Déjà vu—that uncanny feeling of having experienced a situation before—may be triggered by the layout of a scene, according to research in the June issue of Consciousness and Cognition. Past studies found that déjà vu usually concerns places, so cognitive psychologist Anne Cleary of Colorado State University, Fort Collins, and her colleagues wanted to see if spaces modeled in virtual reality could replicate the striking experience. It worked: subjects most often reported déjà vu when the spatial layout of new settings closely matched that of scenes they had already visited but was not similar enough for them to consciously recognize the resemblance.

For instance, a museum hall might have the same configuration as an earlier courtyard—the location of a central statue relative to the benches and rugs in the museum echoed the location of a central potted plant relative to bushes and plants in the courtyard. If subjects failed to register the spatial similarities, they felt only that eerie sense of familiarity in an unfamiliar place.