Loss of Word-Meaning with Prolonged Fixation An Old Experiment in Need of Reinterpretation

January 1971

Loss of Word-Meaning with Prolonged Fixation
An Old Experiment in Need of Reinterpretation

J. J. Gibson, Cornell University

The World Wide Web distribution of James Gibson’s “Purple Perils” is for scholarly use with the understanding that Gibson did not intend them for publication. References to these essays must cite them explicitly as unpublished manuscripts. Copies may be circulated if this statement is included on each copy.

There is a classical introspective observation (or experiment) from the Titchenerian era on what was called the “loss of meaning” of an isolated printed word after it had been fixated for some time. The same lapse occurs when a word is spoken repeatedly. The phenomenon was considered a loss of the associative power of the word by Severance and Washburn in 1907. It was also studied by Bassett and Warne in 1919 and by Don and Weld in 1924. It was taken to support an association theory of meaning, especially Titchener’s core-context theory. I once believed that it supported at least the theorem that meaning can be attached to visual sense-impressions and can therefore be detached from them (Gibson, 1950, pp. 203-205). But the whole notion of attachment, enrichment, accrual, or acquisition now seems wrong. It is not consistent with an information-based theory of perception, as contrasted with a sensation-based theory. Specifically it is not consistent with a distinctive-feature theory of word-perception (E. Gibson, in press).

The phenomenon has been taken up recently by W. W. Lambert and renamed. He calls it “semantic satiation.” The concept of satiation comes from Gestalt theory (K√∂hler and Lewin) and covers a whole set of phenomena, not all of them clearly related. The effort to discover a neurophysiological process that could justly be called satiation has not succeeded (at least in my opinion). The figural aftereffects do not seem comparable to the lapse of verbal meaning. Gestalt theory never developed a theory of meaning that was as explicit as Titchener’s theory of the accrual of meaning in a sensory core. The concept of semantic satiation is therefore vague. (“It makes no difference what you call something if you can experiment with it!”)

A new description is badly needed of what happens in experience when an observer is required to keep his overt visual attention on a written word. The first problem is one of phenomenology, not one of measuring something. The observers should not be committed to either an association theory or a Gestalt theory of perception. They should know enough about psycholinguistics and visual perception, however, to be able to describe their experiences in terms not only of word-meaning but also of spelling patterns, syllables, sounds, graphemes or alphabetic units, and the geometrical features of letter-forms. An observer who has practiced reporting with an optically perceived word should then be tried out with an acoustically perceived word that is repeated in time, to which he must pay auditory attention. Finally the old experiment of Bassett and Warne, with the observer himself speaking the word, should be analyzed.

There is surely more going on than “loss” or “lapse” or “recession” of meaning. The experience does not simply regress from perception back to sensation. A return to systematic, careful, long-term introspection is called for, with multiple observers, and the kind of precautions (but not prejudices) that were standard in Titchener’s era.


Bassett, M. F. & Warne, C. J. On lapse of verbal meaning with repetition. Amer. J. Psychol., 1919, 30, 415-418.

Don, V. J. & Weld, H. P. Lapse of meaning with visual fixation. Amer. J. Psychol., 1924, 35, 446-450.

Severance, E. & Washburn, M. P. The loss in associative power in words after long fixation. Amer. J. Psychol., 1907, 18, 182-186.

Gibson, J. J. Perception of the visual world. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.