Award for study into the the the the strange feeling of finding words unfamiliar

Thursday 14 September 2023

A study into the phenomenon of looking at a familiar word until it seems strange has won an award celebrating unusual achievements in scientific research.

A team of international researchers, including two from the University of St Andrews’ School of Psychology and Neuroscience, described the experience as ‘jamais vu’ and the resulting paper has won the 2023 Ig Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded by the Annals of Improbable Research and celebrate unusual, novel or imaginative projects that spur people’s interest in science, medicine and technology.

The winning paper was entitled ‘The the the the induction of jamais vu in the laboratory: word alienation and semantic satiation’, and was published in the journal Memory.

First author, Chris Moulin, from the Université Grenoble Alpes, collaborated on the work with several researchers including Nicole Bell, who worked on the study as part of her Honours project at St Andrews, and Dr Akira O’Connor from St Andrews’ School of Psychology and Neuroscience.

Participants in the experiment repeatedly copied words until they felt peculiar, until they had completed the task, or until they had another reason to stop. Participants reported feeling peculiar after about 30 repetitions, or one minute. The researchers described these experiences as ‘jamais vu’.

Dr O’Connor said: “Jamais vu is the strange feeling of finding something unfamiliar or peculiar when we know it should be familiar.

“We asked people to write out words over and over to see if they would experience this feeling by doing this. Across two experiments, around two thirds of our participants experienced this feeling. It is noteworthy because jamais vu is often referred to as a dissociative experience – one that results from the breaking down of aspects of our conscience experience that normally work seamlessly together.

“In this case, there is something about repeatedly encountering the same word that causes your awareness of that word being a proper word to remain unchanged, whilst your subjective experience of encountering that word starts to go a little ‘off’.

“As psychologists, we are used to reading about dissociative experiences being caused by neurological problems, such as brain injuries, so to have a procedure that can reliably generate this sort of dissociative experience in healthy people is nice.

“I think that’s why the Ig Nobel Committee thought it was worth highlighting with their prize. I do hope it is something that does make people who hear about the work think a little bit, and maybe even try it themselves.”

Issed by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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