Thursday, July 27, 2006

Jamais vu

The opposite of déjà vu is jamais vu, literally 'never seen'. It's the phenomenon whereby things are at once familiar and unfamiliar. The former morphs into the latter as exposure to a known stimulus is repeated again and again. Type out the word 'again' one hundred times, and you will have experienced jamais vu first hand.

This phenomenon has been studied extensively by Chris Moulin at the University of Leeds, in the hope that it will help to understand certain psychiatric disorders that relate to schizophrenia and Capgras delusion.

Cognitive neuropsychiatry aside, the term seems like it may also be an appropriate designation for those old familiar feelings of fear and uneasiness that creep into one's psyche in the dead of night, loosening their grip ever so slowly as the light of day emerges, and only fully retreating when the day has taken hold of your life, or rather, when your life has taken hold of the day. What I mean is, why do we get so afraid of things that we have faced hundreds and thousands of times before? Most of the time we know what to expect and we can visualize what we are going to imminently experience, but the element of the unknown nevertheless trumps that of the known while in the recumbent position. I would think that insomnia may intensify these angsty late night/early morning sojourns, but even the fleeting consciousness associated with turning over in bed or grabbing a nocturnal drink of water from the glass on the night table has left me grappling with worrisome thoughts that thwart swift return to somnolence. Why should unknown knowns be so frightening?

I venture to posit that the answer may be that we revert to some childlike vulnerability when we go to bed and sleep all those hours in the effort to renew ourselves. We retreat from life and become unencumbered by the restrictions that it imposes while we are conscious. It is a time to be free and a place to be safe. Once the hours start to steal away the night, we have to re-adapt to the idea of how we fit into the outside world, and how do we make the transition from horizontal to vertical without falling down? Man, that is some scary.

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