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302

Chapter 14: Human metacognition and 

the déjà vu phenomenon

Takashi Kusumi

Understanding the Déjà Vu Experience

For over a century, the phenomenon of déjà vu has attracted much interest, and 

in recent times, it has been studied by researchers in various scientifi c fi elds 

(e.g., Brown, 2003, 2004; Sno & Linszen, 1990). Empirical studies of déjà vu 

phenomena have used interviews and questionnaires with normal people as well 

as psychiatric patients (e.g., Neppe, 1983; Sno & Linszen, 1990; Sno, Schalken, 

de Jonghe, & Koeter, 1994). In this study, we used experiments and surveys to 

examine human metacognition and the déjà vu phenomenon. This chapter is 

divided into four parts. First, we defi ne déjà vu using notions from the fi elds 

of psychology and psychiatry. Second, we propose that déjà vu phenomena 

involve a component of memory monitoring and that a metacognitive approach 

(e.g., Chambres, Izaute, & Marescau, 2002) appears to be most suitable for its 

study. Third, we present highlights of the data obtained from our questionnaire 

(Kusumi, 1994, 1996) and experimental studies (Matsuda & Kusumi, 2001). 

Fourth, we propose a déjà vu model based on an analogical reminding 

mechanism. Finally, we discuss some of the implications of a déjà vu model 

that involves an adaptive metacognitive mechanism.

Defi nition of Déjà Vu

Déjà vu experiences have been described in many works of fi ction including 

those by Dickens, Tolstoy, Proust and Hardy (Sno, Linszen, & de Jonghe, 1992). 

However, psychological studies of déjà vu in mainstream memory research 

are rare (e.g., Brown, 2003, 2004). Déjà vu experiences have been primarily 

studied as memory disorders (e.g., illusions, hallucinations, schizophrenia, 

temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) in the fi elds of psychiatry and psychoanalysis 

(e.g., Neppe, 1983). Researchers have noted that most people experience déjà 

vu only when they are extremely fatigued; for the average individual, déjà vu is 

In K.Fujita & S. Itakura (Eds.) 2006 Diversity of Cognition: Evolution, Development, Domestication, and Pathology. Kyoto University Press




Human metacognition and the déjà vu phenomenon

303

a rare and abnormal memory experience. However, this study explains the déjà 

vu experience as a normal metacognitive mechanism. This approach proposes 

that déjà vu occurs during an analogical reminding process (e.g., Wharton, 

Holyoak, & Lange, 1996) in which a present experience automatically reminds 

an individual of similar past experiences. Therefore, the déjà vu experience is 

generated by similarities between a present experience and corresponding past 

experiences.

We will fi rst defi ne déjà vu based on the fi ndings of cognitive research. 

Déjà vu is a French term meaning already seen. It refers to ‘any subjectively 

inappropriate impression of familiarity of a present experience with an undefi ned 

past experience’ (Neppe, 1983). The term inappropriate familiarity is defi ned 

as a form of false recognition in which one experiences a strong sense of 

familiarity with new events or objects. In déjà vu, successful reality monitoring 

(e.g., Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993) enables one to determine that an 

event is actually new although it may feel old. Such judgements of familiarity 

are based on metacognitive monitoring.

Recently, Brown (2004) classifi ed scientifi c explanations of déjà vu into 

four categories: dual-processing explanations (two cognitive functions that are 

momentarily out of synchrony), neurological explanations (brief dysfunction 

in the brain), memory explanations and double-perception explanations (brief 

break in one’s ongoing perceptual processing). This study focuses on memory 

explanations. Brown wrote, ‘Memory interpretation assumed that some 

dimension(s) of the present setting is actually objectively familiar, but the source 

of familiarity is not explicitly recollected’ (p. 127). This study presents a new 

memory explanation of déjà vu, integrating three metacognitive components in 

order to explain the mechanisms involved in analogical reminding (Figure 1). 

