Have you ever written a common word and momentarily questioned whether you spelled it correctly? If so, you might have experienced jamais vu.
You’ll notice I wrote jamais vu, not the more common expression déjà vu.
Déjà vu (French for “already seen”) is the feeling we’ve experienced something before when it’s actually new to us. Déjà vu often leaves us with a spooky or uneasy feeling.
On the other hand, jamais vu (French for “never seen”) is considered the opposite: when something familiar seems new or unexpected. According to Dr. Dung Trinh, “Jamais vu is a psychological phenomenon that involves a temporary feeling of unfamiliarity with a familiar word, phrase, or even a familiar person or place.” Jamais vu might leave us feeling lost or worried.
As it is not well studied, scientists don’t know what causes jamais vu. One theory is that “jamais vu may result from disruptions in attentional mechanisms”. In other words, if you’re not paying full attention to something familiar, your brain may temporarily process it as unfamiliar. Others believe it’s a temporary – and benign – condition brought on by stress, fatigue, or lack of sleep.
In a recent experiment, researchers were able to easily reproduce jamais vu. Participants were asked to repeatedly write 12 words – ranging from the common “door” to the less common “sward.” Participants wrote one word as quickly as possible for as long as possible, and then moved on to the next word. When asked why they stopped writing (hand hurt, bored, etc.), ~70% of the participants mentioned feeling something the researchers categorized as jamais vu. The feeling was more prevalent when writing the more common words.
The research won an 2023 Ig Nobel prize, which “celebrates the unusual, honors the imaginative — and spurs people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.” Since 1991, every year ten Ig Nobel prizes have been awarded for achievements that “make you laugh and then make you think.” The Ig Nobel (say it out loud) seems like the perfect prize for research into jamais vu.
Have you ever experienced jamais vu?