‘Jamais vu’: the science behind the opposite of ‘déjà vu’

Cornelius Krishna Tedjo/Shutterstock

The experience of deja vu, which occurs when we mistakenly believe that a novel situation has already happened before, leaves us with a creepy and uncomfortable feeling. But it is nothing more than a window into the functioning of our memory system.

According to our research, the phenomenon occurs when the part of the brain that detects familiarity becomes out of sync with reality. Déjà vu is the warning sign of this oddity: it is a kind of “fact check” for the memory system.

The opposite of deja vu is known as jamais vu. And it is experienced when something that should be familiar seems unreal or new to us. In our recent research, which has just won an Ig Nobel Prize for literature, we analyze the mechanism underlying this phenomenon. And everything indicates that it is repetition that can make things seem wrongly strange and unusual to us.

He jamais vu It can consist of looking at a familiar face and it suddenly seems strange or unknown to us. Musicians suffer from it momentarily when they get lost in a very familiar musical passage. And it may have happened to you by going to a familiar place and becoming disoriented, or seeing it with “new eyes” for no apparent reason.

The experience is even more disturbing than the deja vu. When people are asked to describe themselves in questionnaires about everyday life experiences, they write stories such as:

“While taking my exams, I write a word correctly, for example ‘appetite’, but I keep looking at the word over and over again because I have doubts that it might be wrong.”

In everyday life, the jamais vu It can be caused by repetition or staring, but it doesn’t have to. One of us, Akira, had this happen while driving on the highway, which forced him to stop on the shoulder so that his lack of knowledge of the pedals and steering wheel could be “reset.” Luckily, in nature it is rare.

Words that become strange from repeating them so much

We don’t know much about him jamais vu, and that is why we decided to start studying it in the laboratory. We assumed that if you ask someone to repeat something over and over again, they often realize that it makes no sense and begin to feel confused.

In a first experiment, 94 university students repeatedly wrote the same word. They did it with twelve different words ranging from something as common as door (“door”) to less common terms such as sward (“beard”).

We asked participants to copy the word as quickly as possible. And we invited them to stop if they started to feel strange or bored, but also if their hand hurt. Stopping because things were starting to seem strange was the most chosen option, and nearly 70% stopped at least once because they felt what we define as jamais vu. This usually occurred after about a minute (33 repetitions), and usually with familiar words.

In a second experiment we used only the article the (“el/la”), thinking it was the most common word. This time, 55% of people stopped writing for reasons that matched our definition of jamais vu (but after 27 repetitions).

People described their experiences with phrases ranging from “the words lose their meaning the more you look at them” to “I seemed to lose control of my hand.” Although our favorite is:

“Suddenly it didn’t seem right, it almost felt like it wasn’t really a word but someone had tricked me into thinking it was.”

Image of paper with the word 'the' over and over.
Try writing ‘la’ 33 times.
Christopher MoulinCC BY

It took us about 15 years to write and publish this scientific work. We started in 2003 because we had a hunch that people felt weird repeatedly typing a word. One of us, Chris, had realized that the lines he had been asked to write repeatedly as punishment in high school made him feel strange, like they weren’t real.

It took us 15 years because we were not as smart as we thought. The idea was not so original and novel. In 1907, one of the anonymous founding figures of psychology, Margaret Floy Washburn, had already published an experiment with one of her students that showed the “loss of associative power” in words that were stared at for three minutes. The words became strange, lost their meaning and fragmented over time.

Deeper insights

The only novelty that we have contributed is the idea that the transformations and losses of meaning in repetition are accompanied by a particular feeling: the jamais vu. He jamais vu It’s a sign that something has become too automatic, too fluid, too repetitive. It helps us “exit” our current processing. In fact, the feeling of unreality is nothing more than a way of checking reality.

It is logical that this happens. Our cognitive systems must be flexible, allowing us to direct our attention where it is needed rather than getting lost in repetitive tasks for too long.

We are just beginning to understand the jamais vu. The main scientific explanations come from “saturation” – the overload of a representation causes it to lose meaning – and the so-called verbal transformation effect. It consists of repeating a word over and over again activating the so-called “neighbors”, so that you start hearing the word “three” on a loop over and over again, but then the listeners say they hear “stress”, for example.

Finally, we are flattered to have been awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for Literature. The winners of these awards contribute scientific works that “make you laugh and then make you think.” We hope that our work on jamais vu inspire further research and even greater knowledge in the near future.

The Conversation

The signatories are not employees, consultants, nor do they own shares in, nor do they receive financing from, any company or organization that could benefit from this article, and they have declared that they have no relevant ties beyond the academic position cited above.

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