Dream Theories of Déjà Vu

In his 1989 book entitled Multiple Personality Disorder, Dr. Ross said:

"The exclusion of extrasensory perception (ESP) from serious mainstream psychiatry is an artifact of our cultural history. There are only two possibilities concerning ESP experiences: Either they are real or they are illusory. If ESP is real, excluding it from psychiatry and mainstream science is prejudice masquerading as science. If ESP is not real, there is no more reason to exclude it from phenomenological study than any other set of delusions..." (p. 183)

In a 1992 paper, Drs. Ross and Joshi say:

"Paranormal experiences are so common in the general population that no theory of normal psychology or psychopathology which does not take them into account can be comprehensive." (p. 360)

I have borrowed these two quotes from a 1992 paper by Dr. Hufford who continues by saying:

"I would go further. I would say that conventional psychiatric theory does take them into account, but in a way that is at odds with the empirical data. This does not simply prevent theories from being comprehensive, it makes them likely to be wrong in very important ways."(p.362)

Dr. Hufford points out that there have been numerous surveys made and they all show that paranormal experiences are far more common than many scientists seem to want to believe. Moreover, they all unanimously say that déjà vu is encountered more often than any of the other paranormal experiences that have been studied. In fact, if the results of a Gallup poll made in June, 1990 of 1236 American adults can be believed, 55% of those questioned say they believe in déjà vu and 56% readily admit to have "had the feeling of déjà vu". (Gallup & Newport, 1991)

I find it interesting that when inquiring about déjà vu, Gallup and Newport asked people if they had "been somewhere or done something before" (presumably while at the same time knowing that they had not). There seems to be some confusion about what constitutes a déjà vu experience: For some it has to do with living through an experience for seemingly a second time, while for others it is evoked in strange locations and places, where the "afflicted" are convinced they know their way around while at the same time knowing that this should not be possible. This is most succinctly stated in the Rogers and Hart song title "Where or When" (the lead song in their 1937 play "Babes in Arms"), or as an article in the May 5, 1997 issue of TIME magazine put it, "Been There, Done That"! (p. 46)

I am convinced that two different experiences are being referred to here, and they may very well have very different origins and etiologies. Neppe, in his 1983 book The Psychology of Déjà Vu listed 20 different déjà experiences (!). Rather than lumping them together and calling all such occurrences "déjà vu", it might be well to speak in general of déjà experiences, while the two I mentioned above could be referred to as déjà vécu (already experienced) and déjà visité (already visited). The former is situational, while the latter has to do with uncanny geographic knowledge (Funkhouser, 1995). This does not rule out the possibility that combined forms occur in which both aspects are present.

A poll comparable to the one mentioned above was made by Dr. Levin in 1988 with 1456 respondents with the result that 67.3% of those questioned said that they had had one or more déjà vu experiences (Levin, 1993). There, déjà vu is defined simply as "Thought you were somewhere you had been before" (which I would call déjà visité). He goes on to quote Greeley, who found an incidence of 59% in the general population and wrote:

"Whether ‘deja vu’ can be termed ‘paranormal’ or not is a matter for debate.... I assume there are ‘natural’ explanations for these phenomena. However, I do not assume that such explanations explain them away." (Greeley, 1975, pp. 7-8)

Altogether I have seen 20 surveys and the incidences found for déjà experience range from 30% to 83%, depending on which population was questioned and very likely on how it is defined. This indicated that we are dealing with a very common experience which justifies serious consideration and study.

Dream Theories of Déjà Experience by Literary Authors

The earliest mention of a dejalike experience that I know of already mentions a connection with dreams. It is a quote taken from On the Trinity, chapter XV of book XII, by St. Augustine (354 - 430 AD) where he said:

"For we should not credit the story of those who say that Pythagorus of Samos recalled some such things that he had experienced when he had already been here in another body, and of others who relate that there were yet some others who experienced something of the kind in their minds. That these were false recollections, such as we commonly experience during sleep, when we seem to remember as though we have done or seen something which we have not done or seen at all, and that the minds of those even who are awake were affected in this way by the suggestions of the evil and deceptive spirits, whose care it is to deceive men by confirming or sowing this erroneous opinion about the revolutions of souls."

