jamais vu

We’re all familiar with déjà vu — the false sense that what we’re experiencing right now is something we’ve already lived through in the past.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young described the feeling:

And I feel like I’ve been here before
Feel like I’ve been here before…
We have all been here before

‘Déjà vu’ translates as ‘already seen’. The lesser-known counterpart of déjà vu is ‘jamais vu’, or ‘never seen’. It’s the false sense that we’re seeing something for the first time, even though we know on an intellectual level that it’s familiar. For me, jamais vu occurs most often when I’m staring at a word and it suddenly looks… weird. For example, if I’m on a phone call and there happens to be some printed material in front of me, I will look at it just to give my eyes something to do. I’m not actively reading, so my eyes tend to settle on a particular word and stay there. The word starts out looking normal but at some point that changes and it begins to look unfamiliar and odd. I may even get the nagging feeling that it isn’t spelled right, but that I can’t remember how it should be spelled.

Scientists have studied the phenomenon and in fact, the 2023 Ig Nobel Prize for Literature went to a paper titled

The the the the induction of jamais vu in the laboratory: word alienation and semantic satiation

The joke title refers to the method the researchers used to induce jamais vu. Subjects were instructed to copy particular words over and over until they felt “peculiar”, which typically happened within a minute. A full two-thirds of participants experienced the phenomenon.

The lead investigators, Akira O’Connor and Christopher Moulin, published an article yesterday describing their research. It’s worth a read:

Jamais vu: the science behind eerie opposite of déjà vu

9 thoughts on “jamais vu

  1. The full list of the 2023 Ig Nobel Prize winners can be found here.
    This one is my favorite:

    PSYCHOLOGY PRIZE [USA]
    Stanley Milgram, Leonard Bickman, and Lawrence Berkowitz for experiments on a city street to see how many passersby stop to look upward when they see strangers looking upward

    REFERENCE: “Note on the Drawing Power of Crowds of Different Size,” Stanley Milgram, Leonard Bickman, and Lawrence Berkowitz, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 13, no. 2, 1969, pp. 79-82. psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/h0028070

  2. Something else that can trigger jamais vu for me is when I drive through a neighborhood at a different time of day from what I’m used to. Photographers know that lighting is everything, and the same place can feel completely different at sunset than it does at high noon. I’ve had the experience of thinking I’ve made a wrong turn somewhere, only to realize with a jolt that I’m in a place where I’ve been a hundred times before, but with different lighting.

  3. For anyone wondering about the déjà vu sign in the OP, it’s a spoof of the New York City subway’s “If you see something, say something’ campaign:

  4. I’ve sent some time on MTA trains, and always thought that sine was a self parody.

    Goes with, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

  5. This was news to me, but there’s a third “vu” to go along with “déjà vu” and “jamais vu”, and that is “presque vu”, or “almost seen”. This familiar experience is what we refer to in English as the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, and it refers to frustrating situations where we’re certain that we know something but can’t quite retrieve it from memory.

    According to this article, more than 90% of people experience it. It makes me wonder about the lucky folks who don’t ever experience it, assuming they actually exist.

  6. I’ve had some jamais vu-like experiences lately with English idioms. For instance, I’ve been using the phrase “right away” my entire life, but only recently did the actual words jump out at me, causing me to ask “Wait — how does ‘right’ + ‘away’ = ‘immediate’?”

    That sent me to the internet, where I found an old William Safire article on the word “way”. It explains:

    My wife asked me to do something or other yesterday,” writes E. J. Kahn Jr. of The New Yorker, “and when I replied ‘Right away’ she was flabbergasted. That got us both to thinking about the phrase and its origin. Why should right and away have anything to do with ‘immediately’ or ‘pronto’?”

    First to Fred Cassidy, chief editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English: he notes that right means “straight” and is cognate with the Latin rectus, meaning “stretched out like a cord” and the source of rectitude, the course of those on the straight and narrow. Our curious expression about speedy action right away exists in Britain as straight away.

    But what’s the basis for right away, which was coined in 1818 as slick right away? (No Presidential slur intended.) It’s an idiom, which means that its meanings are not predictable from those of its parts, but we can break it down with the help of John Algeo, the neologistician of American Speech quarterly, now doing his research in Wheaton, Ill.:

    Right has a long history as an emphasizer: rihht affterr can be found in a document dated 1200, which was soon followed by other intensifiers of time: right in (the dawning of a day) and right now. The temporal use of this adverb for emphasis was transferred to expressions of place: right down, right up, right with you.

    What about away, in its curious sense of immediacy? An early English translation of the Bible has a line with that sense: “Ye can not beare it awaye,” which the Oxford English Dictionary interprets as “forthwith, directly, without hesitation or delay; chiefly colloquial in imperative sentences, as Fire away! = proceed at once to fire.”

    Charles Dickens noticed this as an Americanism on a visit here: ” ‘Dinner, if you please,’ said I to the waiter. ‘Right away?’ said the waiter. I saw now that ‘Right away’ and ‘Directly’ were one and the same thing.”

    Let Professor Algeo sum up the development of the phrase: “Right away ‘immediately’ developed in American English by combining a common, ancient and frequent use of right as an intensifier with a limited, old and infrequent use of away to mean ‘immediately’ (as also in Fire away!). Right away is now in use throughout the English-speaking world, though mainly in less formal language.”

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