Semantic Satiation & Acoustic Adaptation

Hullo everyone!

Eiravaein, Eiravaein, Eiravaein, Eiravaein, Eiravaein, Eiravaein, Eiravaein, Eiravaein…

There.  It’s happened.  The word “Eiravaein” has officially gone through a transformation in my mind that I just now forced into existence.  It is quite a meaningful word to me in most all circumstances, but in this case, in that moment as I was repeating it over and over … its meaning just faded away.  Rather quickly too, I should say, especially if you consider its gravitas in my life.  So, what just happened?  Not only did the word lose its meaning, but it's very sound began to change as the pronunciation began to loosen and fluctuated toward other similar auditory events, creating phonetic distortions.

Semantic satiation is something that occurs when the meaningfulness of a semiotic element, like the uttering of a word, is lost due to repeated recitation (and hence hearing) of said word or string of words.  It can occur for one who is speaking the word or words themselves, or who is listening to the words being spoken by someone else.  This phenomenon has been acknowledged for over a century by researchers across a variety of disciplines.  Though particularly in 1962, Dr. Leon Jakobovits, now Leon James, a Psychologist who was at the time obtaining his Ph.D from McGill University, established what has become a widely accepted general understanding of the neural underpinnings of this phenomenon.  He declared that there was a particular cortical neural pattern for each word or phrase and that by continually repeating a word we activate that neural pathway again and again and again in rapid succession.  This quick repetition essentially prevents our brain from having the chance to process other semantic stimuli, focusing only on that small, singular word or phrase.

Well, being that we humans are pretty dexterous most  of the time, we get the meaning almost instantaneously and in that moment, really no longer have a biological need to recall it, time and time again.  Hence, one of the resulting effects we experience is, inhibition. Jakobovits found that the peripheral sensorimotor system (which is involved with both speaking and hearing) as well as activity in the central nervous system experience a deterioration in intensity over time as the word or phrase is repeated.  The greater the semantic frequency, the lower the semiotic intensity.  You know, I feel like there is a common phrase in society that is at least metaphorically linked to this phenomenon. Anyway. Our own bodies and minds react to this self-induced cognition and create a somewhat artificial audio-motor-cognitive closed-loop of stimulation, perception, recallconclusion. 

How long does it take for this quirky mind effect to come into being?  Well, if you haven’t already, give it a try yourself and find out.  Generally, the fewer syllables there are in the word or phrase, the more quickly satiation will occur.  A word like “dog” can lose its meaning in a matter of seconds while a word like “equestrian” will usually take a greater amount of repetitions to slip into the void of nullified significance.  There is a limit to the whole thing as well.  You can more than likely read out loud, I don’t know, let’s say the summary on the back of your favorite book, beginning to end, over and over, and you won’t ever become totally numb to the concepts or meanings of the words in the summary; so long as your attention is committed.  It is too varied in content, so much so that your brain will be utilizing many neural pathways to coalesce and represent the entire contextual meaning of the writing and won’t have the opportunity to experience complete inhibition.   

Mantras, recitations, prayers, and chants, common mechanisms the world over for many different identities of people, ranging from religious groups to socio-political parties and athletic fan bases can create semantic satiation and in some cases fully intend to invoke this effect so as to better focus the mind or demonstrate utter sincerity to a purpose or idea.   It is an effect that is…entrancing.  However, this cognitive phenomenon is not only limited to words and phrases.  We hear and listen to many different types of stimuli throughout our day.  Musical phrases and interactive auditory events like sound effects, repeated in quick succession, can create the same satiation where the genuine interest that we have in the sound source drops in intensity until it essentially becomes dead to us.  As we listen, we begin to breakdown the source and instead of hearing the entire auditory event as a composed whole, we hone in on its compositional pieces.  We notice transients more clearly, we hear frequencies that seemed before to be absent, we can even begin to hear the sound or sounds as an entirely new experience.  But is this because we are more attentive, or in fact more fatigued?  It would seem that our attention has expanded, but actually the opposite seems to be true.  What starts off as rather instantaneous monotony quickly turns into full-blown boredom and eventually will take a final form of down-right annoyance.  That’s right, if you listen to same thing over and over again (like this) you’ll most likely start to lose interest and gain a general sense overbearing of frustration.

Any music composer will tell you that while repetition is a core part of any composition's balance, it can’t be implemented into a piece carelessly or lazily.  If you were to write a fairly simple piece of music where the instruments all repeated the same notes, in the same rhythm, at the same tempo, with the same amplitude, your listeners would become bored pretty quickly.  Variation is required to draw and keep our attention or the piece of music soon becomes uninteresting and we turn it off or change to something more dynamic.  Just as drolly repeated words lose their meaningfulness, dryly repeated music loses its affective connection.  It’s like a form of musical satiation. 

