There are these disconcerting moments from time to time, instances where you walk into a new situation and find it oddly familiar despite never having experienced it before. This is a common phenomenon that we call déjà vu, French for “already seen.”
At its opposite, though, lies a slightly rarer phenomenon — jamais vu, which translates to “never seen” in French. It takes place when you’re in a familiar situation but suddenly feel as if you’re experiencing it for the first time. This could happen with a certain place or even a person. Your sense of relation disappears in spite of recognizing it has occurred before.
For example, imagine you’re driving to work or to your go-to grocery shopping spot. You turn down one lane and suddenly find yourself momentarily at a loss — “Am I supposed to turn right or left next?” you wonder.
At other times, you may find yourself forgetting certain details — blanking out, a form of disconnecting — even if you’re an expert in said concept or have known that friend for years. It’s that frustrating “tip of the tongue” feeling where you just can’t get the words out.
If you’ve never experienced it, here’s a quick way to get a sense of jamais vu. Pick a word — shampoo — and repeat it 15 to 20 times. Does it sound odd? Does it sound fake? Has it lost all meaning?
Logically, you know what shampoo is but it becomes an unfamiliar term as you repeatedly voice it aloud.
In 2006, a study conducted by cognitive neuropsychologist, Chris Moulin, induced jamais vu with the word repetition method. In the experiment, 92 volunteers wrote the word door 30 times in one minute. Sixty-eight percent reported symptoms of jamais vu as they began to doubt the reality of the word. Moulin went on to relate the brain fatigue with schizophrenia, likening it to a chronic form of jamais vu.
Making this relation, it’s easy to understand it as a glitch in the system. When jamais vu takes place, you may try to reason with yourself that the situation is familiar, but there’s a hiccup. The part of your brain that’s supposed to be processing and logging the information, connecting it to past experiences, isn’t responding in kind. If you experience this sensation on a few rare occasions, don't worry — it's completely normal.
However, if these instances occur multiple times, it might be hinting at underlying health issues along the lines of aphasia, amnesia, or epilepsy.
Jamais vu, labeled a “distortion of perception,” is sometimes related to other psychological lapses — depersonalization and derealization. The former referring to a feeling of not being oneself and the latter about the world being less real than it seemed before.
To some, though, jamais vu feels liberating (within reason), as it allows them to experience something for the first time momentarily, without the usual notions and biases coloring the interaction. To them, it’s a way to gain deeper insight into a matter.
At the end of the day, jamais vu, like déjà vu, is an odd phenomenon to explain but a normal occurrence.