It’s a bizarre scourge that affects editors and writers, casual readers, and just about anyone who ponders a word for an extended period of time. Look at the word Flower. Flower. Flowers. The flower in The Field. The flower in the grass. Flower. Flower. Flower.
… flower ?!
Has the word dissolved before your eyes? Becoming strange, incomprehensible, or a meaningless sequence of letters? If so, what just happened to you is nothing new. The phenomenon was first described in The American Journal of Psychology in 1907:
“If a printed word is looked at steadily for some time, it will take on a strangely strange and strange aspect. This loss of familiarity in its appearance sometimes makes it look like a word in another language, sometimes goes on until the word is a mere collection of letters, and occasionally reaches the extreme where the letters themselves look like meaningless markings on paper . “
Or, as Urban Dictionary succinctly describes the situation: “If you say a word that often, it sounds weird.”
Over the years this intellectual literary failure has taken many names: Acceptance, die out, reminiscence, verbal transformation. But the most famous and recognized term is semantic saturation.
Leon James, professor of psychology in the College of Social Sciences at the University of Hawaii, coined the term in 1962. In James’ dissertation on the subject at McGill University, he conducted various experiments to investigate how the concept affects thinking .
“It’s kind of tired,” says James. “It’s called reactive inhibition: When a brain cell fires, it takes more energy to fire the second time, and even more the third time, and eventually it doesn’t even react the fourth time unless you wait a few seconds. This type of reactive inhibition, known as acting on brain cells, got me to the idea that when you repeat a word, the meaning of the word is repeated over and over and then it becomes refractory or more resistant to being triggered over and over . “
According to James, any word can fall victim to semantic saturation, but the amount of time before words lose meaning can vary. For example, think of words that evoke strong dramatic connotations or emotions explosion– The saturation effect seems to be missing as your brain focuses on and goes through other associations with the word, reducing an otherwise quick path to confusion. And when the stimulus is presented over and over again, you become more resistant to the stimuli. James recalled an early study that depicted a sleeping cat with a sound. The cat woke up immediately. But as they kept playing the note, each time it took the cat a little longer to wake up before it just went back to sleep. But when the tone was varied slightly, the cat immediately jumped into action.
Over the years, James’ work has also shown that semantic saturation is more than just a confusing plight for readers. An experiment he conducted was to investigate whether semantic saturation can be used to reduce stuttering. James had an assistant on the phone who called a study participant who stuttered – creating a situation intended to increase fear of the subject because verbal cues and other personal elements cannot be used to aid communication – and for a minute spoke. Ten minutes later, the assistant called again for another minute. The assistant repeated the cycle a total of 10 times throughout the day. James says the goal was to give the stuttering participant a semantic saturation related to the emotion of the stress-inducing phone call. And he says it worked.
James also explored music. He studied pop charts and found that the songs that made it to the charts the fastest – and thus received the most concentrated airtime – left the charts the quickest overall. The songs that slowly topped the charts went out just as slowly and pale in comparison to the burnout.
But why do we like to hear a song more than once? To delve deeper into the notion of semantic saturation in music, consider the choir. As Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas, continues aeonSemantic saturation plays a key role in song lyrics. By repeating refrains, the words and phrases become “saturated” and lose their meaning – and no longer really register as words.
“The simple act of repetition enables a new way of listening, a more direct confrontation with the sensory properties of the word itself,” writes Margulis. “This is exactly how repetition works in music to create the nuanced, expressive elements of sound becoming increasingly available, making a participatory tendency – a tendency to move or sing along – more irresistible. “
While James has since turned to other topics, semantic saturation is still analyzed in various disciplines today. Artists have explored the concept. Semantic Satiation’s curious (but sadly deceased) Twitter bot tweeted about it. Thanks to the concept, marketers are rethinking their sales tricks. A current example is “Black Friday Malady”. Thanks to overuse, “Black Friday” is no longer the valuable catch it once was. We’ve repeated it so many times that it’s now as fuzzy as the packs of generic Wal-Mart cream cheese you storm past to argue over a half price vegetable steamer at 3 a.m.
Yes, the phenomenon is strange. But stranger things happened. Finally, remember that this is a real grammatically correct sentence: “buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.” Just say it before semantic saturation sets in.