Ever talked to a friend and suddenly, yet briefly, their face seemed unfamiliar? Or stepped into a room you've frequented but it feels strangely foreign? Or maybe you've stared at a word and you know what it means, but it just doesn't look right?
If so, you've likely experienced a phenomenon known as jamais vu (pronounced jä-mā-vü). Don't worry. It's nothing to be concerned about.
Jamais vu (French for "never seen") is considered the opposite of déjà vu (French for "already seen"), but thought to be even rarer. Those who have experienced jamais vu may mistake it for short-term memory loss, but it's entirely different, says Chris Moulin, Ph.D., a memory researcher at the Laboratory of Psychology and Neurocognition at the University Grenoble Alpes in France, and one of the foremost experts on jamais vu, déjà vu and the like.
"In memory loss, someone will appear unfamiliar to us, even if we have met them recently, because we have forgotten some crucial piece of information," he says in an email. "Jamais vu, on the other hand, is the feeling of unfamiliarity for something which is not lost or forgotten."
One example of jamais vu is when you look at someone very familiar — like your father — and suddenly find his features new or unusual. He may even appear to be a stranger, yet at the same time, you know that he is your father and not some impostor, Moulin explains. (That is an important distinction we'll discuss later.)
This odd feeling is only momentary, lasting only a matter of seconds or minutes before dissipating. It may be dismissed by the person experiencing it because explaining it to another person may be met with skepticism. This may be why the phenomenon is so rare and likely underreported, Moulin explains. His research seeks to label jamais vu and raise awareness of it in hopes that doing so will help broaden the understanding of memory disorders and ultimately benefit those who have them.
What Is the Research on Jamais Vu?
Some of the first research on jamais vu stems from Moulin's own interest in déjà vu as a doctoral candidate. But since déjà vu is difficult to induce in a laboratory setting, he set out to create the effects of jamais vu among a group of study participants by subjecting them to the same punishment Moulin had endured as a schoolboy — writing the same words over and over again. (Think Bart Simpson and his chalkboards: "I will not talk in class. I will not talk in class. I will not talk in class.")
But in this case, volunteers were asked to write a familiar word repeatedly, such as "door." Moulin found that writing the word over and over again didn't make volunteers forget it, but rather, for many, the word began to "feel" unusual, as if it weren't a real word at all.
Moulin later learned that this repeated word phenomenon was not new. Centuries ago, researchers dubbed it "word alienation." But the concept was abandoned before the turn of the 20th century. Believing that experiences like jamais vu and déjà vu could "tell us something about how the memory system is organized in the brain," Moulin says he doubled down, focusing his research on "all kinds of oddities and quirks and especially subjective experiences like déjà vu and jamais vu."
In 2006, Moulin presented the first scientific paper on jamais vu at the International Conference of Memory in Sydney, Australia. The notion gained some traction in the media at the time. But, after the data was finally published in the February 2020 issue of the journal Memory, (cleverly titled, "The the the the induction of jamais vu in the laboratory: word alienation and semantic satiation"), the topic garnered even more interest based on media reports and Google's Ngram Viewer tool, which is used to find patterns of word usage in literature.
Pop culture also added to the hype. The release of the latest "The Matrix" movie, "The Matrix Resurrections," has some people speculating whether episodes of déjà vu and jamais vu are actually "glitches in the matrix." K-pop band BTS also recently released a song called Jamais Vu.
What Causes Jamais Vu?
What causes jamais vu remains a mystery, in large part because there's little research on the topic. But Moulin suspects the brain's temporal lobe may be involved. This large section of the brain, located behind the ears, plays an important role in memory acquisition and facial recognition.
Previous research has shown that people with temporal lobe epilepsy often report experiencing déjà vu and, less commonly, jamais vu, just before having a seizure. Some people who have classic migraine symptoms also have reported feelings associated with jamais vu as part of the migraine aura, or a warning symptom before the onset of a headache.
Much of what is assumed with jamais vu comes from what has been seen in déjà vu research. "Déjà vu is usually a symptom of a healthy functioning cognitive system and requires a certain level of mental agility, it seems," Moulin says. "We would expect the same is true for jamais vu, but that remains to be tested explicitly."
As with déjà vu, researchers expect there are fewer episodes of jamais vu among people with cognitive impairment. "Even in healthy aging, there is a decline in déjà vu with advancing years. It's something that's experienced more by young people," Moulin says.
One thought is that jamais vu may be related to Capgras delusion, a symptom of schizophrenia in which someone believes a familiar person or place has been replaced by an exact duplicate or impostor. But again, more research is needed to back up that claim.
Should I Worry if I've Had Jamais Vu?
In short, no. Even if jamais vu and Capgras delusion are related, jamais vu is momentary and at no point does someone who is experiencing it believe that the unfamiliar person is an impostor, as is the case with Capgras delusion.
"One should no more worry about having a jamais vu experience than we should worry about forgetfulness meaning we have Alzheimer's disease — everybody forgets things every now and then," Moulin says.
As with déjà vu, jamais vu isn't a cause for concern unless it has a negative impact on your life. "If anything," Moulin says, "the ability to experience jamais vu is a good sign for the brain. Like déjà vu, it is only [a concern] if it becomes frequent or associated with other symptoms."
Now That's Interesting
Moulin may have popularized jamais vu as a rare lapse in memory, but it's not his sole interest. He's also exploring déjà vu as well as deja vécu, a persistent sensation of déjà vu in which one feels like they've experienced an entire sequence of events before. "We think déjà vu, jamais vu, and deja vécu are all related," Moulin says. "But there's not much scientific proof for the idea." He and research student Gull Zareen aim to change that by collecting "Spontaneous metacognitive experiences" from volunteers. Have an odd déjà vu or jamais vu experience you'd like to share? Take the survey here.
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