You know how, when you look at a word repeatedly for a really long time, it starts to not look like a real word anymore?
When that occurs it’s called “semantic satiation,” the phenomenon where a word or phrase being used repeatedly will temporarily lose meaning for the person writing, reading, or saying it. Your brains almost starts to interpret the word as something entirely made up, unreal.
Pavlov referred to this phenomenon as “cortical inhibition,” and in 1926 it was commonly referred to as “work decrement.” Though two remarkable psychologists, Hilgard and Marquis, described it best by dubbing it simply: “extinction.”
Whatever you call it, the phenomenon of satiation is an interesting one to consider, especially for creatives.
Semantic satiation occurs as a result of rapid firing between a cluster of neurons in the brain. You can look at it like this: one group of neurons takes the appearance or sounds of a word and connects to another group of neurons used to add meaning to those figures or noises. When you repeat a word the same neuron clusters are firing quickly, over and over again, the links between the neuron nodes then become fatigued.
As the neuron clusters between an idea and a meaning become fatigued they aren’t as available to do their job. At this point your brain is temporarily unable to connect what you hear or see with a meaning, therefore the word (or words) appear strange.
Ideas can suffer the same effect.
If you look at or think about something you’re working on for too long, it will start to lose it’s meaning.
So when you stare at a project for a long period of time, or when you repeat an idea in your head hoping to get momentum on how to move it along, you’re exhausting the nodes in your brain that make creativity possible.
Idea satiation can be a big hindrance for the creative process, but it can also be downright misleading. Thinking about a single idea for any extended period of time may make it begin to look like a bad idea (even when it’s not). It’s this same logic that researches believe causes the most popular radio songs to quickly fall out of favor. And focusing on one idea for any extended period of time simply wears your understanding of the idea down.
So the next time you’re stuck on a project, staring at a blank canvas or screen, or running ideas through your head repeatedly, remember that stopping to take a break may be just what you need to spur new breakthroughs.
Photo by Lululemon Athletica.