188.8.131.52.1 Language Without Meaning: Semantic Saturation
Language and felt meaning typically go together, so it can be hard to know what meaning feels like by itself. Over time, the goal is to be able to gently stabilize attention on felt meaning, in order to work with it directly. To do so, the next several sections are designed to point your mind at felt meaning, again and again, so that it becomes familiar.
Here is the first thing you can try to get a sense of how felt meaning is always present during normal language usage:
Pick any word, like “yogurt” or “government.” Now, say that word between twenty and hundreds of times, like, “yogurt-yogurt-yogurt…”
It’s OK if this doesn’t work; there will be many more things to try, but what you may find is that the word eventually “loses its meaning.” It becomes an “empty sound,” like a grunt or gibberish, not even identifiable as language at all. You sort of temporarily forget that the word has meaning or even that those sounds are a word at all.
This phenomenon is known as “semantic saturation,” and it is the experience of when felt meaning is missing. If this worked for you, and you can play around with different words, hopefully you’re convinced that felt meaning always functions during the use of language and that felt meaning is an interesting phenomenon.
Importantly, while we did this experiment on just one word, felt meaning is part of the experience of “knowing the meaning of an entire sentence,” or “having a sense of the paragraph you just read.” It’s very flexible and expansive, and it’s not limited to just single words.
Here are some related examples with written or printed words. If you happen to be a programmer, where you happen to be using a particular variable name over and over, or you are writing a topical document where you are using the same word over and over, you may have had the experience of visual semantic saturation. The variable name or word seems to become “nonsense.” Temporarily, the visual experience of the word doesn’t stimulate the felt meaning behind that word.
Here is another example related to writing. If you’ve been working on a written document for a very long time, for example for many hours before a deadline, you may find that the entire document becomes “slippery.” Your eyes are certainly passing over the words, but you don’t have a sense of entire sentences or paragraphs. You’ve lost a sense of what the words mean and whether they’re right or wrong, correct or incorrect.
Hopefully these examples are starting to give you a sense of what I mean by “felt meaning.” You may find that the idea and experience of felt meaning is totally familiar, or you’re still unsure of what I mean. Even if you are familiar, it may take some time before you can place gentle, stable, steady attention directly on felt meaning.
In any case, there are many future examples below.