Semantic satiation

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Semantic satiation (also semantic saturation) is a psychological phenomenon in which repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who then perceives the speech as repeated meaningless sounds.

History and research[edit]

Leon Jakobovits James coined the phrase "semantic satiation" in his 1962 doctoral dissertation at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.[1] Prior to that, the expression "verbal satiation" had been used along with terms that express the idea of mental fatigue. The dissertation listed many of the names others had used for the phenomenon:

Many other names have been used for what appears to be essentially the same process: inhibition (Herbert, 1824, in Boring, 1950), refractory phase and mental fatigue (Dodge, 1917; 1926a), lapse of meaning (Bassett and Warne, 1919), work decrement (Robinson and Bills, 1926), cortical inhibition (Pavlov, 192?), adaptation (Gibson, 1937), extinction (Hilgard and Marquis, 1940), satiation (Kohler and Wallach, 1940), reactive inhibition (Hull, 1913 [sic]), stimulus satiation (Glanzer, 1953), reminiscence (Eysenck, 1956), verbal satiation (Smith and Raygor, 1956), and verbal transformation (Warren, 1961b).

— From Leon Jakobovits James, 1962

The dissertation presents several experiments that demonstrate the operation of the semantic satiation effect in various cognitive tasks such as rating words and figures that are presented repeatedly in a short time, verbally repeating words then grouping them into concepts, adding numbers after repeating them out loud, and bilingual translations of words repeated in one of the two languages. In each case subjects would repeat a word or number for several seconds, then perform the cognitive task using that word. It was demonstrated that repeating a word prior to its use in a task made the task somewhat more difficult.

The explanation for the phenomenon is that, in the cortex, verbal repetition repeatedly arouses a specific neural pattern that corresponds to the meaning of the word. Rapid repetition makes both the peripheral sensorimotor activity and central neural activation fire repeatedly. This is known to cause reactive inhibition, hence a reduction in the intensity of the activity with each repetition. Jakobovits James (1962) calls this conclusion the beginning of "experimental neurosemantics."


An application has been developed to reduce speech anxiety by stutterers by creating semantic satiation through repetition, thus reducing the intensity of negative emotions triggered during speech.[2]

In popular culture[edit]

  • In Edgar Allan Poe's 1835 short story Berenice, the protagonist describes a mental state that induced him "to repeat, monotonously, some common word, until the sound, by dint of frequent repetition, ceased to convey any idea whatever to the mind".[3]
  • In James Thurber's 1933 short story More Alarms At Night, Thurber describes the phenomenon as follows: "I began to indulge in the wildest fancies as I lay there in the dark, such as that there was no such town, and even that there was no such state as New Jersey. I fell to repeating the word 'Jersey' over and over again, until it became idiotic and meaningless. If you have ever lain awake at night and repeated one word over and over, thousands and millions and hundreds of thousands of millions of times, you know the disturbing mental state you can get into."[4]
  • In the Friends episode "The One with the Stoned Guy", the character referenced in the title repeats the word "tartlets" until he notes that it has "lost all meaning".[5]
  • Semantic satiation is used extensively in Tony Burgess's novel Pontypool Changes Everything, as well as in the film adaptation of the novel.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Radioactive Man", Milhouse Van Houten tells Bart Simpson that "making movies is so horribly repetitive; I've said 'jiminy jillikers!' so many times the words have lost all meaning!'"[6]
  • In How I Met Your Mother, Ted repeats the word "bowl" until it loses meaning.
  • In King of Queens, Doug hears the word "balmy" on the radio weather forecast and repeats it until it loses its meaning: "balmy, balmy, balmy-balmy, balmy, b-b-balmy, balmy, balmy. dammit i said it too much it has no meaning!"
  • In The Office, Holly Flax says to the camera, "We’re gonna be just fine. You know how you say something over and over and the words start sounding weird? Going to be just fine. Going to be just fine. Just fine. Just fine."

