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17 October 2007

Jamais Vu - The Reality You Have Never Seen Before

In our crazier moments, many of us doubt that the world is real. Have you ever had that feeling? Have you ever been going along your daily routine and then suddenly you stop, look around and wonder how the heck you got there? You might wonder whose life you’ve been walking around in. It’s like the opposite of déjà vu – you feel like you’re somewhere that you’ve never been before.

Psychologists call this phenomenon jamais vu (literally translated from French as “never seen”, when the familiar seems new or strange). In a moment like this you’re like the narrator of the Talking Heads song “Once In a Lifetime”, thinking things like “This is not my beautiful house!”

While this hasn’t happened to me in recent memory, at times I will suddenly stop, look around, and think “What am I doing here? This is so bizarre!” I feel like I’ve suddenly been dropped inside someone else’s head. Fortunately this has always been a fleeting sensation.

However, another time that I experience jamais vu, or something similar, is when I think about eyesight. If you’ve ever seen the movie Being John Malkovich, you’ll remember that some of the main characters found a secret room that allowed them to temporarily enter Malkovich’s mind and experience his thoughts, feelings, and other sensations. The camera’s point-of-view would change so that it seemed that we were looking through Malkovich’s eyes and seeing what he would see. That was the
first time that I had watched a movie that came close to providing the sensation of using my eyes to see things in my environment.

Science tells us that our eyes receive sensory data and translate it into vision. This allows us to perceive the objects around us, including ourselves, in the form of images. On one hand, vision appears to be a purely mechanical or biological process. However, everything that we experience is the result of the interpretation of that data, which is a major factor in helping to structure a sense of identity and personality over time. So, from a certain perspective, the Uncanny Broadcasting Brain, as I sometimes think of myself, is the product of all of these processes. My senses are translating data so that I can make sense of the world around me. If I am ultimately defined by what I experience, then this particular result of ongoing chemical reactions (myself, for those who I may be confusing with this abstract line of thought) is a pretty interesting, but oddly self-aware physical process.

I don’t know about you, but I find this idea a bit hard to accept. To me, it implies consciousness is pretty darned mechanical. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. Does this “consciousness” make me more special and interesting than, say, oxidation, radioactive decay, or combustion?

Maybe I’m vain or self-conscious (pretty gifted for a chemical reaction, no?), but I’d like to think that I am more than that. I’d like to think that I am an entity that is more than the sum of my component atoms, just like every other person in this world. I would like to think that consciousness is something more substantial than a bunch of electrical patterns and chemical reactions. Is that how we really think of ourselves, as something akin to programs and other data in computer
memory? Or do we think of our consciousness as a kind of entity living behind our eyes and between our ears?

I used to worry that I was experiencing a delusion during those moments when I suddenly had that feeling of jamais vu. But watching Being John Malkovich, and seeing the world through another person’s eyes (although simulated by camera angles) helped me to discredit that idea. It helped to convince me that other people experience the world in the same way using their own eyes and, in a silly but comforting way, reassured me that everyone else experiences the world like I do.

I still don’t know if “I” am just an electrical pattern. I’ll probably never know for certain. For now, I will cling to my belief, even if a sentient chemical reaction does make more sense after all.

This article was written by Mark Dykeman from The Uncanny Broadcasting Brain. Mark broadcasts live from his brain several times a week where you can "catch the brainwave" and join his thoughts and ideas. Thumbnail image credit. If you are interested in contributing to the thinking process and become a guest writer on The Thinking Blog, find out more information here and be my guest!

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