Semantic Satiation (Definition + Examples)

Tell me if you’ve ever been in this situation before. You have to repeat a word over and over again, saying the word until it loses meaning. You start to question whether or not that word is even the right word. Are you saying it right? Is it spelled right? Does it actually mean anything? 

This might happen with the simplest words: stop, play, night. Once you get your mind off of the word for a few minutes, you automatically remember its meaning and spelling as if nothing happened. 

This psychological phenomenon is called semantic satiation.

What Is Semantic Satiation?  

Semantic satiation is the phenomenon that occurs when simple words, repeated over and over again, feel foreign and strange, despite being an everyday part of your vocabulary. Semantic satiation is totally normal, even if it is totally weird in the moment. 

This Phenomenon Has Been Around For a Long Time 

You’re not the first person to notice that repeating a word over and over can make it feel strange or funky for a short period of time. Semantic satiation was actually first written about in 1907! 

Here’s what E. Severance and M.F. Washburn had to say back then

“If a printed word is looked at steadily for some little 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.”

At the time, this crazy concept didn’t have a name. It wasn’t until the 1960s that psychologists gave it the name “semantic satiation.” Leon James is credited with giving semantic satiation its name. 

Semantic Satiation Example

Write down the word “sweat” 50 times. Say it in your head every time. I’m sure, by the 50th time, you’ll find yourself questioning whether that word is the right word, even though you have written it down dozens of times. The word looks completely foreign! This is semantic satiation.

This Reddit post contains a tweet from the Ted Lasso account that shows semantic satiation happening in real time!

How Does Semantic Satiation Work?

Before we go into the definition of Semantic Satiation, let’s break down what both of these words mean. Semantic means “relating to meaning in language or topic.” Satiation, similar to saturation, occurs when something becomes too full, repeated, or dense. When a word is repeated over and over in your mind, you begin to lose the meaning of that word.

But why does this happen in the first place? 

To put it simply, our brain becomes tired over time, so it takes longer for us to dredge up the meaning of the word. 

The Other Terms for Semantic Satiation

 Some psychologists refer to semantic satiation as semantic saturation or verbal satiation. This process is also known as reactive inhibition.

Let’s use the word “broom.” You read the word, “broom” once, and your brain cells fire. More specifically, your brain undergoes peripheral sensorimotor activity and central neural activation. You gather the meaning of the word and move on. But what if you read broom broom broom broom broom? The second time that your brain sees the word “broom,” the brain cells take a little longer to fire. The third time, they’re slower. The fourth, fifth, or sixth time? Forget about it. Your brain is exhausted by responding to the same stimulus over and over and over again. 

Your brain simply refuses to process the word the fifth, or sixth, or seventh time, leaving you hanging. That’s why you end up all confused and jumbled over a word that you have definitely committed to your long-term memory. Wait a few seconds, look at something else, and you’ll be back to normal. 

What Causes Semantic Satiation With Small Words?

It’s easy for semantic satiation to happen when you’re looking at a one-syllable, simple word like “broom.” There is a reason for this. When longer or more dramatic words come under your radar, your mind isn’t stopping at that word alone. Let’s say you come across the word “celebration.” Instead of stopping at the initial meaning of the word, your brain might immediately associate the word with other words. Your brain starts to think of fireworks, birthday parties, or milestone events automatically. There is less of a chance that your brain will become saturated with these longer, more dramatic words. 

A Similar Process Happens With Smells 

Our brains undergo a similar type of fatigue when it comes to smelling the same smells over and over again. You can’t usually smell your house. You can’t usually smell yourself. Studies show that olfactory sensors simply don’t send signals to your brain to be processed or focused on after a while. You simply get tired of smelling the same thing over and over again, so you stop altogether. 

Be Careful While Writing

This phenomenon is a good reminder to use a more varied, colorful vocabulary when writing or communicating with others. If you find yourself using the same term over and over and over again, your readers may very quickly find themselves in a state of semantic satiation. Be careful with the words you choose. Choose words that will continue to have meaning, both when the reader first encounters it, and throughout the rest of your paragraph, page, or story.

Using This Process for Good 

Psychologists haven’t just identified semantic satiation as a phenomenon and called it a day. Back in the 60s, when the concept was first given the name “semantic satiation,” it was used to treat various conditions, including stutters and extreme phobias. Certain therapies, for example, use repetition as a way to expose patients to their worst fears. Eventually, those fears become normalized. Facing the same concept, word, or event again and again may take away its meaning, and therefore, its power. 

Semantic sanitation should be considered in much larger questions of psychology about repetition, working memory, and how the brain interacts with different stimuli. If it can be used to tackle problems like stutters or fears, who knows what else it can do for the mind! 

I’ll wrap up this article now, before the term “semantic satiation” begins to lose its meaning!

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.