5 Tips to Avoid Falling for Fake Images from a Digital Forensics Expert


Smit Mistry

Here's a challenge: Repeat the word "brain" over and over and over and over and ... you get the picture. After a while, doesn't it just sound like a random noise? B-r-a-i-n. What a weird word — is it even a word? That transformation from word to non-word, whether via reading or saying it, happens because of a tendency known as semantic satiation.

Wait — What's a Brain?

This phenomenon was first described, albeit by a different name, in 1907 by Elizabeth Severance and Margaret Floy Washburn in "The American Journal of Psychology": "If a printed word is looked at steadily for some time, it will be found to take on a curiously strange and foreign aspect. This loss of familiarity in its appearance sometimes makes it look like a word in another language, sometimes proceeds further until the word is a mere collection of letters, and occasionally reaches the extreme where the letters themselves look like meaningless marks on the paper." The authors went on to describe the changes their study subjects experienced as they stared at individual words. Most took less than three minutes before the words looked like a collection of meaningless letters.

Semantic Satiation in the Real World, World, World

Semantic satiation sounds like a bad thing, but it can be used for good. Songwriters will sometimes repeat a word over and over to purposely trigger this effect, for example. Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis of the music cognition lab at University of Arkansas writes in Aeon, "The simple act of repetition makes a new way of listening possible, a more direct confrontation with the sensory attributes of the word itself." Hear someone sing "baby" enough times, and it stops being a word and starts being a musical motif.


James has experimented with this phenomenon as a therapy for stuttering, though the results weren't entirely successful. It's also related to why companies would rather you not use their brand name for a product to refer to all products like it (think Kleenex, Band-Aid, and even Jacuzzi). Not only can a brand name lose its trademark through common use, but it also dims its sparkle — after a while, it just becomes a meaningless word.

To be continued, to the next blog...

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