Mind & Body

Why Do Young People Experience More Déjà Vu?

Most people have experienced déjà vu at some point in their lives — that eerie phenomenon where an experience feels way more familiar than it should. As many as 70 percent of people have experience with the feeling, but the people who feel it most are those between 15 and 25 years old. The reason why is mysterious, but it could shed light on why déjà vu happens in the first place.

It Seems We Stood and Talked Like This Before

Déjà vu is incredibly complex, and we still can't fully explain it. But like any scientific mystery, theories abound. Swiss scholar Arthur Funkhouser, for instance, thinks there are different kinds of déjà vu. Déjà visité is the feeling that you've already visited a place you know you've never been before, while déjà vecu is the feeling you've already experienced a situation that should be new to you. Déjà rêvé is another sensation where you feel you've already dreamed an experience you're having.

Scientists also notice that feelings of déjà vu often occur right before someone has a temporal-lobe seizure, which offers its own clues. Others still think it has to do wish fulfillment or a past life experience. The answers are murky at best.

The Memories of Youth

Scientists may not be able to explain its cause, but they can describe its frequency — and that frequency is highest in young people. Multiple studies have found that people experience déjà vu most in their teens and early 20s, then experience it gradually less as they age. Various studies have found that the percentage of people who report experiencing déjà vu hovers around 70 to 80 percent for people in their teens and twenties and drops to 50 to 60 percent in people beyond that age.

But that doesn't mean that you have more déjà vu the younger you are — there aren't any babies out there with the eerie feeling that they ate these exact same mashed carrots. While no one has studied the question of what age most people have their first déjà vu experience, some researchers think the human brain isn't mature enough make it happen until a person is 8 or 9 years old. And in any case, you have to know what déjà vu is to report experiencing it, and many children probably don't learn about it until their mid-teen years.

Scientists note, however, that it's possible this higher incidence of déjà vu in younger people might be an artifact of culture rather than a side effect of an aging human mind. Long-term surveys find that the total number of people who "believe in" déjà vu has increased over the decades, so the fact that older people are less likely to report déjà vu experiences could just be a result of them having less belief in the phenomenon in general than young people do.

Still, if it's not a fluke in the data, why would young people have more experiences of déjà vu than older people? After all, older people, by definition, have more memories that can go on the fritz. Don't memory problems increase with age? It may mean that déjà vu is actually the sign of a healthy mind, not an unhealthy one. The difference between a real memory and déjà vu is that moment when you realize you shouldn't be having that feeling of recognition. That realization may be the thing that older brains lose. Maybe older people have déjà vu just as much as younger people, but they're worse at spotting the difference between a real memory and a mind glitch.

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Learn more about this weird sensation in 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. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer April 20, 2017

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