Déjà vu is the feeling that you’ve already experienced the situation or place you’re in even though you know you haven’t. If you’re among the approximately 3% of people who’ve never had déjà vu at least once in their life, it may be easier for you to think of it via the French translation, “already seen.”
To me, déjà vu is a welcome sensation. But it wasn’t until I watched Thoughty2’s YouTube episode on “Ever Had Deja Vu? This Is Why” that I became aware that déjà vu may be more common among frequent travelers.
I experience déjà vu abroad several times a year despite falling outside of the age range when people typically experience this phenomenon. So, I set out on a mission to discover if there’s truth to the claim that déjà vu occurs more frequently in travelers.
Dr. Holly Schiff is a licensed clinical psychologist and has a background in neuroscience. She sheds light on why travelers may experience déjà vu more frequently than people who stay at home.
Déjà vu “is caused by a dysfunctional connection between the parts of your brain that play a role in recalling memories and familiarity,” comments Dr. Schiff. “Travelers may encounter situations that are similar to an actual memory, but cannot fully recall it. So your brain sees the similarities between what you currently are experiencing and the past experience.”
The result is a feeling of recollection and familiarity while simultaneously knowing that it’s your first time in that destination or situation.
Although déjà vu can feel eerie to some people—and might seem alarming to those who notice an uptick in déjà vu experiences when they travel—in most cases, it’s part of the brain’s healthy memory functioning.
That said, Dr. Schiff notes that déjà vu tends to be more common in people who are stressed or exhausted, both of which travel can induce. She says, “When your brain feels fatigued, the internal systems of neurons aren’t completely regulated and so the firing may be a bit off and result in a déjà vu experience.”
Furthermore, frequent travelers encounter sights and experiences at a faster pace than most people.
Dr. Schiff points out that this can cause the brain “to make random connections to places you’ve been to before as it tries to acclimate itself into the new reality of your new setting.”
The feeling of familiarity that déjà vu causes may also be a defense mechanism.
Brain health scientist Dr. Petra Frese shares her thoughts. “I’d suggest that the reason for deja vu is not an accidental mismatch in the brain. Rather, I believe that the brain creates that illusion of familiarity on purpose in order to make one feel safe so that we can succeed and not freak out in an unknown situation or environment.”
Different Types of Déjà Vu
The two main types of déjà vu are non-pathological and pathological.
Non-pathological déjà vu is the most common form, as it isn’t caused by a medical condition. In contrast, pathological déjà vu can be caused by temporal lobe epilepsy.
Although the term “déjà vu” is most recognized by the general public, it’s an umbrella term. Some of the categories within déjà vu include:
- Déjà entendu (already heard)
- Déjà fait (already done)
- Déjà senti (already felt)
- Déjà su (already known intellectually)
- Déjà trouvé (already met)
If your head isn’t already spinning with French words, here’s another one for you—jamais vu. Jamais vu is the opposite of déjà vu; it happens when something feels unfamiliar even though you’ve already been in that situation.
Travel psychologist Dr. Michael Brein founded the term “travel psychology” during his Ph.D. studies in social psychology in 1970. He’s spoken to many people about their déjà vu experiences during his nearly five decades of research and interviews, and he’s included some of them in his Road to Strange book series.
Dr. Brein states, “Perhaps the most interesting twist about the many deja vu sorts of reports that I’ve gathered . . . [are] the reports of so-called deja ‘hears.’” He explains that ‘hears’ are “conversations reported by people who claim that they’ve heard the exact conversations that they believed they have heard before, verbatim.”
Sight, Sound, and Taste Triggers
Travel writer Alex Knoch from Travel Tips by Alex shares his experience with travel déjà vu.
“I tend to experience déjà vu more frequently while traveling, particularly when I’m in new and unfamiliar places,” says Knoch. “Whether it’s the sight of a particular building, the sound of a street musician’s song, or the taste of a local dish, these small moments of familiarity can be incredibly powerful and moving.”
When asked how déjà vu makes him feel, Knoch responded, “Overall, I feel grateful for the ways in which déjà vu enriches my travels and helps me to connect more deeply with the world around me.”
Nature-Induced Déjà Vu
Rax Suen, an avid traveler and founder of NomadsUnveiled, also opens up about his experience with déjà vu.
“I have experienced [déjà vu] a few times and I think it could be due to visiting places of similar nature. I have noticed some of the most common places for me to experience it are in natural environments, particularly on hikes or at waterfalls.” Suen reasons, “I reckon the similar scenery, e.g. of lush trees, or the sound of waterfalls contributes to it.”
He describes a time when he felt a sudden feeling of familiarity as he approached one of the big falls at Iguazu in South America.
So, what does Suen make of these feelings?
“I tend to be more logic oriented,” he says. “So I don’t typically think much of them, except casually mentioning [the déjà vu experience] to travel buddies.”
Finding Comfort in Déjà Vu
Kelly Johnson of Snap Travel Magic has visited over 40 countries and experiences déjà vu frequently when she travels. She says that every time déjà vu strikes, “the feeling is the same, a feeling of being present in the moment, a tug in my gut, a wash of familiarity, like I’ve been here, or done this before.”
Johnson embraces déjà vu. She says, “It always makes me smile because deja vu, to me, tells me that I am in this exact place, at this exact time, for a reason. That I am exactly where I am supposed to be.”
When I asked her how déjà vu makes her feel, she responded, “It brings me a lot of comfort, and a lot of joy. It’s a mystery to me, but that makes it all the more special.”
Non-Travel Scenarios That Can Spark Déjà Vu
Déjà vu travel experiences are relatively common. But researchers have also discovered several other scenarios where people have a higher chance of experiencing non-pathological déjà vu. They include:
- Being stressed
- Falling between 15 to 25 years old
- The ability to regularly remember one’s dreams
Furthermore, there appears to be a correspondence with the timing of déjà vu. People report experiencing it more often in the evenings and on weekends.
That said, the way déjà vu operates is far from conclusive.
Dr. Frese says, “My personal belief is we have deja vu all the time; like a “white noise” happening in the brain at an unconscious level of awareness for the reason of making us feeling safe(er).”
She explains more about her theory of déjà vu serving as a potential coping mechanism.
“Deja vu could be considered a tool that enables people to be more adventurous and leave the comfort zone more often,” says Dr. Frese. “This would help explain why we experience deja vu less as we get older. As we age, unfamiliar situations lessen, thus lowering our need for [its] calming aspect.”
Common Déjà Vu Misconceptions
During my outreach to travelers and experts in the déjà vu field, two things were clear: The general public has misunderstandings about déjà vu, and the science isn’t conclusive.
Some common misconceptions about déjà vu include:
- It’s a rare phenomenon
- It predicts the future
- It’s a wish fulfillment
Furthermore, what may be a déjà vu misconception to one person could be another person’s theory.
Have You Experienced Déjà Vu When Traveling?
I’d love to hear about your déjà vu travel experiences and thoughts on the subject. Leave a comment and share your reflections.