Most of us have heard of “déjà vu”. It’s about that fleeting feeling that a new situation or place feels eerily familiar. However, few know its opposite, even though they may have experienced it at some point in their lives. It is about the so-called “jamais vu”.
The brain is by far the most complex and mysterious organ of all the human body. It is responsible for performing all the basic tasks for the development, perception and understanding of everything that surrounds a person. However, sometimes this body seems to work on its own, without paying attention to the rest of the body and creating a series of sensations and phenomena that can deceive anyone. One such phenomenon is the little-known jamais vu.
Imagine repeatedly writing a simple word, only to suddenly realize it’s not a word at all. Likewise, musicians get it momentarily – messing up, for example, a very familiar piece of music they know perfectly well. Similarly, you may have experienced this by going to a familiar place that you know well, but this time getting disoriented or seeing it from a “different perspective”. That’s exactly what “jamais vu” is: when something familiar, something you know all too well, suddenly turns into something strangely foreign, something you’ve never seen before.
Akira O’Connor and Christopher Moulin from the University of St Andrews in Scotland and the University Grenoble Alpes in France have turned their attention to this particular phenomenon. In particular, through their research, they discovered that by having participants repeatedly write a word, it often transformed from familiar to unrecognizable. In their remarkable experiment, 70% of participants experienced jamais vu after writing the word “door” about 33 times in a row. Participants reported feelings such as words losing their meaning or being tricked into thinking the word they were writing actually existed.
At first, O’Connor and Moulin believed they had stumbled upon uncharted territory, but history proved otherwise. As it turned out, psychologist Margaret Floy Washburn had already made a similar observation in 1907. Looking at words for long periods of time, they seemed to lose their inherent meaning, fragmented and became foreign to the observer.
But why does this happen? O’Connor and Moulin suggest that jamais vu serves as a kind of cognitive safety mechanism. That is, it acts as a signal, warning our brain when an activity or thought process is becoming too repetitive or trivial. This keeps our cognitive functions adaptable, ensuring that we don’t remain trapped in a loop of monotonous thought or action. Of course, the exact mechanisms behind jamais vu are still debated by experts.
Jamais vu is a much rarer occurrence than déjà vu, and can be even stranger and more disturbing. People describe it as a loss of meaning in familiar things as they look at them over and over again. In our study, participants stopped trying to write the same word over and over again because it started to feel wrong and foreign to them. This feeling of “jamais vu” manifested itself through boredom, arm pain and a strange sensation.
A better understanding of this phenomenon may potentially provide insights into conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), where repetitive behaviors can distort a person’s perception of reality.
At this point it is worth mentioning that the unique research of O’Connor and Moulin did not go unnoticed, since it was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize, a peculiar award that honors scientific research that first makes people laugh and then think deeply.
Their research was published in the scientific journal Memory, entitled ‘The induction of jamais vu in the laboratory: word alienation and semantic satiation’ and you can find it online by clicking here.
The authors of the research say:
“Jamais vu is a signal that something has become too automatic, too repetitive. It helps the brain “break out” of current processing, and the feeling of unreality is actually a reality check, a reason to “shake up. ”Our cognitive systems must remain flexible, allowing us to direct attention where it is needed, rather than getting stuck in repetitive tasks for too long.”
The feeling of derealization is a falsification of the perception of what surrounds us, so that a person perceives it as something unknown or unreal. Derealization is a dissociative symptom of several mental illnesses, as it can be a product of stress, substance use, and lack of sleep.
People who have experienced this strange environmental perception describe it as a kind of cloud or sensory fog that distances them from the situation they perceive.
The sense of jamais vu enters into this experience of derealization in which both moments and spaces are seen as different or changed but you cannot specify how or why.
These changes in perception can also occur in any of the other senses, such as hearing, taste or smell.
In the field of neuroscience, there are attempts to explain this phenomenon as a change in the coordination of different areas of the brain responsible for memory and the management of information coming from abroad. This change would cause a kind of disconnect between neural networks, which would temporarily distort understanding of the external environment.
Although the feeling of jamais vu can occur in isolation and without any associated pathology, this phenomenon is very often recorded in people with neurological diseases such as epilepsy, chronic headaches or head injuries.
Like many similar changes, jamais vu can have its origin in vestibular conditions such as labyrinthitis or vestibular neuronitis, which affect how the brain processes information.
Certain cannabinoid, hallucinogenic or even nicotine drugs present in tobacco may cause the effects of Jamais vu. As well as lack of sleep, borderline personality disorder, anxiety disorders, or any mental condition that involves depersonalization.
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