5 Surprising Reasons You’re Getting Déjà Vu, According to Memory Researchers

Updated: May 21, 2018

Hint: It's probably not because you're a superhuman time traveler.

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People with more stimulated imaginations tend to experience deja vu the most, writes the New York Times. And while about 70 percent of the population has experienced deja vu, the phenomena occurs most frequently in people who travel a lot and people who hold college and advanced degrees. Instances of deja vu peak during early adulthood and decline as we age. And because of the neurological reasons we’ll outline below, deja vu also occurs more in people who are tired or stressed. Don’t miss these 12 small habits that reveal a lot about your personality.

There’s a blip in your brain

This explanation has to do with how the brain stores long- and short-term memories. “Researchers postulate that the information we take in from our surroundings may ‘leak out’ and incorrectly shortcut its way from short- to long-term memory, bypassing typical storage transfer mechanisms,” writes Psychology Today. “When a new moment is experienced—which is currently in our short-term memory—it feels as though we’re drawing upon some memory from our distant past.” Don’t freak out, though: Those same researchers say these brain blips can occur in even the healthiest of people.

You’ve experienced something very similar

In one experiment, psychologists had students memorize a list of words as if they were preparing for a test. Next, the students sat in front of a computer and watched as a second series of words appeared on the screen. They were asked to flag the words they had seen on the first list of words that they memorized. The researchers found they were able to make an unfamiliar word look familiar by flashing it on the screen for a few milliseconds. That means the flash would have been subliminal—completely imperceptible to the naked eye—and yet the students still believed they had seen it on the first list. While the researchers agree it’s far from an instance of deja vu, the experiment proves just how little it takes for the brain to log a memory as a past experience. If an imperceptible word on a screen could pass as “familiar,” then you can just imagine how all the experiences you’ve actually had could feel. These are the 50 secrets your brain wishes you knew.

Your senses have filled in for your brain’s blank spots

Because the brain is constantly working to make sense of the world—often using very little input—some researchers believe deja vu could be caused by a mix-up between sensory input and memory recalling output, writes Psychology Today. That means that something as simple as the scent a familiar old perfume could trick the brain into thinking the entirety of that present moment is familiar.

You dream up future scenarios

Everyone knows the feeling of going to bed and daydreaming about the future. Whether you’re excited for a reunion with a friend, dreading a test, or rehearsing a speech in your mind’s, you’re familiarizing yourself with a plethora of moments. “It’s well known that even if you imagine something now that may not have happened in the past, it can create a feeling of familiarity if it does happen later on,” Dr. Kathleen McDermott, a memory researcher at Washington University, told the New York Times. “You don’t need objective outside information to create these situations; you can do so internally, on your own.” If you’d prefer to learn more about the how deja vu relates to time travel, these are the 8 signs you’ve lived a past life.