"Revolutions of souls" was St. Augustine’s way of saying "reincarnation," and he was worried about it being used to explain occurrences of déjà experience.

To my knowledge there was nothing more written about déjà experience, nor concerning any other theory about how it might arise, until 1815 when Sir Walter Scott published a book called Guy Mannering, or The Astrologer. There the protagonist was kidnapped by pirates from his home on the coast of Scotland when only a young boy. He was forced to become part of the crew and subsequently sailed all over the world, including India. Many years later, he happened to return to his birthplace but with no memory of it. As one might imagine, what he saw there evoked a strong sense of familiarity and that caused him to muse:

"Why is it that some scenes awaken thoughts which belong as it were to dreams of early and shadowy recollection, such as my old Brahman would have ascribed to a state of previous existence? Is it the visions of our sleep that float confusedly in our memory, and are recalled by the appearance of such real objects as in any respect correspond to the phantoms which they presented to our imagination? How often do we find ourselves in society which we have never before met, and yet feel impressed with a mysterious and ill-defined consciousness, that neither the scene, the speakers, nor the subject, are entirely new; nay feel as if we could anticipate that part of the conversation which has not yet taken place!" (p. 294)

In this short passage, Scott manages to imply and mention three theories about how déjà experience can arise. Dreams (please note: with images that are similar to that which subsequently occurs) together with reincarnation are both spoken about, while the actual explanation is that Guy Mannering had really been in that place once before and his sense of recognition is due to real memories.

Since reincarnation has been mentioned in both of these texts, I would like to quote something that Ernst von Feuchtersleben, a prominent Viennese psychiatrist (Laor, 1982) wrote in his 1895 psychiatric textbook:

"…one, for example, has the feeling as if a situation in which one finds himself was present once before as it is now, which some have assumed out of poetic error to be a sign of previous existence (Platonic reminiscence). If at all, it is unlikely that we sat together dressed in lace clothes [and] kid gloves in salons at tea and buns." (My translation) (Feuchtersleben, 1895).

Incidentally, should anyone be interested, he classified déjà experiences as fantasies of memory.

Before turning to scientific authors, I would like to include a quotation taken from a little essay entitled "Speculations on Metaphysics" that Mary Shelley, Percy Byssche Shelley’s wife (a famous author in her own right), edited from notes he had written and she published after his untimely death. At the very end, he told of a déjà experience he had had while out walking with a friend near Oxford. He said they suddenly turned a corner of a lane and he described what he saw there. He went on to say:

"The effect which it produced on me was not such as could have been expected. I suddenly remembered to have seen that exact scene in some dream of long… Here I was obliged to leave off, overcome by thrilling horror." (p. 297)

In a footnote, Mary Shelley noted that she remembered his coming to her after writing this, "pale and agitated, to seek refuge in conversation from the fearful emotions it excited." This is the first account that I know of in which someone described in print an actual déjà experience that he had had (Funkhouser, 1996). Other literary authors of that period who concerned themselves with déjà vu include Rossetti, Tennyson, Dickens, Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendall Holmes.

Precognitive Dreams

A bit further on I hope to present further evidence, based on accounts of people who have had them, that at least some déjà occurrences can be explained by preceding precognitive dreams. Dreams and visions that presage the future have fascinated mankind for countless ages, and dream interpreters were long in great demand in many cultures around the world, mainly for that reason (Van de Castle, 1994, pp. 45-66).

