Have you ever thought of a word or phrase but after repeating it so many times, it doesn’t feel like a word anymore? That weird feeling is an example of the psychological phenomenon, semantic satiation.
Every time you repeat a word, like “curtain,” an associated node in the brain, or an area in the brain that processes the word “curtain” activates. At first, your brain will process “curtain” correctly for the first few times, but if you keep thinking or saying “curtain,” you are forcing the same node to keep working to process “curtain,” which can tire the node, especially because each successive time you think of “curtain,” the node takes more energy to fire. Thus, you can’t process or understand the word later. This fatigue and lack of accurate processing later is called reactive inhibition.
Repeating the same word can even make you forget the meanings of related words like “window,” “blind,” or “wall.” This phenomenon has been shown through a 1990 study where an experimental group of participants were asked to satiate or repeat a word representing a category, like “furniture” thirty times, while the control group only repeated “furniture” three times. Afterwards, the experimental group had slower times reacting to whether “chair” and “table” were words belonging to the same category. This is because the experimental group could not access the node in their brains that processed the word “furniture,” so they could not understand that “chair” and “table” are both examples of furniture as quickly.
As a related warning, although repetition is helpful to learning or studying, the next time you prepare for a test, don’t cram all the information in because the concepts might not make sense after repeating so many times. Give yourself a break and the words or concepts will make much more sense later!