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A Theory of Deja Vu and Jamais Vu

Disorders of perception grow out of odd emotional states.

Every once in a while, for no obvious reason, some people experience distortions of perception. Some of these are named.

Depersonalization, for example, is a sudden sense of disorientation—a queer feeling of not being oneself. It is as if the affected person cannot quite recognize himself/herself. It may involve physical feelings, but may be reported only as an unfamiliar and uncomfortable state of mind. De-realization is a feeling that the world around one has suddenly changed in character—become less real.

Both feelings, as people describe them, seem similar. Some people experience these sensations as curious, but not particularly threatening. Others report them as unpleasant, sometimes extremely unpleasant. Yet they sound not very much different from those sensations that other people seek out when they use hallucinogens. It may be that those who do not purposely seek these uncanny feelings become frightened by them. Depersonalization and de-realization are occasional features of schizophrenia, but also, more commonly, anxiety states.

These odd sensations seem to exist in some kind of subtle place between a physical sensation and an emotional state of mind. They are feelings without precipitating thoughts. They are subtle changes in mood without cause.

Perhaps these sensations are not so unusual. We often speak of not “feeling like” ourselves. Sometimes, we experience subtle changes in mood for no apparent reason.

Take ennui. Ennui is a condition of lassitude or boredom, but something more (or less). It may come on suddenly. It is a feeling of tiredness or lack of interest. It is subtly different from ordinary boredom. A feeling of “world-weariness” is somewhat similar too, but just a little different, implying that the state of lassitude is a result of too many encounters with others.

These feelings come and go with no clear precipitant. There are very many subtle changes of mood and perception which have not been given a name. I make fun of our wish to get our heads around some of these odd feelings in a book I wrote, called Come One, Come All, in which someone who purports to come from the future defines some new terms.


“Flacier. That’s just an expression. It means, uh… sort of a feeling of resignation, shading slowly into ennui. It’s a… well, it’s the sort of feeling you get when the last rays of a sunset are leaving the nearby hills, and there’s a violin trio playing somewhere.”

Or, “Sequined balloons.”

“There were sequined balloons?”

“That’s just an expression. It means, sort of…well, like you’re at a carnival with the sounds of a merry-go-round audible behind you, and fireworks going off in the sky. And the girl in your arms turns to you with a smile after you win a stuffed animal throwing a baseball through a hoop.”

There are very many, very specific, unnamed feelings that color our moment-to-moment experience of life. I think these shifting, very subtle, feelings explain the sense of déjà vu and jamais vu that suddenly strike certain individuals from time to time.

Déjà vu is the sensation that a place or event someone is currently experiencing has been experienced before, even when that cannot actually be the case. Someone turns a corner in a strange city and has the overwhelming feeling that he/she has been there before. The sensation is so powerful that people imagine they have been there in a previous lifetime. Jamais vu is sort of the opposite. Someone comes home, or walks through a familiar neighborhood, and has the sense that everything around him/her is strange and unfamiliar. This is how I think these feelings come about:

Imagine a very specific situation. A young man lies down to take a nap. A breeze is stirring through a half-opened window, billowing the lace curtains. The sound of someone practicing an instrument can be heard through the window along with the noises of kids playing a ball game. There is a smell of muffins cooking in the next room. Imagine, also, that the young man knows his mother will wake him after a half hour or so. He is expecting then to greet his father who is coming home from a trip. How can we describe the feeling that young man has? It is tinged with melancholy, sleepiness, hunger, perhaps, anticipation, and other even vaguer emotions—feelings that have no name. But that exact overall feeling, indescribable though it may be, is memorable.

Now imagine that same man, no longer young, as he sits in a park in a strange city. There is a soft breeze blowing and the sounds of a musical instrument being played in the park along with the noises of kids playing ball a few blocks away. There is a stand nearby selling pastries. He is waiting to meet his fiancé. Suddenly, he is overcome by a sense of déjà vu.

The place seems strangely, impossibly, familiar, but it is really the feeling that is familiar. He experiences the sense of familiarity and explains it to himself as emanating from the place itself. I think that the sudden return of a very exact memory—usually, an unconscious memory—accounts for the feeling of déjà vu. Such a feeling occurs rarely in our lives because the exact sensation people have moment by moment is hardly ever exactly the same in the next moment. Our lives are myriad complex sensations made up of different smells, and sights, and thoughts, and memories, and very particular physical feelings. They are so very many of these very distinctive feelings, they must recur exactly very rarely. At least, that is my guess.

Imagine this same not-so-young man coming home suddenly. It is evening. There is no one to greet him. His mother has died. His father has not been home for a year, and so the house is unheated.

There is a distant sound of neighbors arguing. Suddenly he has a feeling of jamais vu. He has a complicated, jumbled feeling, perhaps part disappointment, perhaps a kind of emptiness and loneliness, perhaps much more than that. He never felt just this way before in his home. His home seems suddenly to be a different place than the one he grew up in. But the place is the same. The furniture is the same. They are in the same place. Yet, everything feels unfamiliar. It is because his accustomed feelings are not there.

If this speculation is true, how do déjà vu and jamais vu relate to depersonalization and de-realization? I think depersonalization and de-realization are variants of jamais vu. Ordinary people experience these feelings as curious, even as vaguely interesting. Anxious people are hyper-alert to any strange sensation—and such sensations are interpreted as threatening or abnormal. They may interpret other feelings the same way. A panic attack is an expression of a frightened feeling, the elements of which themselves become frightening to an anxious person. A fast heartbeat and the wish to take a deep breath are frightening, however normal these feelings might seem to other people.

There is one other context where a similar feeling might be interpreted differently by different people. The postpartum period is difficult for every mother. A newborn baby sleeps little and may be hard to comfort. Some women mention to me in an exasperated (but not frightened) manner that at 4 a.m., they “feel like killing the kid.” It is an understandable feeling to them; and it does not embarrass or concern them. However, there are others who feel terribly guilty and ashamed of the exact same thought. They think it is just barely possible that they will injure their child. These concerns are a typical element of postpartum depression.

In these various cases, it is not so much the strange feeling that is abnormal; it is the individuals' responses to that feeling.

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(c) Fredric Neuman