Words Lose Their Meaning If You Repeat Them Over and Over

Scientists believe this has significant repercussions on our lives.

Younes Henni, PhD
3 min readOct 12, 2021
Photo by Headway on Unsplash

Pick a word. For example, “strange”, or “excellent”, or “great”. Any word. Close your eyes. Then say that word out loud many, many times over (best to warn anyone nearby lest they think you’re possessed).

Notice something? After repeating a word a few times, it starts to lose its meaning. It just becomes an abstract sound.

According to neuroscientists, we all share this brain glitch. The scientific name of this phenomenon is “semantic satiation”.

Semantic satiation occurs due to how the brain works. When you hear words, neurons fire in the brain to retrieve their meaning. Every word triggers a specific neural circuit. So “apples” would trigger a particular neural circuit, “oranges” another.

After firing once, it takes more energy to fire the same circuit a second time. It takes even more energy a third time. After a few repetitions, that neural circuit tires completely and stop firing. The word you hear no longer make sense.

Semantic satiation is not limited to humans. Other animals suffer from it as well. In a famous study (and sadly a bit cruel), researchers played a loud tone to a sleeping cat. The cat was startled and became immediately alert.

The researchers played the loud sound every time the cat fell asleep, again and again. And each time, the cat’s reaction was a little more subdued. After many reps, the cat hardly reacted at all.

But then, the researchers altered the tone a tiny bit. Results? The cat jumped like it was hearing it for the first time.

The science is clear: Words (or, more precisely, sounds) lose meaning through repetition. The more you’re exposed to a set of words, the more insensitive to them you become.

  • Investors and venture capitalists suffer semantic satiation the most. They hear words like “disruptive, cutting-edge, unique” all the time.
  • Advertisers fall into this trap as well. ‘Our product is “unique”, we offer the “best solution”’.
  • Recruiters almost always open a conversation with: “Hey Jane, I’ve got an amazing opportunity ….” If you’ve been hanging around LinkedIn lately, you probably are immune to this hook by now.
  • Medium is saturated with “Habits, Money, Happiness, Success” articles. Personally, my mind went comatose to such headlines a long time ago.
  • Even in relationships, do you think the phrase “I love you …” is immune to semantic satiation? I think not.

Ask yourself, when was the last time you truly felt the meaning behind such big words.

Can you imagine if someone says: “This is a boring job, with the lowest pay ever. But …” Or picture an ad saying, “Our product is mediocre. However, …” Such openings would certainly capture my attention and yours.

Words like “mediocre” and “boring” are rare breeds in the context of attention-grabbing and social media. Brain circuits associated with such arcane terminologies are fresh. As a result, listeners would be very attentive to what’s coming.

We need semantic satiation. Without it, our brains are unable to filter out all the noise. As a result, the world would be a much more confusing place.

Still, semantic satiation weakens your message. And this causes all kinds of problems.

  • It can make us insensitive to the suffering of others.
  • It can lead to group miscommunications or relationship misunderstandings.
  • It can even cause conflicts between governments.

If you’re drafting a policy, pitching a product or a service, promoting a charity, or simply speaking to a loved one, mind your vocabulary.

Perhaps an unusual choice of terms — a minor tweak here and there — is what you need to grab your audience attention and pump your odds of getting heard.



Younes Henni, PhD

Physicist • Soft Dev • ☕ Junkie • I bring you the latest in science, tech, health, economics & personal growth. To read all: https://youneshenni.substack.com/