The three metacognitive components are as follows:

  1.  Preliminary feelings of strong familiarity for a present experiences, 

involving a process of implicit memory

  2.  Similarity and dissimilarity judgements between the present and a 

retrieved past experience made after a search of explicit memory

  3.  Reality monitoring for the retrieved experience (prototype event), which 

is a decision on whether or not the present experience is identical with a 

retrieved experience

As illustrated in Figure 1, we postulate that the déjà vu phenomenon stems 

from ordinary metamemory mechanisms. Roedier (1996) suggested that déjà 

vu and jamais vu



1

 are illusions of metacognition. Brown (2004) theorized that 

the déjà vu experience is a pure metamemory experience that is unconnected 

with the empirical world (i.e., an identifi able eliciting stimulus or a verifi able 

behavioural response to corroborate the subjective state). However, this study 



Chapter 14

304

postulates that déjà vu is a common and adaptive metacognitive process based 

on the similarity between present and past experiences.

Some researchers have differentiated between types of déjà vu: auditory and 

visual déjà vu, event and place déjà vu, reactive (external, i.e. precipitated by 

brain mechanism) and endogenous (internal, i.e. elicited by brain mechanism) 

déjà vu and normal and pathological déjà vu (Brown, 2004). This study 

differentiates between place and person déjà vu—two types of déjà vu that are 

familiar to most subjects. Moreover, it is easy to compare the stimuli and the 

underlying cognitive processes associated with these types of déjà vu.

This chapter addresses the following three research questions. First, what 

types of déjà vu experiences are common in normal university students? 

Second, what are the metacognitive and analogical reminding mechanisms used 

when déjà vu is experienced in daily life and in the laboratory? Finally, is déjà 

vu the result of an adaptive metacognitive mechanism? This paper highlights 

the data obtained from two questionnaire surveys (Kusumi, 1994, 1996) and 

one from an experiment (Matsuda & Kusumi, 2002).

Survey Data of Déjà Vu Experiences

Several questionnaire studies have been conducted on the phenomenon of déjà 

vu. Neppe (1983) conducted interview surveys with normal subjects, subjects 

with TLE and patients of schizophrenia. He developed a screening questionnaire 

for 11 déjà vu experiences (place, situation, doing, happening, meeting, saying, 

hearing, thinking, reading, dreams, etc.) and a qualitative questionnaire (57 

1.

2.

3.



Feelings of strong familiarity for a

present experience

Judgments of similarity and dissimilarity between

the present and a retrieved past experience

Reality monitoring for the present experience

Deja vu experience



Figure 1.

Metacognitive components in déjà vu phenomena.


Human metacognition and the déjà vu phenomenon

305

items concerning frequency, duration, feelings, etc.). The results indicated that 

in normal people, there are two kinds of déjà vu, namely, associative déjà vu 

and subjective paranormal déjà vu. Neppe found that in the average person, 

associative déjà vu tended to be vague and poorly remembered, was often 

triggered by the environment, was initially characterized by partial familiarity, 

lasted for a short duration and lacked outstanding qualitative features. This type 

of déjà vu can be explained by the mechanisms of normal memory (Neppe, 1983, 

p. 249). The second type of déjà vu, which occurred in subjective paranormal 

experiences, was characterized by time-dissociations and outstanding qualitative 

features (Neppe, 1983, p. 254). Neppe’s results also indicated that there were 

some differences between subjects with TLE and schizophrenia; both déjà vu 

and jamais vu occurred more frequently in the TLE group. Sno, Schalken, 

de Jonghe and Koeter (1994) refi ned Neppe’s questionnaire items; Adachi, 

Adachi, Kimura, Akamatsu and Kato (2001) translated them into Japanese 

and checked their reliability and validity using normal Japanese subjects and 

those with schizophrenia. However, these surveys did not explore the cognitive 

mechanisms of déjà vu such as similarity and time intervals between the source 

and déjà vu experiences.

Kusumi’s research (1994, 1996) explored the déjà vu experience based on 

a metacognitive and analogical reminding mechanism that traced a present 

experience to similar past experiences. In one study (Kusumi, 1994), 202 

Japanese university students completed an original questionnaire on déjà vu 

experiences and analogical reminding. The participants were asked the following 

questions: (a) Have you ever been in a new place and felt as if you had been 

there before? Or have you ever gone somewhere for the fi rst time and yet felt 

it was familiar? (b) Have you ever met someone for the fi rst time and felt as if 

you had met that person before? (c) If yes, when and where did you have your 

last experience of these particular feelings? (d) What were the surroundings and 

the cues for the experience? (e) Did you identify a similar past experience? (f) 

If yes, when and where did you have the similar past experience?

Figure 2 shows the results obtained from the 202 participants. The déjà vu 

experience was observed to be a common phenomenon. Place déjà vu, which 

occurred when people visited a new place and felt as if they had been there 

before, was observed in 63% of the participants. Person déjà vu, which occurred 

when people met a new person and felt as if they had met that person before, 

was observed in 35% of the participants. Of the individuals who had experienced 

person déjà vu, 89% could identify the exact situation in which it had occurred. 

Of the participants who had experienced place déjà vu, 61% could identify the 

exact situation in which it had occurred. Of the 61% who could identify an 

exact place déjà vu, only 23% could identify the past source experience that 



Chapter 14

306

might have triggered the déjà vu experience. On the other hand, of the 89% 

who could identify an exact person déjà vu, 36% could identify the past source 

person. Identifying a person requires precise information and exact matching 

(e.g., face and name). In contrast, place déjà vu occurs when a source memory 

is vague. Brown (2003, p. 404) explained these judgement processes based on 

a source-monitoring framework (Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993). For 

example, you meet a new person and feel a strong sense of familiarity; yet, you 

know that you have never met this person before. The déjà vu experience could 

arise from the confl ict between two types of source-monitoring processes: the 

judgement based on your general knowledge and episodic memory (of never 

having met before) confl icts with the heuristic judgement based on the vivid 

representation of personal appearance from past experiences, which implies 

familiarity. You then search your memory for a similar person in order to resolve 

the strange familiarity. Subsequently, you remember an old friend who is similar 

to the person you have just met. In such a case, even after a considerable length 

of time, you might remember the strange experience of the similarity between 

the new and old person. On the other hand, consider the situation wherein you 

visit a new place and feel a strong sense of familiarity although you know that 

you have never before visited this place. You search your memory for similar 

places to resolve this strange feeling of familiarity; however, you do not 

remember any particular place that is similar to the current one. In this case, 

after a considerable length of time, you might not have an exact memory of 

this strange experience.

Place déjà vu experiences reported by the participants occurred 3 days to 10 

years before the study was conducted. The reported source experiences occurred 

2 to 17 years before the study was conducted. The time interval between place 

déjà vu experiences and their source (original) experiences was 2 months to 12 

years. Person déjà vu experiences reported by participants occurred 1 month to 

Types of


Deja vu

Identification

of Deja vu

Identification of

Source Experience

202


Place

128 (.63)

Person

71 (.35)


Y 78 (.61)

N 59 (.39)

Y 63 (.89)

N 8 (.11)

Y 18 (.23)

N 69 (.77)

Y 36(.57)

N 27 (.43)



Figure 2.

Identifi cation of déjà vu experiences (Kusumi, 1994).


Human metacognition and the déjà vu phenomenon

307

12 years before the study and their source experiences occurred 1 to 16 years 

prior to it before the study. The time interval between person déjà vu experiences 

and their original experiences was 1 to 14 years.

Participants recalled original experiences that occurred more than 1 to 17 

years before the study was conducted. Brown (2004) reported that individuals’ 

estimates of the length of time since the original experience were distributed 

evenly across days, weeks, months and years. He suggested that future 

questionnaires should include a more detailed query on this topic. Kusumi 

(1994) used detailed questionnaires to ask participants about the content and 

time of original experiences and then calculated the retention time between the 

source and déjà vu experiences. The results obtained by Kusumi indicated that 

déjà vu experiences are based on very long-term or autobiographical memory.

