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Deja Vu

Mason Winfield’s Twilight on the Western Door – The Spiritual, the Supernatural, the Paranormal

Most of you know the feeling: The moment seems surreally familiar. You pause and search within your thoughts, scarcely believing your sensations; then the wave sweeps over you: You have been here before.

The experience may be just a flicker, and it may last several breaths, maybe even long enough for you to step out of yourself and wonder about it as you live it. This is deja vu.

I had one of those experiences last month, after a tennis match. My opponent/friend and I chatted as we swept our respective sides of the clay court. At one point, our passes with the drag-brooms brought us ten feet apart. My friend was on the other side of the net and moving along it; I was pulling away from it. “I still think your backhand is your best shot,” his voice said from behind me; and as I evaluated it, the sound of his words, the sight of the green surface and dusty lines below me, the hiss of the broom, the tangential thoughts and images running through my mind, and even the words being formed in my mind’s voice, were all suddenly familiar. I had had enough of these experiences before to know what this one was and even to analyze it as it endured.

Deja vu – from the French, “already seen” – is probably misnamed, as it is not just a visual experience for most who describe it. Deja vu usually involves several seconds of complete perception, which can include every one of the outer senses and even internal processes of thoughts, feelings and emotions.
In the old days, deja vu was considered something supernatural, possibly a bolt of insight from the gods, a displacement of time, or a shifting of the courses of fate in which those of us living only a single life in this world drift near enough the realm in which all is known to catch an enhanced glimpse of something that may lie ahead, which we will spot someday when all falls into place as we step into it. In that sense, deja vu appeared to be the recognition of a moment that has been at least imagined before.

By the industrial age, deja vu was thought of more as some sort of human extrasensory experience, possibly even a sign of reincarnation – past lives. By the 1920s there were explanations that involved no extrasensory quotient for deja vu. The simplest way of framing the consensus is to say that the trick of deja vu may be a little mis-wiring between parts of the mind, registering a moment of time that is currently being experienced as one that is also being remembered. This line of thinking is prevalent today, and I have to say that it explains most of the deja vu experiences I have heard of.

In the literature of psychology, deja vu is often related to other conditions involving perception and recognition, including:

  • Deja entendu, “already heard.” Pertaining only to auditory phenomena – sounds – this seems to me to be a diminished version of deja vu, not a separate phenomenon.

Jamais vu, “never seen.” Almost the complete opposite of deja vu, jamais vu is a sense of near-total unfamiliarity with long-familiar circumstances. It’s as simple as someone failing to recognize a daily workspace or a personal bedroom. This seems clearly a short-term selective blackout in some section of the mind.

Presque vu, “almost seen.” Presque vu is described as the sense of grasping for some major understanding on the underside of consciousness. Most of us have experienced something like it while searching for a term or name we know we know. “It’s on the tip of my tongue” is such a common phrase for the situation that presque vu is often abbreviated as TOT, “tip of the tongue” phenomena. The presque vu some authorities describe may be a bit more profound than that, but like jamais vu, it seems a disorder, not a gift. Deja vu seems something different.

Today the establishment considers deja vu to be completely a brain function – the memory/perception mixup we described earlier, in one form or another – and not precognitive nor psychic in any way. One factor keeping the suits happy with this is that their theory makes pretty good sense as it is using things we already know exist. This way there is no need for “magical” – supernatural – explanations based on intangibles, and lacking cause-and-effect connections. This, after all, is the principle of the problem-solving theory called “Occam’s razor”: When in doubt, go with the most direct possible explanation, the one with the fewest questionable parts.

I hear that some parapsychologists have speculated that deja vu could have a connection to a past life, like having lived one’s own lifetime before or having been reincarnated – implanted at birth – with the spirit of someone who had been familiar with the site and space in which the living subject underwent the deja vu moment. That sounds like the parapsychology of the late 19th century, frankly, and it would surprise me if a 21st century parapsychology student would agree. This does not mean that I completely discount reincarnation or deja vu, just that the twain seem poor proof of each other.

Another of the major factors supporting the fake-memory theory for deja vu is the fact that the subject who describes living the experience before can never trace the experience that could have been relived. There’s no tag. (You lived it, did you? OK… When? You know it from somewhere? Where?) The lack of a good response to that makes the mental switchup theory seem the only one standing.

My own recent deja vu experience detailed at the start of this piece is easily explained with the text book logic. They haven’t all been like that. In fact, I think there could be a deeper connection to at least some deja vu experiences.

I can only base that on my sense that a couple of mine have come with “a little sting in the tail,” as they say about a drink that kicks your tonsils at the end of the guzzle. Just a handful of mine have come with the sense of a connection to one of the mind’s other layers. One in particular stands out, one of the first deja vu I focused on as I experienced it. It was from my college days at Denison University.

I remember taking a walkway down a wooded slope from the east wing of the campus on some errand into the quaint village of Granville. It was a grey morning in my last year as an undergraduate. Flanked by a railing and curving around the slope, the steep, paved trail broke occasionally into short flights of stairs. From the fact that I seldom passed anyone on it, I would guess that no more than ten people used it on a typical day. As with it and other underused spots of that campus, epiphanies ought to be common, and that part of the Licking River valley moody.

