"It's déjà vu all over again." Upon hearing this cliché, most people know that it refers to a repetitive, unoriginal situation. They might also be familiar with the meaning of the French phrase "déjà vu": "already seen." Yet only about two thirds of the American population has ever had a déjà vu experience (1), and no scientist in history has been able to definitively explain the phenomenon. What is this sudden, often eerie sensation of having already seen or lived through the present moment, and how does it happen? Recent research on déjà vu, which only a few decades ago was considered unworthy of scientific exploration, has more clearly defined how déjà vu occurs and what is meant by the phrase. "Déjà vu" may actually be a catch-all term for three or four different memory malfunctions, at least one of which can become chronic in people with brain damage.
Defining déjà vu has proved nearly as difficult as describing a déjà vu experience. In 1983, the psychiatrist Vernon Neppe explained the illusion as "any subjectively inappropriate impression of familiarity of a present experience with an undefined past" (3). The words "inappropriate" and "undefined" troubled later researchers in their search for a single cause, because sometimes a "déjà vu" experience actually can be traced back to an experience in the past. Other scientists have found that, in a déjà vu situation, there is a difference between a feeling of "familiarity" and one of "recollection" (4). These discrepancies have caused different categories of phenomena to be created, of which déjà vu is only one.