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 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: