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We’ve all been through this: you go somewhere, and even though you’ve never been there before, you know you’ve been there before.
Or you have a new experience, meet a new person, feel a new feeling—and suddenly, you’re absolutely sure you dreamed it all a long time ago. Every detail seems exactly the same as your recollection of the dream. Sometimes, when this occurs, you can even predict what’s going to happen next, because you know, with absolute certainty, that you’ve seen it happen before.
This eerie sensation—called déjà vu, French for “already seen”—happens to just about everyone. We all know the feeling, since it’s virtually universal, and happens among all human cultures. Polling across many different societies indicates that about two-thirds of us report having at least one déjà vu experience.
Scientists have tried long and hard to figure it out—today, approximately 40 different scientific theories exist about déjà vu and how it might work. Because of the nature of déjà vu, which happens seemingly at random, and in a fleeting and amorphous way, no one has settled on any one theory as the definitive scientific explanation. Researchers have conducted multiple experiments on the human mind, most recently with the aid of advanced neuroimaging technology, but no single theory has conclusively explained the phenomenon yet. Déjà vu remains a mystery.
Many scientists attribute déjà vu to a brain malfunction, a faulty memory or a “cognitive illusion:”
In the end, though, the experience of déjà vu is just an extreme reaction of the system that your memory uses to tell you that you are in a familiar situation. – Art Markman, Ph.D, Psychology Today, January, 2005.
Déjà vu is any subjectively inappropriate impression of familiarity of the present experience with an undefined past. – Psychiatrist Vernon Neppe, 1983.
Déjà vu may result from (a) a brief change in normal neural transmission speed causing a slightly longer separation between identical messages received from two separate pathways, (b) a brief split in a continuous perceptual experience that is caused by distractions (external or internal) and gives the impression of two separate perceptual events, and (c) the activation of implicit familiarity for some portion (or all) of the present experience without an accompanying conscious recollection of the prior encounter. – Dr. Alan S. Brown, “The Déjà vu Illusion,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2004.
We may, one day, figure out the scientific explanation of this mysterious human experience—if there is one. Meanwhile, though, it’s worth considering an alternative viewpoint. Perhaps, the Baha’i teachings suggest, déjà vu has its roots in the reality of the human spirit:
…the human soul is exalted above all egress and regress. It is still, and yet it soareth; it moveth, and yet it is still. It is, in itself, a testimony that beareth witness to the existence of a world that is contingent, as well as to the reality of a world that hath neither beginning nor end. Behold how the dream thou hast dreamed is, after the lapse of many years, re-enacted before thine eyes. Consider how strange is the mystery of the world that appeareth to thee in thy dream. Ponder in thine heart upon the unsearchable wisdom of God, and meditate on its manifold revelations…. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 161.
Have you ever had one of these mysterious kinds of predictive dream experiences, and then recalled it in a moment of déjà vu? Or have you ever dreamed about the future, and then seen your dream come true? The Baha’i teachings say that these kinds of déjà vu experiences can and do indicate the existence of more than just this one familiar physical world. So, as Baha’u’llah suggests in the quote above, let’s meditate on the phenomena of “a world that is contingent…” and “a world that hath neither beginning nor end.” What could those things mean?
Could déjà vu indicate that time—as the physicists know, a flexible concept based on gravitational force—is more fluid and mutable than we think? Could it mean that our minds and spirits can somehow, on occasion, perceive what’s beyond the present? Or could it mean that a contingent world makes the occasional connection between our consciousness and our future?
No one knows the answer—but we do know our own déjà vu and dream experiences have a convincing reality when they occur. During a déjà vu experience, the uncanny resemblance between that remembered dream and what’s happening right now become crystal clear, so clear that the experience usually leads us to question the nature of time and reality. Those startling experiences reveal something that goes beyond everyday normality and the linear notion of time that our limited powers of perception can comprehend.
So let’s explore the whole subject of déjà vu in this series of essays, and see if we can find a spiritual reason for something science can’t yet explain.