One does not have to be content with prophecies and visions from the Bible or ancient Egyptian papyri in this regard, though. There is now an enormous body of evidence which has been assembled over the years seeking to demonstrate the existence of precognition and precognitive dreams. I have in my collection over 110 articles and papers dealing with these two topics, and more are being published every day. Excellent reviews can be found in a chapter Robert Van de Castle contributed to Handbook of Parapsychology (1977) as well as a chapter in his 1994 book, Our Dreaming Mind (pp. 407-9). Another good review is found in a chapter by Martin Ebon on Parapsychological Dream Studies for a book called The Dream and Human Societies (1966). In this connection three other books should also be mentioned, namely An Experiment in Time (Dunne, 1927), Man and Time (Priestley, 1968) and Dreams That Come True (Ryback & Sweitzer, 1988).

In An Experiment in Time, Dunne, an aeronautical engineer and designer of planes flown for England in the First World War, told of his precognitive dreams. He became convinced that everyone had just as many images from the future in their dreams as they do residues from the past and he set out to prove it with investigations he did with students at Oxford University. His idea was that if you examine your dreams closely, you will discover elements that only make sense if you keep your eyes open on the days following the dream.

In a 1988 paper, Nancy Sondow found that 10% of her dreams contained such precognitive elements and that the amount of time that elapsed between her dreams and their "coming true" was quite short. She discovered that most of such future-determined elements in her dreams came from the day following the dream, while a lot fewer were from days later on. (Sondow, 1988).

Dr. Stanislav Grof reported that persons under the influence of LSD experience precognitive visions or, in his words:

"Occasionally, LSD subjects report... anticipation of events that will happen in the future. Sometimes, they witness complex and detailed scenes of future happenings in the form of vivid clairvoyant visions and can even hear the acoustic concomitants that are part of them; the latter range from ordinary sounds of everyday life, musical sequences, single words, and entire sentences, to noise produced by motor vehicles and various alarming acoustic signals (the sound of fire engines, ambulance sirens, or blowing car horns). Some of these experiences manifest various degrees of similarity with actual events occurring at a later time." (Graf, 1976, pp. 177-8).

Physicists have also made contributions concerning such "loops" in time and have posited theories as to how knowledge of the future and even time travel might be possible (Deutsch & Lockwood, 1994). There are also now several registries where premonitions and precognitive dreams can be sent for archival purposes. There is such a registry in an institute for parapsychological research at the University of Freiburg am Breisgau in Germany. Robert Nelson, the director of the Central Premonitions Registry in Manhattan, reported that as of 1976 after seven years of existence, over 3000 persons from all over the US and even 23 foreign countries had sent in their (presumed) previsions, dreams and hunches and he provided an overview of what sorts of categories were "generated by the flow of predictions" (Nelson R, 1976, p. 22). I have learned that the International Association for Near Death Studies has also established such a registry where survivors of near-death experiences can send accounts of things they have seen which they think may presage a future happening.

Dr. Mary Louise von Franz, a prominent Jungian therapist in Zurich, once wrote that there were two types of precognitive dreams: ones which she referred to as telepathic and ones which were symbolic in character (von Franz, 1978). The first are true to life and to what is going to happen, while the latter require interpretation and some acquaintance with symbols. I would add that a dream may contain only elements from the future (à la Dunne and Sondow), or may contain an extended prevision of what is to come. Dr. von Franz also pointed out that while most dreams, including precognitive ones, arose from the personal unconscious, there are also dreams which come from deeper, more collective and archetypal levels. In her words:

"In our analytic work, when one has to deal with a dream containing only personal material, one can generally relate its meaning to the immediate present as a reaction to the things one did or experienced the day before or which one would meet the day after the dream [which agrees with what Nancy Sondow found]. If we have to deal with an archetypal dream motif, its meaning is valid for a much longer period of time, for months or even for many years. Archetypal dreams remembered from early childhood even often anticipate the fate of an individual for his whole life, or at least for his first half of life. (pp. 181-2).

Dream Theories of Déjà Experience by Scientific Authors

Strictly speaking, there are actually three dream theories which have been put forward over the years in an attempt to explain déjà experiences. The one says that the person has dreamt of something similar and the mind makes an association to what has been seen in a dream to produce the uncanny recognition or heightened sense of familiarity, which is the hallmark of the déjà vu experience. One encounters this in the writings of six authors that I know of: Jessen (1855), Kraepelin (1887), Guyau (1890), Ellis (1897), Störrig (1900), and Dwelschauvers (1916). The last investigator suggested that there are probably several sources which generate déjà vu experiences and that dreams with similar elements may be just one of them.