Figure 3 shows similarity ratings between the source experience and the 

déjà vu experience on a 7-point scale, with –3 corresponding to very dissimilar 

and 3 corresponding to very similar. The perceived similarity ratings between 

source and target experiences of place déjà vu ranged from 1 to 3. When rating a 

person déjà vu, participants rated appearance similarity higher than personality 

similarity; appearance seems to be a stronger cue for reminding people of source 

experiences. Most source persons were acquaintances whom the subjects had 

not seen for a long time, for example an old classmate or a distant relative.

In Kusumi (1996), 104 Japanese undergraduates completed a questionnaire 

on place déjà vu experiences. They rated the frequency of déjà vu experiences 

for 13 places and three situations on a 5-point scale (never, once, twice, three, 



four, fi ve or more times). In addition, they rated the effectiveness of retrieval cues 

for these experiences (e.g., perceptual cues, atmosphere, weather and mood).

Figure 4 indicates that déjà vu experiences occurred frequently during 

conversations and dreams, when walking down a street, visiting old-style 

Source Scene

a) Similarity Ratings of Place Deja vu

b) Similarity Ratings of Person Deja vu

Perceptual

Dissimilar

Perceptual

Similar

New Scene



Source Person

New Person

-3 -2 -1 01 2

M = 1.9


3

Appearance

Dissimilar

Appearance

Similar

-3 -2 -1 01 2



M = 1.4

3

Personality



Dissimilar

Personality

Similar

-3 -2 -1 01 2



M = 0 .4

3

Figure 3.



Similarity ratings between source experiences and déjà vu experiences (Kusumi, 1994).


Chapter 14

308

villages, walking in a park, visiting a school and visiting a temple or shrine. 

In examples of place déjà vu, there exists a high degree of similarity between 

elements in types of scenes. For example, many parks in Japan resemble each 

other. Thus, people frequently view similar park scenes. Consequently, a typical 

scene of a park is constructed in their memory. When visiting a new place, the 

new scene tends to match the typical scene in a person’s memory, leading to a 

feeling of familiarity.

Sixty-two percent of the participants reported experiencing déjà vu during 

a dream. The mechanism of dream déjà vu is similar to place déjà vu; dreams 

are based on compressed past real experiences that are similar to typical scenes. 

Therefore, a dream fragment of a typical scene tends to match earlier dream 

experiences and evoke a feeling of familiarity. Brown (2002) also claimed that 

dream memory fragments might trigger a déjà vu experience when similar 

situations are encountered while awake. Moreover, Brown’s literature review 

(2004) reported that the frequency of déjà vu experience has a weak positive 

correlation (rs = .22–.30) with dream memory (e.g., recall, vividness and dream 

lucidity).

Déjà vu in conversation occurs when individuals feel that they have heard the 

words in a conversation before. Based on responses from university students, 

Brown (2004) found that approximately 50% of déjà vu experiences occur in 

Bookstore

Mountain

Restaurant

Hotel

Sea Side


House

Square


Sightseeing

Temple


School

Park


Village

Street


Prediction

Dream


Conversation

0

10



20

30

40



50

60

70



80

Number of Participants (N=104)

Over 6 Times

4-5 Times

2-3 Times

Once


Figure 4.

Frequency of place déjà vu (Kusumi,1996).


Human metacognition and the déjà vu phenomenon

309

the company of friends. The sources of conversation déjà vu are similar past 

experiences, such as similar participants and surroundings. These similarity 

factors affect the conversation content, thus increasing the likelihood of a match 

between a current conversation and stored conversations and the impression of 

familiarity.

Firstly, the results of our survey indicate that déjà vu experiences are 

common in normal people; 72% of participants experienced déjà vu. This ratio 

supports the fi gures obtained 32 surveys of non-clinical subjects (M = 68%, 

Mdn = 70%) and is slightly higher than the fi gures reported in nine surveys of 

neuropsychiatric patients (M = 55%, Mdn = 65%) (Brown, 2003). Secondly, 

place déjà vu experiences are based on typical scenes in stored memory (Figure 

4). These scenes are easy to match with a new experience, leading people to 

fi nd the new experience familiar. Thirdly, the number of matching cues between 

source and new experiences in place déjà vu increases the sense of similarity 

and familiarity, and may lead to a feeling of déjà vu, although, logically, people 

still realize that they are experiencing a new situation.



