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
Leon Jakobovits James coined the phrase "semantic satiation" in his 1962 doctoral dissertation at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. 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.
In popular culture
- 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".
- 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."
- 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".
- 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!'"
- 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 (U.S.), 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."
- In Miranda, Miranda says the words "moist" and "thrust" so many times that she comments on how it starts to "sound weird".
- In The Inbetweeners episode "Exam Time", protagonist Will McKenzie experiences the phenomenon whilst studying for his A Level exams.
- Leon Jakobovits James (April 1962). "Effects of Repeated Stimulation on Cognitive Aspects of Behavior: Some Experiments on the Phenomenon of Semantic Satiation". Retrieved 2012-08-17.
- Dr. Leon James (formerly Leon A. Jakobovits) University of Illinois. "SEMANTIC SATIATION AND COGNITIVE DYNAMICS1".
- "Berenice by Edgar Allan Poe". Online-literature.com. 2007-01-26. Retrieved 2012-08-17.
- James Thurber (August 26, 1933). "MY LIFE AND HARD TIMES-V: MORE ALARMS AT NIGHT". The New Yorker.
- Memorable quotes for "Friends" The One with the Stoned Guy (1995), IMDB.com
- "[2F17] Radioactive Man". Archived from the original on January 20, 2015.
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