In addition, I have found two authors who maintained that the association with dreams is just a trick of the memory: one thinks one has lived through this event or seen this place in a dream, but that is an illusion (Hodgson, 1865; Royce, 1889). This would represent, then, a second dream theory.

The third theory (and the one I favor) is that precognitive dreams which are not remembered until they "come true" give rise to many if not all déjà experiences (Funkhouser, 1983). Of scientific authors who are of the same mind, Paul Radestock (1879) was the earliest that I have found. Going through his dream diary, he wrote that he could identify antecedents to the déjà incidents he experienced. Other authors from that period who maintained the same thing include Buccola (1883), Sully (1884), Lapie (1894), Allin (1895), Bozzaro (1901), Méré (1903), Lemaître (1904), and Grasset (1904). Many even provide accounts of either their own experiences or those of others.

More modern authors who also have suggested that precognitive dreams provide the best explanation for déjà experience include MacCurdy (1925), Carrington (1931), Ferenczi (1951), Moufang & Stevens (1953), and Chari (1962, 1964) who, as an Indian philosopher, wrote some excellent, deeply thought out papers concerning this phenomenon and especially concerning the supposed connection with reincarnation.

It is hard to believe that twenty five years have now passed since ASD member Rhea White published her review with the title "The Mystery of Deja Vu" (White, 1973). In her article she quoted from many of the sources I have just listed. She mentioned, for example, that Carrington put forward a theory that out-of-body experiences could be an explanation for what I have referred to as déjà visité. She also says that Dr. Louisa Rhine of Duke University felt that either that or precognitive dreams were the source of déjà experiences. Dr. White also said that "The most commonly offered parapsychic explanation for deja vu is the precognitive dream." (p. 46)

In case further proof is needed, I can mention the late German actress Christine Mylius who had numerous déjà experiences and could trace them to her dreams. She began sending her dreams to Prof. Bender in Freiburg and could tell him where to find the dreams that subsequently showed up in her film roles. She eventually published a book about her experiences, the English title of which would be Dream Diary: Experiment with the Future. (My translation) (Mylius, 1974).

In preparing this article, I queried the alt.dreams and alt.- dreams.lucid news groups on what is called the UseNet. By entering déjà vu as the key words, I turned up 48 people who, between May 13, 1996 and April 26, 1997, spontaneously wrote to either tell about the déjà vu experiences they had had and/or to offer explanations as to how such an experience can arise. Compiling the results, I found that 32 or 67% favored precognitive dreams as the most likely explanation for déjà vu, while the others were evenly split with either some other explanation (8) or had none to offer (8). A few reported having déjà experience in their dreams: they said they would recognize in the dream that they had dreamt it before or been in that place in another dream. I suppose this experience could be termed déjà rêve (Neppe, 1983, p. 10).

I have long pondered the question as to why the events foreseen in the precognitive dreams that later result in déjà experiences always seem to be so banal. I would think that if my unconscious goes to all the trouble it may require to give me a "preview of coming attractions," it would pick out events and maybe places that are in some way momentous or memorable. This has never proved to be the case, neither for me nor for most of the people with whom I have had the pleasure of discussing déjà experiences. It may be that dreams of important, emotionally charged events are more likely to be remembered upon waking, and are thus known as precognitive dreams; they don’t then result in déjà experiences where the antecedent is only remembered when it happens. Future research will have to show if this is true or not.

Even though the scene pre-seen is banal, the effects of having a déjà experience is often not. Like Shelley, some people are very upset. Others, though, seem to find déjà experiences reassuring: They feel that they are where they are supposed to be. I would have to say that déjà experiences are also important in that they show us that we have a lot to learn about this space-time universe we inhabit and about abilities which are not yet very developed in most people. If pressed, I would have to admit that my initial interest in dreams was prompted by my déjà experiences and they are thus of great value to me, banal as they might be.

