Here’s a challenge: repeat the word “brain” over and over and over and over and…you get picture. After a while, doesn’t it just sound like a random noise? B-r-a-i-n. What a weird word—is it even a word? That transformation from word to non-word, whether via reading or saying it, happens because of a tendency known as semantic satiation.
Wait—What’s A Brain?
This phenomenon was first described, albeit by a different name, in 1907 by Elizabeth Severance and Margaret Floy Washburn in The American Journal of Psychology: “If a printed word is looked at steadily for some time, it will be found to take on a curiously strange and foreign aspect. This loss of familiarity in its appearance sometimes makes it look like a word in another language, sometimes proceeds further until the word is a mere collection of letters, and occasionally reaches the extreme where the letters themselves look like meaningless marks on the paper.” The authors went on to describe the changes their study subjects experienced as they stared at individual words. Most took less than three minutes before the words looked like a collection of meaningless letters.
The term “semantic satiation” wasn’t coined until 1962, when Leon James (formerly Jakobovits), now a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii, wrote his doctoral thesis on the phenomenon. James tells Mental Floss that what’s happening is “reactive inhibition,” or a type of brain-cell fatigue. “When a brain cell fires,” he says, “it takes more energy to fire the second time, and still more the third time, and finally the fourth time it won’t even respond unless you wait a few seconds.” What’s more, when you say or read a word, you’re also recalling its meaning—that takes energy. The more times you repeat a word, the more energy it takes. So, eventually, your brain starts resisting. James explains that you can experience semantic satiation with any word, but some will lose their meaning faster than others. Words with greater associations—such as “explosion”— will turn into brain mush less quickly.
Semantic Satiation In The Real World, World, World
Semantic satiation sounds like a bad thing, but it can be used for good. Songwriters will sometimes repeat a word over and over to purposely trigger this effect, for example. Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis of the music cognition lab at University of Arkansas writes in Aeon, “The simple act of repetition makes a new way of listening possible, a more direct confrontation with the sensory attributes of the word itself.” Hear someone sing “baby” enough times, and it stops being a word and starts being a musical motif.
James has experimented with this phenomenon as a therapy for stuttering, though the results weren’t entirely successful. It’s also related to why companies would rather you not use their brand name for a product to refer to all products like it (think Kleenex, Band-Aid, and even Jacuzzi). Not only can a brand name lose its trademark through common use, but it also dims its sparkle—after a while, it just becomes a meaningless word.