This idea of misplaced familiarity not only helps provide an explanation for déjà vu other than superstition but also could help treat patients with memory problems.
"Our findings suggest that when people fail to retrieve something from memory, they can often still have a sense about their memories despite the failure to access the memory that is responsible for that sense," Cleary says. "People who are impaired at memory retrieval may benefit from training in how to rely on familiarity or intuition."
Even in people without memory afflictions, a better understanding of the feelings of familiarity and intuition may help solve problems. "In his book The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson wrote about a gut feeling that the main character keeps having upon studying a picture album," Cleary observes, noting that the character Blomkvist cannot identify what in the set of pictures is causing the feeling that there is something of interest there, something that may help him to solve the case he's working on. "This illustrates how it might be beneficial for everyone, whether memory-impaired or not, to understand how such feelings of familiarity operate," Cleary asserts.
Virtual reality may also help scientists investigate other strange illusions that appear related to déjà vu. For déjà entendu, the feeling of having heard something before, one could incorporate sounds in virtual-reality scenarios. In the case of jamais vu—the feeling of novelty in response to something that should be familiar—some experts have speculated that this perception results from "oversaturation" of a memory, "such as when you stare at a word for too long and it starts to seem like it is not a word," Cleary says. "Perhaps there might be a way to investigate that idea in virtual reality by having people repeatedly experience the same scene."