Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Jiminy Jillikers and Semantic Satiation

There's a fantastic episode of The Simpsons called "Radioactive Man" in which a film adaptation of the superhero comic Radioactive Man is being made in the town of Springfield. In the episode, Bart's friend Milhouse is cast as Radioactive Man's sidekick, Fallout Boy.

The episode covers how Milhouse deals with being a movie star, and how it isn't as cool as he thought it would be. After being forced to record each scene multiple times and say Fallout Boy's catchphrase "jiminy jillikers" hundreds of times, Milhouse retorts, "making movies is so horribly repetitive; I've said 'jiminy jillikers!' so many times the words have lost all meaning!"

Try saying "flower" 100 times...
Of course, "jiminy jillikers" is a fictional expression and has no meaning. However, the phenomenon Milhouse is referring to is very real, and is called semantic satiation. This is when a word is repeated so many times that you no longer understand it to have any meaning, and instead just imagine the word as meaningless sounds, nonsense, gibberish, etc.

No matter what the word is, if you repeat it enough times, you'll eventually stop understanding it as a word and start hearing it as little more than the sounds (or phonemes) that constitute the word.

Normally when you repeat a word, your brain triggers the meaning of the word and you therefore understand it. However, when you quickly repeat a word again and again, you trigger a process known as reactive inhibition, which reduces the effectiveness of repeating the word, effectively rendering the process almost null and void. This means that rather than triggering the meaning of the word, you become almost immune to the process, and no meaning is triggered.

While this episode of The Simpsons plays on this idea by using a meaningless word as an example, it still helps explain the concept. You've surely experienced semantic satiation in your lifetime, and if you didn't know what it was before, now you do!