I was twelve years old, writing an essay for school. I can’t remember the subject matter but it involved writing the word ‘onion’ several times.
At first it made perfect sense. Then it started looking strange. I totally lost the flavour of the meaning of ‘onion’, that deep, instinctive confirmation that I knew exactly what an onion was. The word ‘onion’ became foreign, meaningless. The spelling looked all wrong, a collection of random letters. And it was one of the oddest feelings I’d ever had, rummaging fruitlessly in my brain for information that just didn’t exist any more.
I never forgot the experience.
About semantic satiation
Roll time forward and a recent article in New Scientist solved the mystery of why staring at a word for a long time, or writing it down a few times, transforms it into nonsense. Apparently the matter was first described by science in 1907, when Margaret Washburn and Elizabeth Severance, both psychologists, realised that when you fixate on a printed word for too long, it “will be found to take on a curiously strange and foreign aspect”.
It’s cellular fatigue at work
Scientists have recently pinned down what happens inside the brain to deliver this weird phenomenon. It’s all down to cellular fatigue. When your brain cells fire, they use energy. The brain is perfectly capable of firing a second time almost straight away. But any more than that and it needs a break. When you read or write a word several times in a row, the brain cells you use to establish its meaning, form and all the associations that come with them get tired, and the word stops making sense. The feeling even has a name, ‘semantic satiation’.
Interestingly, some words are more prone than others. Meaningful, emotional words tend to take longer to turn into nonsense because the brain works its way through a raft of completely different associations before getting tired. Less evocative words like ‘onion’ only have the one meaning. Does ‘onion’ look strange yet?
The marketing side of word blindness
There’s a marketing tip hidden in this story. Repeating words doesn’t necessarily help people understand a message. It can do quite the opposite. It’s a better idea to use a different word each time if you possibly can.
Luckily we have alternatives to most words, thanks to English having so many influences: Latin, West Germanic, various Anglo-Frisian dialects, bits and bobs from north west Germany, west Denmark and the Netherlands, plus words with ancient Celtic roots.