Experimental Data and a Model of Déjà Vu Experiences

Experimental research on mere exposure effects has provided new experimental 

paradigms through which the psychological processes of déjà vu can be 

explored.

Matsuda and Kusumi (2001) have investigated how prototypical stimuli and 

exposure frequency affect déjà vu experiences for scenes by using old-new 

and nostalgia judgements in a paradigm of mere exposure (Bornstein, 1989; 

Zajonc, 1980). Forty-three university students participated in this experiment. 

In the study phase, 54 photographs of obscure temples were displayed for 1 s 

each at four levels of exposure frequency (0, 1, 3, 6 times). Other participants 

had previously judged these temples as having low, moderate or high typicality. 

In the test phase, participants judged typicality, familiarity, liking, beauty and 

nostalgia for each photograph using a 9-point scale and also participated in a 

recognition test of new and old items.

The typicality of scenes affected the false recognition of new scenes. The 

false alarm rate was 46% for highly typical scenes, 29% for moderately typical 

ones and 16% for atypical scenes. Exposure frequency increased participants’ 

responses of ‘old’ in the recognition test. Mean judgements pertaining to 

familiarity and nostalgia for highly and moderately typical stimuli were higher 

than those for atypical stimuli. Exposure frequency had an effect on both 

judgements; a higher exposure frequency led to higher ratings of familiarity 

and nostalgia. There was a high correlation between judgements of familiarity, 




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nostalgia, liking and beauty (rs(516) = .30–.70, < .01), suggesting that 

the effect of mere exposure on liking extends to judgements of beauty and 

nostalgia.

Figure 5 presents the results of structural equation modeling (SEM). The 

analysis suggested that the typicality of stimuli and frequency of exposure 

had a positive infl uence on the formation of prototypes, which in turn directly 

promotes feelings of knowing (familiarity and nostalgia), and then affects 

positive judgement (liking and beauty). Similar SEM results were produced in 

the 1-week delay and artifi cial-picture condition (Matsuda & Kusumi, 2003), 

as well as in the incidental-learning and artifi cial-picture condition (Kusumi 

& Matsuda, 2004). Seamon, Brody and Kauff (1983) also tested whether 

familiarity affected preference judgement using a subliminal mere exposure 

paradigm. They presented 10 geometric shapes, each repeated fi ve times with 

an exposure duration of 5 ms. They found that subliminal exposure enhances 

positive affective evaluation without conscious recognition.

Brown (2004) examined another déjà vu process based on affective responses 

by means of perceptual fl uency. Reber, Winkielman and Schwarz (1998) found 

that the manipulation of fl uency (fi gure-ground contrast, etc.) led to an enhanced 

positive effect (liking, prettiness, etc.) for a particular stimulus. If this positive 

affect is misidentifi ed as familiarity, then the stimulus could lead to a déjà vu 

experience through the following four steps: (a) perceptual fl uency, (b) positive 

effect, (c) familiarity and (d) déjà vu (Brown, 2004, p. 165).

Figure 6 shows the typicality and analogical reminding model of a déjà vu 

experience. Our results suggest that the déjà vu experience is based on similarity 

Stimulus


Typicality

Exposure


Frequency

.67


.12

.91


.43

.45


.65

.66


.76

.93


.75

Typicality

Prototypes

Feeling of

Knowing

Affective



Judgments

Familiarity

Nostalgia

Liking


Beauty

GFI=0.949, AGFI=0.890, RMSEA=0.116



Figure 5.

Effect of typicality and exposure frequency on prototype formation and feeling of knowing (Matsuda 

& Kusumi, 2001).


Human metacognition and the déjà vu phenomenon

311

between typical source experiences and new experiences; similar source 

experiences are compressed in memory into a single typical representation. 

This typical representation shares similarities with each original experience. 

