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Chapter 17

Modern Research on Déjà Vu: A brief, selected update of recent ideas

Vernon M. Neppe and Art T. Funkhouser

There have been attempts at reproducing déjà vu in the laboratory, but such efforts have met with only very limited success thus far. Woods, for example, in the early part of the 20th century performed experiments with music that evoked feelings of false familiarity, but not déjà vu. In their 1941 paper, Banister and Zangwill, carefully distinguished between restricted paramnesia and déjà vu. Whereas in paramnesia, they wrote, one has a sense of familiarity, it does not spread to the whole situation like déjà vu often does. Moreover, a cause, they said, can normally be found in the past for paramnesias whereas a déjà vu experience may “relate to a situation lacking all parallel in the history of the subject”. They performed their experiment (using hypnosis) in an effort to evoke restricted paramnesias and achieved a modicum of success with one or two subjects. However, in their conclusions they wrote “in no case did we find a paramnesia rationalized in a sense of déjà vu”. Similar research has been performed by Seamon, Bordy and Kauff as well as Jacoby and Whitehouse. The experimental work currently underway at Southern Methodist University, and the University of Leeds, may yet be able to produce déjà vu-like feelings in the laboratory.

However, part of this issue is one of definition. For example, Wolfradt reports that fully 80% of students, with some cogitation, recall an event on which they hypothesize their déjà vu is based. Brown’s work also suggests that implicit memories can become explicit and can be linked with the familiarity that is regarded as déjà vu. Certainly Neppe now strongly feels that the Banister and Zangwill work fits the framework of déjà vu. Such experiences meet his definition of “undefined past” and this does not mean that in retrospect, a defined past cannot be located. This could be disputed by others, except that the Banister work is seldom quoted: Whereas several modern writers indicate that no one has ever evoked true déjà vu by hypnosis and so argue that the restricted paramnesia is a phenomenon separate from déjà vu, Neppe believes that it is a matter of definition. Kusumi’s work also supports the déjà vu hypothesis even if recognition of source then takes place.

If one defines déjà vu experience in the context of any inappropriate impression of familiarity of the present experience with an undefined past, indeed these restricted paramnesias qualify. Both at an olfactory and at a visual level, the Banister and Zangwill patients exhibited a sense of “I have seen or smelled this before, but I know not where or when.” In essence, whether or not déjà vu has occurred is not dependent on how the experient interprets his or her experience after the fact.


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