What is the Jamais Vu?

Jamais vu is a distortion of memory. It involves living something as if it were the first time, even though you've already really lived it.
What is the Jamais Vu?
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Written and verified by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 26 February, 2023

Surely you’ve heard of the phenomenon known as déjà vu, which is having the feeling that you’re reliving some past situation (despite being in a totally new situation). It’s as if you’d already lived it. But what do you know about jamais vu?

In this case, just the opposite happens; we experience something that we’ve already experienced as if it were totally new. That’s to say, we have the altered and unreal sensation of experiencing it for the first time.

Jamais vu is a distortion of the memory (a paramnesia); specifically, it’s a recognition anomaly. But what else do we know about this alteration? Why does it appear and how is it related to other disorders? We’ll tell you everything you want to know about this interesting subject!

Memory: An Imperfect Skill

Jamais vu and memory.
Although memory is one of the most remarkable attributes of the human brain, sometimes “problems” such as jamais vu can occur.

Memory is a cognitive ability that allows us to register events that happen to us in the brain and to remember them later. There are different types of memory (immediate, short-term, long-term memory, etc.). Without memory, we couldn’t learn, and we wouldn’t have an identity either.

However, memory isn’t a perfect skill, much less a mere copy of reality. Memory, in reality, implies a reconstruction of reality (not a reproduction of it). That’s why it’s often skewed, distorted, or “wrong”.

“Memory is like a net: you find it full of fish when you take it out of the stream, but hundreds of kilometers of water passed through it without leaving a trace.”

-Oliver Wendell Holmes-

What is jamais vu?

When we speak of memory distortions, we speak of paramnesias or parapraxias. There are different types of paramnesias; one of them is jamais vu, which is, specifically, a paramnesia of recognition (along with déjà vu). Jamais vu implies the sensation of experiencing things for the first time when in reality we’ve already lived them.

Therefore, when we experience jamais vu, we experience situations that we’ve already experienced without having any sense of familiarity. Jamais vu can happen with places, people, situations, or even words.

However, it happens above all with the recognition of people; that is, having the impression of observing or listening to someone for the first time (you have the feeling that you don’t know the person, even though you’re aware that their face is familiar to you).

Jamais vu would be the opposite process to déjà vu, a paramnesia that entails the sensation of living something (new) as if you’ve already really lived it, although in reality, it’s the first time you’ve experienced it.

A recognition anomaly

To recognize means “an act of recognizing or the state of being recognized. the identification of something as having been previously seen, heard, known, etc.”. It’s a process that has a lot to do with memory; in fact, we recognize things in our environment precisely because we have memory.

But what happens when that recognition is altered or distorted? Then, we speak of anomalies of recognition, as would be the case of jamais vu and déjà vu.

Kraepelin paramnesias

Therefore, jamais vu is a perceptual phenomenon, an anomaly of recognition. It’s a paramnesia, a phenomenon that was described, in his day, by German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin.

Kraepelin referred to paramnesias as pathological memory distortions, due to the inclusion of false details or an incorrect time reference.

The causes of jamais vu

There are various theories associated with the phenomenon of jamais vu. From a neurological standpoint, for example, there’s a possible alteration in the coordination of different brain areas responsible for memory and others responsible for managing information from the environment.

This alteration could cause a neuronal lag that would temporarily deform the understanding of the external environment. It’s important to know that jamais vu can appear in healthy people, without any underlying disorder.

However, it’s also common for it to appear in neurological alterations or conditions such as epilepsy, brain lesions, chronic headaches, etc.

On the other hand, jamais vu can also arise as a consequence of vestibular conditions such as labyrinthitis or vestibular neuronitis. In this regard, these alterations could interfere with the brain’s way of processing external information.

Other causes

In addition, some drugs can also promote this phenomenon. Among them are hallucinogenic drugs, nicotine, and cannabinoid drugs. Finally, anxiety disorders (including depersonalization), borderline personality disorder, and lack of sleep are other factors that could cause this recognition abnormality.

How is it different from déjà vu?

A woman putting together a puzzle in the shape of a head turned sideways.
Both jamais vu and déjà vu are common phenomena. They tend to go unnoticed unless they’re frequently repeated and are associated with some disease or disorder.