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Dodge, R. "The laws of relative fatigue". Psychol. Rev. 1917 (24): 89–113. doi:10.1037/h0075549. 
  • Don, V.J.; Weld, H.P. "Lapse of meaning with visual fixation". American Journal of Psychology 1924 (35): 446–450. doi:10.2307/1414024. 
  • Duncan, C.P. "On the similarity between reactive inhibition and neural satiation". American Journal of Psychology 1956 (69): 227–235. doi:10.2307/1418151. 
  • Eysenck, H.J. "Cortical inhibition, figural after-effect, and theory of personality". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 1955 (51): 94–106. doi:10.1037/h0043564. 
  • Gaynor, Miriam (1954). "An effect of satiation on recall". New York: New School for Social Research  Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation.
  • Severance, Elisabeth; Washburn, Margaret. "The loss of associative power in words after long fixation". American Journal of Psychology 1907 (18): 182–186. doi:10.2307/1412411. 
  • Smith, D.E. P.; Raygor, A.L. "Verbal satiation and personality". J. Abnrom, soc. Psychol. 1956 (52): 323–326. 
  • Warren, R.M. "Illusory changes in repeated words: Differences between young adults and the aged". American Journal of Psychology. 1961a (74): 506–516. doi:10.2307/1419661. 
  • Warren, R.M. "Illusory changes of distinct speech upon repetition—the verbal transformation effect". Brit. J. Psychol. 1961b (52): 249–258. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8295.1961.tb00787.x. 
  • Wertheimer, M. (1960). F. Weinhandl, ed. "Studies of some Gestalt qualities of words". In Gestalthaftes sehen: Ergebnisse und Aufgaben der Morphologie (Darmstadt, Germany): Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. 
  • Wertheimer, M. "The relation between the sound of a word and its meaning". American Journal of Psychology 1958 (71): 412–415. doi:10.2307/1420089. 
  • Lambert, W.E.; Jakobovits, L.A. (1960). "Verbal satiation and changes in the intensity of meaning". Journal of Experimental Psychology 1960 (60): 376–83. doi:10.1037/h0045624. PMID 13758466. 
  • Jakobovits, L.A.; Lambert, W.E. (1961). "Semantic satiation among bilinguals". Journal of Experimental Psychology 1961 (62): 576–82. doi:10.1037/h0042860. PMID 14450947. 
  • Jakobovits, L.A.; Lambert, W.E. "Semantic satiation in an addition task". Canadian Journal of Psychology 1962 (16): 112–19. doi:10.1037/h0083238. 
  • Jakobovits, L.A.; Lambert, W.E. (1962). "Mediated satiation in verbal transfer". Journal of Experimental Psychology 1962 (64): 346–51. doi:10.1037/h0044630. PMID 14450946. 
  • Jakobovits, L.A.; Lambert, W.E. (1963). L. Arons; M.A. May, eds. The effects of repetition in communication on meanings and attitudes. Television and Human Behavior (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts). pp. 167–76 
  • Messer, S., Jakobovits, L.A., Kanungo, R., and Lambert, W.E. (1964). "Semantic satiation of words and numbers". British Journal of Psychology 1964 (55): 155–63. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8295.1964.tb02715.x. PMID 14168480. 
  • Jakobovits, L.A.; Lambert, W.E. "Stimulus-characteristics as determinants of semantic changes with repeated presentation". American Journal of Psychology 1964 (77): 84–92. doi:10.2307/1419274. 
  • Jakobovits, L.A. (1965). "Semantic satiation in concept formation". Psychological Reports 1965 (17): 113–14. doi:10.2466/pr0.1965.17.1.113. PMID 5826453. 
  • Jakobovits, L.A. (1965). "Repetition of auditorily presented information". Psychological Reports 1965 (17): 785–86. doi:10.2466/pr0.1965.17.3.785. PMID 5854255. 
  • Jakobovits, L.A. "Utilization of semantic satiation in stuttering: A theoretical analysis". Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders 1966 (31): 105–114. doi:10.1044/jshd.3102.105. 
  • Jakobovits, L.A. "Studies of fads: I. The 'Hit Parade.'". Psychological Reports 1966 (18): 443–50. doi:10.2466/pr0.1966.18.2.443. 
  • Jakobovits, L.A. "Semantic satiation and cognitive dynamics". Journal of Special Education 1967 (2): 35–44. doi:10.1177/002246696700200103. 
  • Jakobovits, L.A.; Hogenraad, Robert. "Some suggestive evidence on the operation of semantic generation and satiation in group discussions". Psychological Reports 1967 (20): 1247–1250. doi:10.2466/pr0.1967.20.3c.1247. 
  • Jakobovits, L.A. (1967). "Words, words, words". In L. Kuppuswami, Modern Trends in Psychology (Bombay: Manaktala & Sons) 
  • Jakobovits, L.A.; Lambert, W.E. "A note on the measurement of semantic satiation". Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 1967 (6): 954–57. doi:10.1016/s0022-5371(67)80165-8. 
  • Jakobovits, L.A.; Hogenraad, Robert. "Le phénomène de la satiation semantique". Bulletin de Psychologie 1968 (22): 140–9. 
  • John Kounios; Sonja I. Kotz; Phillip J. Holcomb. "On the Locus of the Semantic Satiation Effect: Evidence from Event-Related Brain Potentials.".