Déjà vu is a transitory mental state that, according to one study, as much as 97% of the population have experienced at least once in their life.
“Déjà vu is a sense of having already seen or experienced something you are currently seeing or experiencing, coupled with knowing you have not actually seen or experienced it,” explained Blair Steel, a licensed clinical psychologist at 1 Method Center in California.
You can think of déjà vu as two streams of thought colliding together. This is why it can catch you so off guard. You’re filled with a sense of familiarity, or like you’ve lived this moment before, but have no evidence of encountering this situation.
While it’s a much rarer occurrence, you can also experience the opposite of déjà vu — a phenomenon known as “jamais vu.”
“Jamais vu is the experience of feeling unfamiliar with something that is very familiar to you,” Steel said. Jamais vu could look like seeing someone or something you come across every single day — for instance, a co-worker you’ve known for years or a word you write often. You’ll find that the person looks familiar, or you know you’ve seen that word before, but they appear completely new and unknown. This feeling can be overwhelming and scary, and it can last for a few seconds or minutes.
We spoke with experts to help us understand what jamais vu is, when it happens and why. Here’s what to know.
You can experience jamais vu for various reasons.
“It can happen for a range of reasons, most commonly if you’re processing something while distracted,” said Scott Lyons, a psychologist and author of the book “Addicted to Drama: Healing Dependency on Crisis and Chaos in Yourself and Others.” “The exact cause of jamais vu is not known, but many believe it’s related to the brain’s temporal lobe as this part of the brain plays a big role in memory.”
Chronic stress or sleep disturbances can have an effect on mental health, leaving someone more susceptible to experiences like this. “High-stress situations have been associated with the experience of jamais vu,” Steel said.
You can actually induce jamais vu, or a similar feeling, on your own ― and you may have unintentionally done it before. This can be done in word alienation tasks, such as writing a word down over and over until it starts to look incorrect or unfamiliar to you. You can also read or stare at the word and achieve the same results.
In one very small 2021 study, six participants were provided words that they had to stare at for three minutes, one word being “blood.” After 60 seconds, certain letters started looking meaningless and unfamiliar. After 179 seconds, they reported the word appearing as “a collection of letters.”
When does jamais vu happen?
“When we enter a state of high anxiety, the mind will work on overdrive to create protective measures to avoid trauma,” Steel explained. It’s more likely for someone to experience jamais vu in a situation that may be distressing.
That said, jamais vu can happen anywhere and at any time. Think of it as an experience of recall without recognition. Say, for example, you see a celebrity on the street and you know for a fact that you know them but you can’t figure out who they are — as if they are a complete unknown. Your perception and memory are not connecting, leading to your brain failing to make sense of a situation.
Jamais vu can interfere with your memory processing.
“While the exact details still require more research, many people believe that it’s a temporary disconnection between the memory and perception in your brain,” Lyons said.
Specifically, there is a split between two different memory systems called declarative memory — things that can be consciously recalled like facts or stories — and nondeclarative or implicit memory, which are your sensations and felt experiences.
“Jamais vu is thought to arise when an electrical disturbance starts in the temporal lobe, which is the part of the brain associated with memory,” said Steel, who added that “this is also the area of the brain associated with déjà vu.”
Jamais vu can also be mistaken for dissociation or delusions.
While jamais vu is an absence of belief, it can be mistaken for dissociation or delusions depending on a person’s current state, medical history and other related traumas. As mentioned, jamais vu is when one momentarily does not recognise a word, or sometimes a person, place or thing they already know. “A delusion is defined as a false belief, whereas jamais vu is more of an absence of belief,” Steel explained.
When experiencing jamais vu, one may feel detached from their environment, the people around them and their body — which is why it may be mistaken for dissociation.
Overall, though, jamais vu is usually a brief moment that can be regulated pretty easily by pausing and taking a second to collect yourself before returning to what you’re doing. But remember, jamais vu is rare, and if you’re experiencing it on a day-to-day basis, it may be a signal of something deeper. It’s best to see your primary care doctor as they would be able to evaluate you and refer you to a neurologist if needed.