This happens with sound effects as well, or for this example, let’s just call them brief sound events.  If you are playing your favorite old school video game and you collect a ring or coin then you recognize what has just happened and feel the most fleeting sense of accomplishment.  Hooray for you!  If you stumbled into a giant room of these rings or coins and begin clearing house that feeling is amplified or intensified and it is far more noticeable.  This is partly because a series of the sound effect that is triggered when your sprite interacts with multiple rings or a coins is short and broken apart, as well as the fact that the sound file is being truncated at different, essentially random points in its playing and replaying so that you aren’t actually hearing prefect repetitions of the sound every time you interact with a new ring or coin.  However… if you were to play either of those sounds on endless loops where the following repetition of a sound plays immediately after the preceding repetition (rings / coins) it should only take a matter of seconds for your brain to start adapting to the presentation of the stimulus, become satiated, and essentially, zone out.  We could call this, acoustic event satiation. It can be observed that both the negative space between the repetitions and the complexity of the sound event are significant as well. If too much empty space is observed the effect is slowed or dissolved.  If the sound if very rich or complex (dynamics, frequency, timbre), the effect slows or dissolves.  This can be do to our brains being very adept at creating representations of elements that don't actually exist (mentally filling empty space with sounds we find appropriate) or temporal limitations on auditory streaming (we focus on new and different components of the sound events with each repetition).  Both would break the effect of the repetitive trance.

In the case of our cognitive processing of spoken words, sound precedes meaning.  We process the sound of the word being spoken before we can get to what the word means, albeit for a commonly understood word this all happens in fractions of a second.  The sound before the meaning function is called "presemantic acoustic processing" and researchers from several City Universities of New York (CUNY) conducted a study to see if in fact that preceding sound was responsible for the “satiation” and not the constant processing on the stimuli’s meaning, as Jakobovits had previously suggested.  Their findings were rather insightful.  They called the effect, "presemantic acoustic adaptation".  They found that when participants in a study were presented many times over with a spoken category word like, “Flower”, and then presented with a pair of words like, “Rose-Tulip” or “Apple-Plum” and were asked to declare if the pair belonged to the category or not, there was a delay in their response compared to if the category word was only repeated a few times.  This essentially confirmed Jakobovits’ “satiation” findings three decades earlier.  But, then they decided to take the study a step further and change the sound of the category word as it was being spoken by having multiple speakers say the category and compared those results to when only a single speaker repeating the category word.  All other variables the same, there was quite a significant effect.  Listeners who heard the category word many times over from the same speaker demonstrated semantic satiation, a delay, when identifying word pairs that semantically matched the category.  However, when the category word was repeated many times over by multiple speakers with varying registers, timbres, and accents, the effect disappeared.  So, the meaning of the category word stayed the same, only how it sounded changed.  This again broke the entrancing effect of the repetitions and pointed to the repeating sound as being the significant factor in causing satiation or, adaptation…not the meaning. 

Modality, matters as well.  Through what sense is the word or phrase presented and repeated? Are they spoken? Read? Felt? … Smelled?.  In 2000, a group of researchers ran a study to control for this as well as monitor the participants' ERPs (event-related potentials), which are neurological data points collected from an EEG cap.  They ran multiple experiments using visual and auditory cues separately and used a different method for modulating the sound of the speaker when repeating categorical words.  Their results showed evidence that the meaning of a word (and not so much the presemantic acoustics) has a significant impact on satiation.  And so, the developing understanding between satiation and adaptation continues.  It could be interesting to see some research on non-semantic auditory cues.  After all, music and sound effects more often than not carry their own potential meaning and meaningfulness.  At least, we imbue meaning upon them ... or do we extract it from them?  For instance, if you are given the category of A, what do you think about its "relatedness" to B or C?  How about the category of this and whether or not this or this are significantly relative?

Hearing, is an incredibly fine-tuned physical, biological, and neurobiological operation.  Listening, complicates the situation even further by adding affective processing, semantic processing, memory, pitch detection, conceptualization, attention, and many other cognitive functions into the mix.  While there is still a plethora of questions that have yet to be answered regarding our perception and processing of the aural universe, more and more of them, big and small are being tackled by brilliant minds everyday.  This was a mini-exploration into one of the many fascinating auditory phenomena that exist in our world.  In coming posts, we'll continue this journey into other striking topics of sonic significance.

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