Why do repeated words turn into gibberish?
May 1, 2008 8:23 AM   Subscribe

When you say a word over and over ("Temple temple temple temple...") it stops sounding like an actual word and starts seeming like a bunch of gibberish-sounds. Why?
posted by Tomorrowful to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:30 AM on May 1, 2008

We are constantley lookeng fore patterns.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:37 AM on May 1, 2008

Lack of context?
posted by asuprenant at 8:37 AM on May 1, 2008

I think it's because of the way you say each syllable; they tend to "slip" and join up in the wrong order, so "temple temple temple temple" becomes "pultem pultem pultem pultem" which then slips between the two resulting in gibberish.

I would imagine therefore that words with more syllables would be more likely to do this.
posted by alby at 8:41 AM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I know my cognitive psych professor talked about this. She played a tape where the word "plant" was repeated quickly for a few minutes, and asked us what words we heard. Of course we heard a lot of other stuff, and some people heard words as far off as "twentieth."

Sadly I can't recall what it's called or the underlying theory. "Repetition deafness" seems close but I don't think it's right.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:44 AM on May 1, 2008

No real insight, but I've noticed this before. I actually first noticed it when I was in the same room as a TV playing Sesame Street (I don't remember why) and it had a little segment about "bus." It kept saying "bus" and showing pictures of buses. By the end, the word "bus" seemed *really* weird.
posted by Nelsormensch at 8:47 AM on May 1, 2008

My guess is it would have to do with fatigue the neurons that process the word itself. Any time your brain does something over and over again, the neurons that are used lose strength due to fatigue, just the same way your muscles do. This can be because of a loss of food as well as a lost of neurotransmitter chemicals.

This has a wide range of effects on perception. For example, if you stare at something for a long time without moving your eyes, the image will fade. in fact, if you look at something that already doesn't have much contrast (like a light switch) the object can disappear entirely. Another example would be background noises or repeating audio patters. After a while, you fail to notice them.

Another example is writing the same letter or word over and over. Each time, the actual reproduction will get slightly worse as the neurons weaken.

So my guess is that the neurons that process that particular word fatigue. Probably this is going on in the Broca's area, but who knows.
posted by delmoi at 8:47 AM on May 1, 2008

There's a Radio Lab episode about a very similar phenomenon.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:48 AM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Try it with the phrase "ecology college." You'll think you're saying "collegy collegy collegy" within about two reps even though "collegy" isn't a word. That is kinda freaky (and not really the same as to the phenomenon you're talking about).

The term you're looking for is semantic saturation though. The answer to "why?" is that it's just something our brains do.
posted by kindall at 8:49 AM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

This might be described as a phantom word audio illusion.
posted by robofunk at 8:49 AM on May 1, 2008

Best answer: Previously.
posted by Science! at 9:08 AM on May 1, 2008

For a real kick, try it with your own name.
posted by notyou at 9:11 AM on May 1, 2008

Not always: scratch your head and say the word LEAF many times, quickly. It is all-too-intelligible.
posted by Rumple at 9:25 AM on May 1, 2008

John C. Lilly did all sorts of weird research projects involving communication and the human (and uhh.. dolphin) brain. There isn't really information from him about hearing gibberish, but he does have a theory for why we hear different words from the same repeated word. From his official (?) site:

"...the reception of signals depends utterly upon the sequence of signals. [...] Our speech is built up of expected sequences that we long ago stored in our memory. [...] We expect that the next word, for example, will be different from the previous words. When we are exposed to a constantly repeating set of signals, our brain operates in such a way as to generate alternates to the constantly repeated set of signals according to certain computational rules."

I got this directly from this page which has the worst background in the history of the Internet. There are also sound clips so you can try the experiment out for yourself. I remember trying this awhile back and hearing some weird stuff out of "sayonara."
posted by giraffe at 9:37 AM on May 1, 2008

The Monkees knew how to use this to great effect. When they would need to consult with each other, they would call a "Monkee Huddle": they would gather into a tight circle and repeat over and over again the word "rhubarb", and it would sound like they were talking things over. Fun.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 9:39 AM on May 1, 2008

delmoi, your 'guess' would be wrong.
posted by mimo at 10:03 AM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: These also seem to be cases of jamais vu, the opposite of deja vu. The explanation for why it happens is similar to the one giraffe mentioned:

From a linguistic perspective, the phenomenon that a word after frequent repetition seems to lose its meaning is connected with the very nature of words. A word as a unit of language has three characteristics:

It has form, i.e. it is shaped out of sounds or, in the case of written language, out of letters (characters).
It has function, which (among other things) means that it operates in a meaningful sentence.
It has meaning, which implies that it refers to a certain unit of thought (a concept or an idea) within a context.

However, when a word is repeated over and over again, it is in fact only the form which is repeated. There is no sentence, so the function of the word is eliminated. Its meaning, too, is effectively eliminated, because there is no context. A few repetitions will leave the language user's memory and expectation intact: he remembers the meaning and expects a meaningful reference. Continued repetition, however, will more and more foreground the word form to the exclusion of function and meaning, until the word literally "makes no sense". It is not the word that is being repeated, but only one of its aspects: the word form.

posted by inconsequentialist at 10:20 AM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

2nding the radio lab episode. verycool.
posted by sully75 at 11:31 AM on May 1, 2008

You are purposefully estranging the word from any and all context of use, and that is why it seems strange. This has parallels in the art world. If you take a photo of your hand, it looks stranger than it does normally -- because normally you look at your hand while doing something with it, but in the photo you've estranged it from these contexts, hence it seems strange. Anything can be made to seem strange if instead of doing stuff with it you contemplate it long enough.
posted by creasy boy at 2:36 PM on May 1, 2008

Not always: scratch your head and say the word LEAF many times, quickly. It is all-too-intelligible.

I strongly disagree
posted by SurrenderMonkey at 3:32 AM on May 2, 2008

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