Semantic satiation: Why repeating words lose their meaning

Illustration of a person looking confused against a backdrop of repeating words
Jericho Tang/Staff

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Think about the word “word.” Now read the word “word” a few times, so the word “word” is fully ingrained in your mind. This word is an interesting word, don’t you think? It is a word, it is spelled “word” and then is used to explain that a word is a word. You can speak a word, write a word, think a word and use a word in many other ways as well. Now, you have read the word “word” so many times that the word “word” must look a little weird, or even incorrect. 

This occurrence influences many aspects of our life, though we may not realize it. It can influence our ability to come up with ideas, such as contributing to “writer’s block,” or it can happen with songs on the radio, which become frustrating after many repetitions. It can even lead to the waning sentimental meaning of a word — such as “love” or “hate” — when it is overused.

Virtually everyone has experienced this phenomenon, but other than a quick acknowledgement of it, I have never heard it discussed much. However, upon a simple search, one is able to find that this unique experience is called semantic satiation.

Its name comes from Leon James, from McGill University in Canada, who conducted a study in 1962 on this topic for his doctoral dissertation. In the past, discussions of semantic satiation had arisen and other names had been considered, such as reminiscence, lapse of meaning and cortical inhibition.

It has been discovered that semantic satiation is more of a psychological experience than anything else. Normally, when engaging with words, neurons in your brain will fire. Each word causes a specific neural pattern.

As the word is used repeatedly, the neural pattern continues to fire, causing activity in your central neural and peripheral sensorimotor to increase. Simply put, your brain is working very hard to do the same thing over and over again. 

Eventually, you begin to experience reactive inhibition, meaning your brain’s reaction to the word becomes less intense each time it is repeated. Since the normal reaction would be to think of the meaning, this action is inhibited, and we start to become confused about the legitimacy of the word in question.

Though it may seem very scientific, this process is just based on conserving energy. The inhibition happens because your brain, specifically the connections being overused at the moment, becomes tired. Neural activity is what drives our existence, so this is a way to stop processing at a high level of neural fatigue. 

Semantic satiation is somewhat of a linguistic oddity, and the lack of a solution makes it even more so. Nevertheless, it’s exciting to delve into the psychological explanation behind a common phenomenon.

Contact Siena Cohen-Parikh at [email protected].