08/22/2016 11:39 EDT | Updated 08/22/2016 12:59 EDT

Déjà Vu Is Disorienting, But Researchers Say It's Probably Not A False Memory

Most of us have experienced déjà vu before — the unsettling feeling that you've been in the exact same place, doing the exact same thing, at the exact same time, at some point before, but knowing deep down that it didn't really happen.

And most of us have also heard that it's because our brains are creating a false memory.

But according to new research, that's probably not true.

Researcher Akira O'Connor and a research team at the University of St. Andrews, U.K. used a process to simulate the feeling of déjà vu in 21 volunteers, according to New Scientist, and scanned their brains as it was happening.

To try to replicate the experience, the researchers told the participants a list of related words, like pillow, night and bed, and then asked them if they'd heard any words that started with the letter "S." They said no. But then when they were asked if they heard the word sleep, they knew they hadn't, but it still felt familiar.

confused woman

Stop me if you think you've heard this one before. (Photo: Getty)

Interestingly, areas that are responsible for memory, such as the hippocampus, didn't light up during the brain scan. Instead, the regions that help us solve conflicts and make decisions lit up.

“Traditionally, researchers thought déjà vu was being driven by false memories," O'Connor told Digital Trends.

"What it actually is is that the cognitive control, error-monitoring conflict-checking frontal brain regions are the ones which show greater activity in people reporting the experience.”

He wrote on his website that the study could help explain why people experience déjà vu less often as they get older, even though we have more trouble with our memories as we age.

"If it’s not an error, but the prevention of an error, this makes a lot more sense," he noted.

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