Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Never seen it before

Ever heard of the opposite of déjà vu -- jamais vu?

This may sound like it's the setup for some sort of abstruse bilingual joke, but it's not.  Déjà vu ("already seen" in French) is, as you undoubtedly know, the sensation that something you're experiencing has happened exactly that way before even though you're certain it can't have (a phenomenon, by the way, which is still yet to be fully explained, although there was a suggestive study out of Colorado State University five years ago that gave us some interesting clues about it).  Jamais vu ("never seen") is indeed the opposite; the eerie sense that something completely familiar is unfamiliar, uncertain, or simply incorrect.

One of the most common forms of jamais vu is an experience a lot of us have had; looking at a word and convincing ourselves that it's misspelled.  It can happen even with simple and ridiculously common words.  I remember being a teenager and working on a school assignment, and staring at the word "were" for what seemed like ages because suddenly it looked wrong.  The same thing can happen with music -- skilled musicians can reach a point in a piece they've practiced over and over, and suddenly it feels unfamiliar.  Less common, but even more unsettling, are reports where people look at faces of family and friends, and have the overwhelming sensation that they have never seen them before.

The emphasis here is on "looks" and "feels" and "sensation."  This seems not to be a cognitive issue but a sensory-emotional one; when I've had jamais vu over the spellings or definitions of words, and I look the word in question up, almost always what I'd been writing turned out to be correct even though it felt wrong.  The people who had the sense that their loved ones' faces were somehow unfamiliar still knew their names and relationships, so their cognitive understanding of who those people were was undiminished; it was the "gut feeling" that was all wrong.

[Image courtesy of creator © Michel Royon / Wikimedia Commons Brain memory, CC0 1.0]

The reason the subject comes up is that a team led by Chris J. A. Moulin of the Université Grenoble Alpes has done a preliminary look into the strange phenomenon of jamais vu, and their results were the subject of a paper in the journal Memory.  Their research started with a simple question: can jamais vu be induced?  The answer was yes, and by a simple protocol -- repeat something often enough, and it starts to look strange.

The researchers took familiar words like "door" and less familiar ones like "sward," and asked volunteers to write them repeatedly until they wanted to stop.  They were told they could stop for whatever reason they wanted -- tired hand, bored, feeling peculiar, whatever -- but to be aware of why they stopped.  It turned out that by far the most common reason for stopping was "feeling strange," which was cited as the cause by seventy percent of the volunteers.  The effect was more pronounced with common words than uncommon ones, as if we kind of expect to see uncommon words as odd, so it doesn't strike us as off.

It even happened with the most common word in the English language -- "the."  It only took 27 repetitions, on average, for people to halt.  One volunteer said, "[Words] lose their meaning the more you look at them."  Another, even more interestingly, said, "It doesn't seem right.  It almost looks like it's not really a word, but someone's tricked me into thinking it is."

The researchers believe that jamais vu isn't just some kind of psychological fluke.  It may serve a purpose in jolting us when our cognitive processes are going onto autopilot -- as they can, when we're asked to do a repetitive task too many times.  That feeling of strangeness brings us back to a state of high alertness, where we're paying attention to what we're doing, even if the downside is that it makes us think we've made mistakes when we haven't.

"Jamais vu is a signal to you that something has become too automatic, too fluent, too repetitive," the authors write.  "It helps us 'snap out' of our current processing, and the feeling of unreality is in fact a reality check.  It makes sense that this has to happen.  Our cognitive systems must stay flexible, allowing us to direct our attention to wherever is needed rather than getting lost in repetitive tasks for too long."

So a sense of peculiarity when we're doing ordinary stuff might actually have an adaptive benefit.  Good to know, because it's really unsettling when it happens.

But for what it's worth, I still don't think "were" should be spelled like that.


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