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Psychology In The News | Deja Vu, or Jamais vu?

Rosey Gardiner-Earl

2nd January 2024

Déjà vu (translated as ‘already seen’) is a phenomenon familiar to many. It involves the eerie sense that a current experience has been encountered before. Yet, few are acquainted with its counterpart, Jamais vu (‘never seen’), where the familiar feels unfamiliar. For example, you may have had this experience if you have said or written down a word so many times it feels like it doesn’t make sense anymore.

Both déjà vu and jamais vu are described as dissociative memory experiences. This means that your feelings about your memory deviate from what you know to be true about that memory. For example, for déjà vu, you feel a sense of familiarity even though you know you have not experienced a particular thing before.

Psychologists believe that different areas of the brain are involved in these sensations. Our temporal cortex is associated with the feeling of familiarity, whilst our frontal cortex is responsible for knowing that what we are experiencing shouldn’t be unfamiliar (in the case of jamais vu) or familiar (in the case of déjà vu). Both déjà vu and jamais vu are believed to be caused by a wrongful activation of the temporal cortex that what we are experiencing is familiar or unfamiliar. The frontal cortex ‘fact checks’ this activation and comes up with an overall experience that this sensation is incorrect, and we need to carry on with what we are doing and wait for this feeling to pass.

Researchers were interested in whether they could create the sensation of jamais vu in an experiment. Moulin et al (2020) gave undergraduate students a workbook and made them write the same words repeatedly until they felt ‘peculiar’. Two-thirds of participants reported subjective ‘strange experiences’ after around thirty repetitions or one minute and the researchers described these experiences as ‘jamais vu’. Could the phenomena of déjà vu and jamais vu mean something is going wrong with our memory? Or does it mean, because the sensations are fact-checked and we are aware of this error and wait for it to pass, that our memories are functioning as they should?

To consider this question, researchers draw an interesting parallel with dementia (which impacts our memory systems).For example, if you are watching a television programme on the BBC and you get a sense of déjà vu, you probably would not get in touch with the BBC to ask why they are showing a programme you have already seen before, you would continue watching until the strange sensation passed. In other words, there would be no behavioural consequence to your sense of déjà vu. On the other hand, a person with dementia, who might be experiencing problems with their memory, may well turn off the television and then get in touch with the BBC to complain, so there is a behavioural consequence in those whose memories are impaired in some way. Therefore, whilst there is still some debate, many researchers agree that both déjà vu and jamais vu (without behavioural consequences) are examples of healthy memory function.

Fascinatingly, both déjà vu and jamais vu involve a sense of our consciousness momentarily breaking apart, this means that our memory system is fleetingly recognised as being separate from the feelings that we experience. Research continues into both areas and the study described in this blog won the Ig Nobel Prize this year, awarded by the Annals of Improbable Research, designed to celebrate research that makes people laugh, and then think. The paper, with a humorous nod to its subject content, is entitled: ‘The the the the induction of jamais vu in the laboratory: word alienation and semantic satiation’ and the link is included below.


1. The research talks about the activation of different areas of the brain during familiarity/unfamiliarity and then the ‘fact-checking’ process. Which method of studying the brain would be most suited to seeing this happen?

2. The research by Moulin et al (2021) used undergraduate students as participants, how does
this compromise the validity of the results into jamais vu?

3. The research by Moulin et al (2021) asked participants to write a word down repeatedly until
they started to feel peculiar, how might the nature of this task compromise the validity of the
results into jamais vu?

4. Thinking about the words used in the research by Moulin et al (2021), what would it have
been important to control, and why?

5. The words were presented in a randomised order, for a trial of four words, explain how you
would randomise the order they were given to participants in.

1. Guardian science podcasts (accessed 13.12.23)

2. Moulin et al (2021) ‘The the the the induction of jamais vu in the laboratory: word alienation and semantic satiation’ Memory 29 (7) pp933-942

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Rosey Gardiner-Earl

Rosey has 15 years of experience teaching Psychology and has worked as both a Subject and Senior Leader in school and large sixth form setting. Rosey is also an experienced A level Psychology examiner.

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