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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Monday, June 24, 2024

Ask Mr. Scientist, 03/11/12

Dear Mr. Scientist,

Why is it that after repeating a word a lot, it stops sounding like a real word and more like just random sounds?

—Anna D.

Psychologist Leon James named this phenomenon “semantic satiation”. When you say a word, a specific pattern of neurons in the brain are activated which corresponds to the meaning of the word. By repeating the same word over and over, the same neurons are being constantly activated and the activity of the neurons declines with each repetition (an effect known as reactive inhibition). After a while the response from the neurons is so weak that the word ends up sounding like a string of random noises. This effect is only temporary, and after a brief rest the neurons are able to fully respond again, bringing meaning back to the chosen word.


Ask Mr. Scientist is written by Michael Leitch. If you have a science question you would like him to answer, e-mail it to

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