Jamais vu

One of my favorite sections of John Ashbery‘s brilliant “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” describes a very specific but very relatable feeling:

…The picture is almost finished,
The surprise almost over, as when one looks out,
Startled by a snowfall which even now is
Ending in specks and sparkles of snow.
It happened while you were inside, asleep,
And there is no reason why you should have
Been awake for it, except that the day
Is ending and it will be hard for you
To get to sleep tonight, at least until late.

Our emotional lives are shot through with so many feelings that are ineffable except in a roundabout way; we engage with them on the very edge of language. So it was a pleasant surprise a few days ago when I discovered that one strangely familiar feeling (about the unfamiliar) already had a name: jamais vu, which generally describes a sensation “that the familiar is being encountered for the first time.” A kind of opposite to déjà vu, the feeling of jamais vu (literally “never seen”) is one that I have definitely felt regarding all sorts of experiences; I have felt this while reading, entering a new space, or even meeting someone I have encountered before.

Psychology Today published an article by Fredric Neuman, M.D., a few years ago that explored the psychological and anxiety-related aspects of feelings like jamais vu and déjà vu, and, in 2012, Charles Q. Choi, writing in Scientific American, reported on research on several related feelings, such as jamais vu, déjà vu, and déjà entendu, “the feeling of having heard something before.” I’m fascinated by the intersection of neuroscience, language, logic, and emotion, where we all grapple with identifying, naming, and communicating how we are feeling and the thoughts going through our heads.

I plan to write about semantic satiationpresque vu, and a wide variety of linguistic, literary, and general quirks in later posts, but I thought it was appropriate to restart my blogging ambitions with a post inspired by a feeling of the familiar being unfamiliar.

And just for good measure, I will recommend this fantastic book of illustrations of difficult-to-translate words from around the world: Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders.