Deja vu is not an illusion, it is something that you have already experienced in your unconscious fantasies. Believe if you will, or do not believe it. This was already mentioned a hundred years ago by the “great and terrible” Freud, and many subsequent studies have only confirmed his hypothesis.
The phenomenon called deja vu is the feeling of something “already experienced” and, according to Freud, is a remembrance of an unconscious fantasy. And since this fantasy is never conscious, during a deja vu moment it is impossible to “recall” something that seems to have been already perceived.
These strange dreams
We begin with a bit of explanation. Along with the conscious fantasies, unconscious fantasies can exist. They are simply called daydreaming. Commonly, they express some desires just like many dreams do. But if we experience deja vu, we have no desires, we just seem to know a place or a situation. Here, one of the most fundamental mechanisms of the unconscious called offset comes to play.
Its function is to “displace” our thoughts, feelings or memories from significant to completely meaningless to us. Offset in action can be experienced in dreams, for example, in the ones about the death of our loved ones, when we do not experience any pain about this loss, or find out to our surprise that a ten-headed dragon does not evoke any fears, but we can wake up in a cold sweat after a dream about a walk in the park. Offset is affecting our dreaming process in an insidious way, it displaces emotion (affect), which logically should be related to the dream about the dragon, with the emotion about a quiet walk. But this is a complete nonsense and is impossible based on common sense!
But it is possible if we look at it from the point of view of the unconscious. The answer lies in the fact that there is no logic in our unconscious state (and dreams are basically the product of this particular psychic state). Paradoxically, there are no states such as contradictions, the concept of time, etc. Just as our primitive ancestors did not have them. Lack of logic is one of the properties of our unconscious state. Logic is the result of a rational mind, the property of the conscious mind.
Offset is one of the processes responsible for the oddities in our dreams. And something that is impossible or even unthinkable while we are awake is quite possible in a dream (for example, when we “cut off” the emotion of grieving in case of a tragic event related to the death of someone we love).
Deja vu is quite a common phenomenon. More than 97 % of healthy people, according to the studies, experience this condition at least once in their lifetime, and those affected by epilepsy experience it even more often.
But offset is not just one of the properties of the primitive “mind” and the unconscious state in a modern human. According to Freud, it also works to aid the so-called “censorship” during dreaming. To bring the necessary proof of its validity, it would take too long, so we will just briefly mention what Freud had suggested. Censorship is in place to make a dream confusing, strange and incomprehensible. For what purpose?
Freud believed that this could be the way to “disguise” unwanted details of a dream, some secret desires of the dreamer from the conscious state. Modern psychologists are not as straightforward. And, as mentioned above, they consider “displacement” of dreams as a manifestation of our unconscious mind, which comes into play during dreaming. These mechanisms do not prevent these properties from serving as the permanent “censors” of dreams contents or converting “apparent” into something “hidden”, disallowing us to experience our “forbidden” desires. But that is another topic of discussion, which we will not elaborate on in this article.
There is an opinion that the phenomenon of deja vu may be caused by changes in the way the brain is coding time. The process can be imagined as simultaneous coding of information as “present” and “past” with parallel experiences of these two processes. As a result, a detachment from reality is experienced. This hypothesis has only one drawback: it is unclear why so many deja vu experiences become so important for some people and, most importantly, what causes the change of time coding in the brain.
Deja vu as distorted memory
And how is it related to deja vu? As we have previously mentioned, this phenomenon is caused by our unconscious fantasies. We cannot learn about them directly, it is impossible by definition, since they are products of unconscious mind. However, they may be caused by a number of indirect reasons, which can be “invisible” to an average person, but are apparent to a specialist.
In “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life” book, Sigmund Freud talks about a remarkable case of a patient who told him about a case of deja vu, which she could not forget for many years.
“One lady, who is now 37 years old, says she clearly remembers the event at the age of 12 1/2 years when she was visiting her school friends in the country, and when she walked into the garden, she immediately experienced a feeling as if she had been there before; the feeling remained when she entered the rooms, so it seemed to her she already knew in advance what the next room would be like, what kind of view the room would have, etc. The possibility of a previous visit to this place was completely ruled out and refuted by her parents, even in her early childhood. The lady who was telling me about this, was not looking for a psychological explanation; this feeling she experienced served as a prophetic indication of the importance of having these friends in her emotional life in the future. However, careful consideration of circumstances in which this phenomenon has occurred shows us another explanation. Before the visit, she knew that these girls had a seriously ill brother. During the visit, she saw him and thought he looked very bad and was going to die. Furthermore, her own brother a few months earlier was terminally affected by diphtheria, and during his illness, she was removed from the parents house and lived for a few weeks at her relative’s house. It seemed to her that her brother was a part of that trip to the village, which she referred earlier, and even thought that it was his trip to the countryside after the illness, but she had surprisingly vague memories, while all other recollections, especially the dress she was wearing that day, appeared to her with an unnatural vividness”.
Citing various reasons, Freud concludes that the patient secretly wished her brother’s death, which is not uncommon, and is considered among the experts (contrary to the more rigid public opinion, of course) a completely normal and even natural human desire. Death of a brother or a sister is normal if, of course, it is not caused by actions or behavior which would provoke death of this unloved person. After all, any one of these people may represent a rival who takes away some precious parental love and attention. Someone might not feel much about this experience, but for some it can be a fatal omen. And almost always it is an unconscious state (after all, a death wish directed at a loved one is absolutely unacceptable in traditional society).
“For a knowledgeable person it is easy to conclude from this evidence that the expectation of her brother’s death played a significant role for this girl and either was never conscious or after a successful recovery from the disease underwent vigorous repression”, Freud wrote. “In case of a different outcome she would have to wear a different kind of dress, a mourning dress. She has found a similar situation happening to the girls she was visiting and whose only brother was in danger and was soon to pass away. She should have consciously remembered that a few months earlier she herself experienced the same thing, but rather than recalling it, which was prevented by displacement, she had transposed these recollections onto the countryside, the garden and the house, as she was exposed to «fausse reconnaissance» (French for “mistaken identity”), and she felt as she had seen it all in the past. Based on this fact of displacement, we can conclude that waiting for her brother’s death was not entirely far from what she secretly desired. She would then become the only child in the family“.
Already familiar to us, unconscious mechanism of displacement “transferred” memories of the situation related to her brother’s illness (and secret death wish) to some insignificant details such as the dress, the garden and the girlfriends’ house.
Although, it does not mean that all our deja vu are manifestations of some “terrible” secret desires. All these desires can be completely innocent to others, but too “shameful” or frightening to us.