We’ve already mentioned déjà vu, another anomaly of recognition, and the “opposite” phenomenon, jamais vu. Déjà vu implies the feeling that you’ve already experienced something that’s actually new to you. Sometimes it’s even a dream-like sensation.

The feeling of déjà vu can be so intense that you can even feel that you have the ability to predict what will happen in the next few seconds or minutes.

But how does déjà vu differ from jamais vu? Its two main differences are as follows:

  • The jamais vu is the “never seen before” sensation, while the déjà vu is the “already seen”.
  • Déjà vu implies the feeling of familiarity or of “having already lived it”, while jamais vu, carries the feeling of novelty (or of it being “the first time” for something).

Déjà vu, jamais vu, and the personal experience of time

It’s interesting to know that the perception of time (or personal experience of time) is a concept closely related to these phenomena, and García and Salado (1996) studied it in these and other disorders.

Therefore, according to an article by these authors, both in déjà vu and jamais vu, the alteration of time is given due to an alteration of the sense of familiarity that objects invoke.

In this way, in the case of déjà vu, such familiarity is perceived with objects and situations that haven’t been seen or experienced previously, and in the case of jamais vu, the sense of familiarity from objects and situations that are already known is lost.

This “altered” perception of time appears in other disorders such as depersonalization or derealization. In these cases, there’s a loss of the sense of the reality of the passage of time.

Relationship with disorders and experiences

Jamais vu is a rare phenomenon and, therefore, hasn’t been studied as much as déjà vu (also, because it’s such a spontaneous phenomenon). However, as mentioned above, it has been linked many times to disorders such as amnesia, epilepsy, or some types of aphasia.

At the same time, other anomalies related to this phenomenon are the presque vu (or the sensation of having something on the tip of the tongue) and déjà senti.

Presque vu

Presque vu is literally translated as “almost seen”, and it refers to the sensation of having something on the tip of the tongue (a word) but not being able to access it. Normally, when this happens to us, we tend to say words similar to the one we’re looking for, or that start in a similar way, but aren’t “THE” word, which we can’t remember.

A common form of presque vu is anomia, which is a language disorder (characteristic of some aphasias) that involves knowing the word but being unable to name it.

Déjà senti

The phenomenon of déjà senti literally translates as “already felt”. But what does it mean? In this case, the person experiences a feeling that something’s familiar, but is unable to link that feeling to a specific memory or experience.

Jamais vu is a perceptual phenomenon that we can all experience on occasion, and it doesn’t have to be pathological. However, it does appear in various neurological disorders.

Phenomena such as jamais vu, related to memory but also to recognition, distance us a bit from objective “reality” to connect with those little cracks that sometimes make us doubt in our mind.

Thanks to jamais vu and déjà vu, we can continue to show that, fortunately, our mind (and memory ) aren’t perfect, and we can also continue traveling the labyrinths that inhabit them.

  • American Psychiatric Association -APA- (2014). DSM-5. Manual diagnóstico y estadístico de los trastornos mentales. Madrid. Panamericana.
  • Ballesteros, S. (1999). Memoria humana: investigación y teoría. Psicothema, 11(4): 705-723.
  • Belloch, A., Sandín, B. y Ramos, F. (2010). Manual de Psicopatología. Volumen II. Madrid: McGraw-Hill.
  • Brown, Alan S. (2003). «A Review of the Déjà Vu Experience». Psychological Bulletin129 (3): 394-413.
  • García, E. y Salado, J. (1996). La vivencia del tiempo en la psicología normal y en la patológica. Rev. Asoc. Esp. Neuropsiq.. 1996, vol. XVI, n.o 60, pp. 619-626.
  • Moulin, C.J.A.; Conway, M.A.; Thompson, R.G.; James, N.; Jones, R.W. (2005). «Disordered Memory Awareness: Recollective Confabulation in Two Cases of Persistent Déjà vecu». Neuropsychologia (43): 1362-1378.
  • Restrepo, F. L. (1993). Trastornos de la memoria. Iatreia, 6(2): 87-94.

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