Considering that it must have happened almost 20 years ago, I remember it very vividly. Almost too much. It was one of those afternoons on the first weekends of fall. It had just rained, the ground was still wet and the air had that thing that sometimes comes from being brand new.
She appeared with very dark, curly hair (she had cut her hair and hadn’t told me anything), with a wide, green sweater that matched her wide, green eyes; so green that she could hear the sea. And although she had seen her a couple of times a week for, I don’t know, the last five years… it seemed to me that she had never seen her; that she was new, another; that she was different.
Now I know that that feeling (which left me hanging from the eaves for many weeks) was a ‘jamais vu’.
Does it have something to do with ‘déjà vu’? It is, in fact, just the opposite. Déjà vu is a type of paramnesia (a distortion of memories) that makes an experience feel as if it had been experienced previously. It is something very well known and very experienced. In fact, since Émile Boirac coined the term in 1876, ‘déjà vu’ has become another element of popular culture.
But I’m talking about the opposite: about common experiences, things that we are sure we have done over and over again, but that suddenly seem completely new to us.
But… is this serious? The truth is that a few months ago she would not have known if it was a real phenomenon or an urban myth. Above all, because we didn’t know much about ‘jamais vu’. But in recent years we have more and more research and one of them, in fact, has just won an Ig Nobel .
The experiment. To study this phenomenon, researchers looked for a way to create ‘jamais vu’s in the laboratory. And the basic idea is very simple : that if you ask someone to repeat something enough times, what at first seemed clear and simple will become confusing and meaningless.
To put it to the test , they took 94 college students and had them write repeatedly (and as quickly as possible) the same word. They did it with twelve different words and were only allowed to stop if they felt weird, bored, or their hand hurt.
The funny thing is that most of the people who stopped did so because “things were getting weird.” 70% of the participants stated that they had felt something that we could define as ‘jamais vu’ and, remember, what they were doing was writing relatively common words.
In fact, according to the research , the words “lost their meaning the more they looked at them”, the participants “seemed to lose control of their hand” and some even thought that “someone was tricking them into thinking they were words.” , but they weren’t.”
Of course, it was not new. At the beginning of the 20th century there were already researchers who had studied the intricate mechanisms of writing repeatedly. However, in these years we have made a lot of progress and the work will allow us to better understand things such as obsessive-compulsive disorders or experiences of estrangement.
Not to mention the mechanisms of memory, of course. It goes without saying that even today, memory plays a key social role . How things would change if, in line with what these researchers propose, an excess or overload of a representation can make it absurd.