I would like to conclude this brief survey by quoting from Rhea White’s article in which she went on to say:

"It may be that we are dealing with a continuum of experience here, with vague fleeting feelings at one end and with vivid, detailed impressions at the other. Or it could be that the experiences, at base, are not cut off the same bolt, but that different predisposing factors result in different types of experiences of familiarity and recognition which tend to get lumped together under the term "deja vu" (p. 48).


I would like to express my sincere and heartfelt thanks to four individuals who have helped by translating early French scientific papers concerning déjà experience for me, namely Anne Bosch, Eve Portmann, Maurice Schommer and Heidi Zimmermann.


  1. (anonymous) (1981) Premonitions registry. Vital Signs 1: 9.

  2. Allin A (1895) Recognition. Am J Psychology 7: 249-273.

  3. Augustine, St. (400 - 416) On the Trinity. Washington, D. C., Catholic University Press, p. 367.

  4. Bender H (1953) Parapsychologie - Ihre Ergebnisse und Probleme. Bremen, Carl Schünemann Verlag, pp. 22-23.

  5. Bozzano E (1901) La paramnesie et les rêves prémonitoires. Revue des Études Psychiques Jan.-March: 57-67; AprilMay:109-117.

  6. Buccola G (1883) Le illusioni della memoria. Rivista di Filosofia Scientifica 2:708-716.

  7. Carrington H (1931) "Deja-vu": The sense of the "already seen" . J Am Soc Psychical Res 25:301-306.

  8. Chari CTK (1962) Paramnesia and Reincarnation. Proc Soc Psychical Res 53: 264-286.

  9. Chari CTK (1964) On some types of déjà vu experiences. J Am Soc Psychical Res 58:186-203.

  10. Deutsch D, Lockwood M (1994) The quantum physics of time travel. Sci Am (March issue) 50-56.

  11. Dunne JW (1927) An Experiment in Time. London, A. & C. Black Ltd.

  12. Dwelschauvers G (1916) L'Inconscient. Paris, E. Flammarion, pp. 66-72.

  13. Ebon M (1966) Parapsychological Dream Studies. In: The Dream and Human Societies, G. E. Grunebaum & R. Caillois (eds.), Berkeley, University of California Press, pp. 163-177.

  14. Ellis H (1897) A note on hypnagogic paramnesia. Mind 6:283-287.

  15. Ennemoser J (1844) Geschichte der Magie. Leipzig, F. A. Brockhaus, p. 133.

  16. Ferenczi S (1951) Hebbel's explanation of 'déjà vu'. In: Further Contributions to the Theory and Technique of Psycho-analysis. London, Hogarth Press, pp. 422-423.

  17. Feuchtersleben E (1895) Lehrbuch der Ärztlichen Seelenkunde, Vienna, C. Gerold Verlag, pp. 255-256.

  18. Funkhouser AT (1983) The "dream theory" of déjà vu. Parapsychol J S Africa 4:107-123.

  19. Funkhouser AT (1995) Three types of déjà vu. Science and Medical Network Review 57:20-22.

  20. Funkhouser AT (1996) An Overview of déjà vu. Lecture presented at the Berkeley ASD meeting.

  21. Gallup GH, Newport F (1991) Belief in paranormal phenomena among adult Americans. Skeptical Inquirer 15:137-146.

  22. Gardner M (1981) Science: Good Bad and Bogus. NY, Avon (Discus) Books, p. 79.

  23. Grasset J (1904) La sensation du "déjà vu". J Psychologie Norm Patholog 1:17-27.

  24. Greeley AM (1975) The Sociology of the Paranormal: A reconnaissance. Beverly Hills CA, Sage Publications.

  25. Grof S (1976) Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research. NY, E. P. Dutton, pp. 177-178.

  26. Guyau M (1890) La Genèse de l'Idee de Temps. Paris, F. Alcon, pp. 109-116.

  27. Hodgson SH (1865) Time and Space (A Metaphysical Essay). London, Longman Green Longman Roberts Green, p. 273.

  28. Hufford DJ (1992) Commentary: Paranormal experiences in the general population. J Nerv Ment Dis 180:362-368.

  29. Jessen P (1855) Versuch einer Wissenschaftlichen Begründung der Psychologie. Berlin, Verlag von Veit & Comp., pp. 549-553.

