JAMAIS VUWhen seeing is not believing.

JAMAIS VUWhen seeing is not believing.

Issue 52

, Starters

  • Words Precious Adesina
  • Photo Evelyn Bencicova

Pick a word—any word—and say it out loud, over and over again. How long did it take before it started to sound strange, or you began to question whether the word really meant anything?

What you likely experienced is a phenomenon called jamais vu—the feeling when something familiar becomes foreign and ceases to make sense. It’s often described as the opposite of déjà vu, the much better understood feeling that a new experience has happened before. 

Inspired by childhood memories of writing the same phrase repeatedly as a form of punishment, Christopher Moulin, a professor of cognitive neuropsychology at the Université Grenoble Alpes, has conducted some of the few studies into the phenomenon. In a 2018 experiment, Moulin and other researchers asked participants to write the word “the” repeatedly. “A reliable amount of people” said they experienced “jamais vu,” Moulin says in an interview with Salon. They felt “strange, like the word wasn't real, or [they didn’t] know if it was spelled right.” But jamais vu is not just about words.

The phenomenon can also involve objects or people, such as a colleague at work suddenly feeling unfamiliar. Some psychologists believe it to be more common for those with anxiety and stress. And people who obsessively repeat tasks may also experience it: “You can imagine that going to a door, for example, to keep checking whether it’s locked or unlocked, is going to at some point also become a meaningless activity,” says Moulin. “The more you do it… the less you will be sure that you’ve actually locked the door.”

Unlike déjà vu, there is limited research into jamais vu but psychologists believe that study of the phenomenon could reveal something about how the brain works. As Moulin says, “if we can understand [this], we’ll unlock lots of things that are important to understanding delusions, conscious control of the mind and conditions like OCD and schizophrenia.”


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