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Is déjà vu confusing? Wait for it’s opposite, the Jamais vu!

Ever experienced a new situation that seemed familiar (déjà vu), or an unsettling unfamiliarity with something well-known (jamais vu)?

Déjà vu: A glitch in the memory system

Research suggests that déjà vu occurs when the brain area responsible for recognizing familiarity becomes temporarily out of sync with reality. This mismatch triggers an alert, a kind of “fact check” for the memory system, resulting in the eerie feeling of déjà vu.

Jamais vu: The flip side of familiarity

Jamais vu, the opposite of déjà vu, is even rarer and more unsettling. It involves experiencing something familiar as strange or even new. Imagine looking at a close friend’s face and suddenly finding it unfamiliar, or a musician losing their place in a well-rehearsed piece. This phenomenon, recognized with an Ig Nobel Prize, highlights the fascinating ways repetition can influence our perception.

Examples from daily life

Jamais vu can manifest in various ways. During exams, qw might write a familiar word correctly but keep doubting it, rereading it obsessively. In some cases, repetitive actions like driving can trigger jamais vu, prompting a need to stop and “reset” our perception. Thankfully, such occurrences are uncommon in everyday life.

Understanding these experiences can offer valuable insights into memory function and the brain’s complex mechanisms. By exploring these phenomena, we gain a deeper appreciation for the remarkable and sometimes quirky ways our minds work.

Experimenting with repetition and jamais vu

This hypothesis formed the basis of our experiments. In one study, 94 participants repeatedly wrote various words, ranging from common (“door”) to less common (“sward”). While instructed to write quickly, they were allowed to stop for reasons like feeling peculiar, bored, or experiencing hand discomfort.

Interestingly, the most common reason for stopping was a sensation consistent with jamais vu, reported by around 70%. This usually occurred after about a minute (33 repetitions) and was more frequent with familiar words.

A subsequent experiment focused solely on the word “the,” considered the most common. Here, 55% of participants stopped writing for reasons aligned with our jamais vu definition, though after only 27 repetitions.

Descriptions of the experience

Participants described their experiences in various ways, ranging from “words losing meaning the more I looked at them” to “feeling a loss of control over my hand” and even, “it didn’t seem real, like someone tricked me into thinking it’s a word.”

The journey of discovery and the importance of introspection

Publishing this research took roughly 15 years. Initially, we based our hunch on the premise that repetition would induce novel feelings. One researcher, Chris, recalled experiencing a similar strangeness while repeatedly writing lines as punishment in school, almost as if the words weren’t real.

The delay in publication stemmed from underestimating the existing knowledge. In 1907, Margaret Floy Washburn, a pioneering psychologist, conducted a similar experiment that demonstrated “loss of associative power” in words stared at for three minutes. These words became strange, lost meaning, and fragmented over time.

Essentially, we had rediscovered an existing phenomenon. Introspective methods and investigations like this had simply fallen out of favor within the field of psychology.

Jamais vu: A glimpse into the mind’s hidden workings

While much remains unknown about jamais vu, researchers believe it offers valuable insights into how our brains process repetition and maintain flexibility.

Beyond meaninglessness: Jamais vu as a signal

Our research suggests that the transformation and loss of meaning experienced during repetition is accompanied by a distinct feeling: jamais vu. This feeling may act as a signal that something has become overly automated, fluent, or repetitive. It serves as a jolt, prompting us to “snap out” of our current processing mode. The feeling of unreality is, in a sense, a reality check.

This mechanism is crucial for maintaining cognitive flexibility. Our brains need to adapt and direct attention as needed, preventing us from getting stuck in repetitive routines.

Unraveling the mysteries of jamais vu

While the precise mechanisms of jamais vu are still being explored, several theories exist. One prominent explanation involves “satiation,” where a representation is overloaded until it loses meaning. Another concept, the “verbal transformation effect,” suggests that repeatedly saying a word activates related words, leading to misinterpretations like hearing “dress” instead of “tress” during repetition.

Intriguingly, research on obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) also shows similarities. Compulsively staring at objects, like lit gas rings, can lead to strange experiences and a distorted perception of reality. This potential link offers avenues for understanding and treating OCD. If repeatedly checking a locked door makes the task meaningless, it becomes difficult to confirm its state, creating a vicious cycle.

Celebrating scientific curiosity and its impact

We are honored to receive the Ig Nobel Prize for literature, recognizing research that “makes you laugh and then makes you think.” We hope our work on jamais vu will inspire further research and unlock deeper understandings of the human mind in the years to come.


Jamais vu is a phenomenon operationalised as the opposite of déjà vu, i.e. finding subjectively unfamiliar something that we know to be familiar. We sought to document that the subjective experience of jamais vu can be produced in word alienation tasks, hypothesising that déjà vu and jamais vu are similar experiential memory phenomena. Participants repeatedly copied words until they felt “peculiar”, had completed the task, or had another reason to stop. About two-thirds of all participants (in about one-third of all trials) reported strange subjective experiences during the task. Participants reported feeling peculiar after about thirty repetitions, or one minute. We describe these experiences as jamais vu. This experimentally induced phenomenon was related to real-world experiences of unfamiliarity. Although we replicated known patterns of correlations with déjà vu (age and dissociative experiences), the same pattern was not found for our experimental analogue of jamais vu, suggesting some differences between the two phenomena. However, in daily life, those people who had déjà vu more frequently also had jamais vu more frequently. Findings are discussed with reference to the progress that has been made in déjà vu research in recent years, with a view to fast-tracking our understanding of jamais vu.

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