During the construction of typical representations, unimportant cues or indices 

are omitted and important cues are preserved. One study revealed that the four 

most common retrieval cues were perceptual attributes (64%, as a percentage of 

the participants), atmosphere (41%), weather (26%) and mood (26%) (Kusumi, 

1996). A matching process between cues would determine familiarity and could 

result in a déjà vu experience. When people experience a new situation, matched 

retrieval cues between a typical representation and the new representation 

increase, thus increasing the feeling of familiarity with the new scene and leading 

to a feeling of déjà vu. This model is consistent with the gestalt familiarity 

explanation of déjà vu (Brown, 2004); the gestalt of a present experience (the 

general visual organization of the elements in a scene) confi gures similarity to 

a previous experience, triggering a déjà vu experience.



Different Conceptualizations of Déjà Vu

Our study proposed a typicality and analogical reminding model of déjà vu 

based on data from two surveys and one experiment. The model provides a 

satisfactory account of the déjà vu phenomenon, in which a person experiences 

an inappropriate feeling of familiarity. In the fi eld of psychiatry, the déjà vu 

phenomenon has been treated as a memory disorder. However, we conclude 

Memory

New


Scene

Typical


Scene

Original


Experience 1

Original


Experience 2

Original


Experience 3

Deja vu


Ferceptual Cue (0.64)

Atmosphere (0.41)

Weathen (0.26)

Mood (0.26)

Input

Perceptual Cue (0.64)



Atmosphere (0.41)

Weather (0.26)

Mood (0.26)

Input


Deja vu

Figure 6.

Typicality and analogical reminding model of déjà vu (Kusumi, 1998).


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that this phenomenon is based on normal metacognitive mechanisms because 

(a) 70% of normal adults experience the phenomenon; (b) déjà vu experiences 

of locations, highly nostalgic experiences and false alarms of recognition often 

involve prototypical scenes stored in memory; and (c) feelings of familiarity 

increase as exposure frequency, typicality and the number of cues that match 

between past and new experiences increase.

The phenomenon of déjà vu appears to be a component of adaptive 

human behaviour and sheds light on human metacognitive mechanisms. Déjà 

vu phenomena are based on the metacognitive components of feelings of 

familiarity and recognition memory. Both ontogenetically and evolutionarily, 

recognition memory develops earlier than recall memory (Todd & Gigerenzer, 

2000). Gigerenzer (2000) theorized that familiarity is the principal heuristic 

during the initial, rapid stage of retrieval. How are déjà vu phenomena related 

to recognition heuristics? When individuals feel a sense of familiarity with a 

present experience or problem, they retrieve past experiences or problems by 

matching cues. They evaluate the similarity and dissimilarity between the two 

experiences and then transfer useful information from past experiences to the 

present one. This process performs the same function as analogical problem 

solving (Holyoak & Thagard, 1995), in which a similar old problem provides 

a solution to a new one. This metacognitive mechanism appears to be adaptive 

in humans and is an aspect for future research.



Summary

This paper has presented a model that integrates three metacognitive components 

to explain the mechanisms involved in analogical reminding, and the reporting 

of relevant empirical data. These three metacognitive components are (a) 

feelings of knowing and monitoring reality during new events, (b) judgements of 

similarity and dissimilarity between new and retrieved events and (c) monitoring 

of reality in prototype events. The model provides a satisfactory account of the 

déjà vu phenomenon, in which individuals experience an inappropriate feeling 

of familiarity with a current situation because they erroneously believe that a 

similar situation has occurred in the past. In the fi eld of psychiatry, the déjà vu 

phenomenon has been treated as a memory disorder. However, we conclude 

that this phenomenon is based on normal memory mechanisms in view of 

the following results: (a) 70% of normal adults experience the phenomenon, 

(b) prototypical scenes stored in memory are frequently involved in déjà vu 

experiences of locations (i.e. ‘I have been here before’) and (c) the feeling of 

familiarity increases as the number of cues that match between past and new 

experiences increase. Thus, this phenomenon appears to be a part of adaptive 



Human metacognition and the déjà vu phenomenon

313

human behaviour and sheds light on human metamemory and knowledge 

representation.

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Notes

  1.  The jamais vu experience involves an objectively familiar situation that 



feels unfamiliar. It is the opposite of déjà vu (Brown, 2004).



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