Quirks of Memory

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Why Deja vu Can Create an Illusion of Precognition

Been here before: Can an unrecalled memory produce a sense of what is to come?

 

In a recent yoga class, I was learning a new position that I had never done before (or so I thought), when I was overcome not only by the feeling of having been in that exact same contorted position before, but by a sense of knowing exactly which sequence of movements would come next. I was astonished when the sequence I thought should come next were exactly the movements that the instructor had us do next. Was this what people mean when they say that they've experienced a “precognition” (a feeling of an ability to see into the future)? Is there a scientific explanation for this type of experience?

For many years I have studied déjà vu, the feeling of having been somewhere or done something before despite knowing otherwise. I and other researchers have argued that déjà vu is often a memory phenomenon: One of its causes can be that a prior memory that we fail to call to mind is producing a sense of familiarity with the current situation. A hotels.com commercial illustrates this: A man enters his hotel room for the first time and, wide-eyed and spooked, exclaims to his partner “I’ve been in this room before!” “What?” she says. “I’ve been here before.” he says. She points out: “Uh, yeah. You took the virtual tour on hotels.com.”

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Research in my lab has supported this explanation of déjà vu as discussed here and here.

Occasionally, someone will approach me insisting that I have it wrong about déjà vu. I have heard such comments as, “Déjà vu is not a mere memory for the past. It is a precognition. When I’ve had déjà vu, I have also known exactly what would happen next.” People often insist with great confidence that their experiences of déjà vu have been accompanied by a sense of what will happen next. It feels to them like a so-called precognition or an ability to see into the future.

Is it possible that the experience of déjà vu sometimes is accompanied by a sense of what will happen next?

In a recent article appearing in New Scientist, “Memory: Remembrance of Things to Come,” David Robson discusses a perspective on memory that is gaining traction in the field--that memory's adaptive purpose is not so much to allow us to consciously remember our pasts as to help us to navigate our futures. “Foresight [may be] the flipside of episodic memory” he points out. Memory can help us to navigate our futures in many ways, ranging from our use of imagination and ability to be creative to simply allowing us to know what to do next or how to react in situations.

Being a form of memory, it is possible that déjà vu does the same. If déjà vu itself results from an unrecalled, buried memory (as in the hotels.com commercial), then it is possible that an accompanying sense of what will happen next comes from that same buried memory. It is easy to imagine, for example, that the man in the hotels.com commercial might have had a sense about what was around the corner--a sense that was coming from his unrecalled memory of having taken the virtual tour.

My recent experience in yoga class is a good example. It was probably driven by my own unrecalled memory for the past. Years ago I practiced yoga in a different place—a different town, a different state. Then I gave it up for many years before recently taking it up again. Though I could not recall ever having done this particular move before, chances are, I did and just don’t consciously remember. Very likely, while learning this “new” move in my current yoga class, some memory for that move from years ago was being triggered, though not consciously called to mind. It gave me not only a sense of having experienced the move before, but also an ability to sense what the next movements should be. In short, the past experience, even though I failed to recall it, allowed me to predict the future without knowing why.

Anne Cleary, Ph.D., is a professor at Colorado State University.

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