, making turns at various landmarks. Next, the volunteers watched 32 test videos of scenes that were visually different but spatially identical to the study scenes — for instance, a garden with hedges placed exactly like the piles in a previously viewed junkyard. This time, however, the video froze before the final turn so the volunteers could predict which way it would go.

Just a Feeling

The result? Meh. Even though about half of the volunteers were struck by the feeling that they could accurately predict the future when seeing the new scenes, their actual predictions for that final turn were no better than chance. Even though their memories were saying "This is familiar! You know this place!", it wasn't vivid enough to give them any useful information about it. Importantly, when volunteers actually remembered the previous scene — "This hedge maze looks just like that junkyard!" — some remembered the final turn better than others, but those high-achievers were no better at predicting the future in scenes that just gave them a sense of déjà vu.

While déjà vu can make you feel like a full-blown psychic, this study shows that it really is just a feeling. "I think the reason people come up with psychic theories about déjà vu is that they are these mysterious, subjective experiences," Cleary said in a press release. "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."

Cleary was inspired to study déjà vu after reading Alan S. Brown's book, "The Déjà Vu Experience: Essays in Cognitive Psychology." If you choose to purchase the book through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Dr. Anne Cleary on Déjà Vu

Written by Ashley Hamer March 30, 2018

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