  30. Laor N (1982) Szasz, Feuchtersleben, and the history of psychiatry. Psychiatry 45:316-324.

  31. Lapie P (1894) Note sur la paramnésie. Rev Philosophique 37:351-352.

  32. Lemaître A (1904) Des phénomènes de paramnésie: A propos d'un cas spècial. Archives de Psychologie 3:101-110.

  33. Levin JS (1993) Age differences in mystical experience. The Gerontologist 33: 507-513.

  34. MacCurdy JT (1925) The Psychology of Emotion. London, Kegan Paul. pp. 429- 430.

  35. Méré C (1903) La sensation du "déjà vu". Mercure de France 47:62-81.

  36. Moufang W Stevens WO (1953) Mysterium der Träume. München, Paul List Verlag.

  37. Mylius C (1974) Traumjournal. Stuttgart, Deutsches Verlags-Anstalt.

  38. Nelson RD (1970) The central premonitions registry. Psychic 1:26-31.

  39. Neppe VM (1983) The Psychology of DÉJÀ VU: Have I been here before? Johannesburg, Witwatersrand University Press.

  40. Priestley JB (1968) Man and Time. New York, Dell Publishing.

  41. Puthoff Targ (1974) Chapter 22. In: Psychic Exploration. Edgar D. Mitchell & John White (eds.) New York, Putnam Books.

  42. Radestock P (1879) Schlaf und Traum. Leipzig, Breitkopf und Härtel Druck & Verlag, p. 6.

  43. Ross CA (1989) Multiple Personality Disorder: Diagnosis, Clinical Features and Treatment. New York, John Wiley and Sons, p. 183.

  44. Ross CA, Joshi S (1992) Paranormal experiences in the general population. J Nerv Ment Dis 180:357-364.

  45. Royce J (1889) Report of the committee on phantasms and presentiments. Proc Am Soc Psychical Res 1: ?

  46. Ryback D Sweitzer L (1988) Dreams That Come True. New York, Ivy Books.

  47. Scott W (1815) Guy Mannering or The Astrologer. Edinburgh, James Ballantyne & Co. p. 294.

  48. Shelley PB (1880) Speculations on Metaphysics. In: The Works of Percy Byssche Shelley in Verse and Prose, London, Reeves & Turner, pp. 283-294.

  49. Sondow N (1988) The decline of precognized events with the passage of time: Evidence from spontaneous dreams. J Am Soc Psychical Res 82: 33-51.

  50. Störrig G (1900) Sechzehnte Vorlesung: Erinnerungs- und Wiedererkennungstäuschungen. In: Vorlesungen über Psychopathologie. Leipzig, W. Engelmann Verlag, pp. 257-279.

  51. Sully J (1884) Die Illusionen, Leipzig, F. A. Brockhaus Verlag, pp. 255-266.

  52. Van de Castle RL (1977) Sleep and Dreams. In: Handbook of Parapsychology, B. B. Wolman (ed.), New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, pp. 473-499.

  53. Van de Castle RL (1994) Our Dreaming Mind, New York, Ballantine Books.

  54. von Franz ML (1978) The Psychological Experience of Time. In: Eranos Yearbook: In Time and Out of Time, A. Portman & R. Ritsama (eds.), Frankfort am M., Insel Verlag, pp. 173-204.

  55. Watson L (1976) Gift of Unknown Things, London, Hodder & Sloughton, pp. 68-71.

  56. White R (1973) The mystery of deja vu. Psychic 4: 44-49.

From a talk given at the Asheville, NC, ASD Meeting 1997.