Denison’s original 1831 design was etched like a hieroglyph atop its midstate Ohio mountain by Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscape architecture firm. Alight like one of the elfin strongholds of Tolkien, the campus makes a remarkable sight at night from the village below. By day you see that its promenades, pathways and spaces were wrought with an eye not only toward display, but contemplation. The hill may have been chosen for a campus in the first place because it was the site of a now-lost monument of the Fort Ancient culture, probably one of the spinoffs of the Hopewell. A mile to the east on another hill is a large and significant earthwork called “the Alligator Mound,” one of only two effigy monuments known to survive in the Buckeye State. It would be fun if someone had plotted the potential connection between those two sites when it was still possible. Such monuments are often set up to make patterns with others.

On my hike down the hill, I remember being stopped bolt-still by that otherworldly sense of “been there before” we call deja vu. I stopped to analyze it. I know I backtracked a few feet so as to recover the identical visual perspective, and stood there to haul back as many of the mental circumstances as possible. I followed the immediate impressions, trying to piece things together, continually recalling the key that had launched me into the eerie flashback. The trigger was a mix of visual circumstances, a mental image, a phrase I was hearing, an impression, a thought, and who knows what else?

Furthermore, that deja vu experience seemed to have a tail on it stretching deep into my mind, and I tried to track it, too. Again and again I evoked the trigger-images and thoughts, trying to get closer to the source. What were the other associations? Where were they from? Like someone burning out the battery with frenzied attempts at starting a car – or repeating a single word until it is meaningless – I did this until I exhausted the effect. I am sure I stood there ten minutes. I started walking again only when I could no longer summon any of the impressions. I had also come to the best conclusion I could.

Like the discs of a combination lock falling into place, what had triggered the deja vu had surely been an exact mix of an immediate scene – the green hillside to my right, the peaks and steeples of the village below, the distant grey air ahead of me under the overarching boughs – with the physical senses of walking and touching the rail and the complete mix of whatever was passing through my mind at the second. But there seemed more to this deja vu, because when I tried to re-evoke the thoughts and images that had launched it, another series of faint impressions came up, ones that seemed already to have been in the mind, and a deeper part of it than those used for speech, hearing or thought. It was tantalizing. It felt like this deja vu had a root into a dream I had dreamed years before, one I no longer remembered, or one that I had never remembered. I say this because the forgotten dream seemed like it had been part of a series that trailed into a dream that I did remember, faintly.

I can’t say whether this was an unusual deja vu or if all of them would prove to be like it if they could be resurrected enough to be examined. But the potential connection to the dream is worth comment.
We sleep in a theater in which the unconscious plays its own film-fest. Of the dozens, if not thousands, of dreams we have every night, the only ones we ever realize are those into which we wake, and even those can be hard to hold. Dreams are not ordinary memories like those of events we encountered in the external world. But like a jungle-buried civilization, traces of even the forgotten ones should still be there, somewhere. Like deleted files on a hard drive, lost dreams are not obliterated; they are inconveniently relocated.

Only a few times have I had this sense, that a deja vu could be more than a matter of brain physiology. But the above experience and ones related to it have left me with discomfort about reflex categorizations, of deja vu or any other phenomena involving the mind or personality.

It could certainly be that the brain scientists are right about deja vu, and I will believe them when I hear that they understand the mind so well that they can create the experience for a subject in the laboratory. The day could be coming. Great advances are being made. It could well be that there is a material explanation even for the dream-connection to deja vu: that when something in the material world evokes one of these old dreams, every related perception flares like a string of Christmas lights under the same current.

Till then, I keep my impression of the mind as an ocean with indistinct boundaries and a fathomless unconscious into which we dip as we dream. Each night we sleep is an Odyssey through a sea of fabulous islands; the only ones we remember are those upon which we touch down and interact with the inhabitants.

About two out of three Americans report experiencing the occasional deja vu. Most who acknowledge one report many. I have, I would say, one a year. Some people are frightened and even haunted by the experience. Others are entranced and tantalized. I am of the last camp, among the ones whom wonder never leaves. Deja vu! You got me again. Someday I will get you.

©2015 Mason Winfield

Mason Winfield is the author of eleven books on supernatural-paranormal subjects.

Twilight on the Western Door welcomes questions and comments.


Written by Mason Winfield

Mason Winfield

The founder of New York’s original “supernatural tourism” company Haunted History Ghost Walks, Inc., Mason Winfield studied English and Classics at Denison University and earned a master’s degree at Boston College. In his 13 years as a teacher/department chair at The Gow School (South Wales, N.Y.), he won a 50K cross-country ski marathon and was ranked among the Buffalo area’s top ten tennis players. A specialist in upstate supernatural folklore and an award-winning fiction writer, Mason has written or edited 11 books, including the regional sensation Shadows of the Western Door (1997) and Iroquois Supernatural (Inner Traditions International/Bear & Company, 2011). A lecturer whose talks have been sponsored by Poets & Writers, New York Council for the Humanities, “The Big Read,” and the National Endowment for the Arts, Mason is also a spoken word artist who has appeared at City of Night, Buffalo; Rochester Fringe Festival; and Piccolo Spoletto Festival (Charleston, S.C.).

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