Rhodri Marsden: 'Commonplace words can have conscious-altering power over us'

Life on Marsden
  • @rhodri

Some words can go weird. A few days ago I found myself staring at the word "house" and it lost all its meaning. My brain struggled to process it. God knows how estate agents manage.

Rather than conjuring up an image of a cute building with chimney, it provoked an alarming semantic crisis. I started doubting my own existence – and when letters of the alphabet start affecting you in this way, your impulse is to make an appointment to see your GP. Not that they'd appreciate you sitting in their surgery and describing how the word "house" is freaking you out, when they've just referred a tearful couple to an oncology clinic.

So I sought solace on social media instead. Betsy told of her mother who "once stared at the word 'pink' so long that she became convinced she'd just made it up". Jules, meanwhile, has a problem with "cow". "I have to skim read it every time," she says, "or I get caught gazing at it for hours and feel odd." Words as commonplace as box, twelve, sport, from and does were all identified by friends as having consciousness-altering powers. "It's called jamais-vu," advised Amy-Mae, knowledgably, so I looked it up.

Apparently a cognitive neuropsychology lecturer by the name of Chris Moulin tested the phenomenon in a brutal experiment where people were asked to write the word "door" 30 times in 60 seconds. Well over half reported feelings of, shall we way, door-weirdness.

This particular variety of brain-wrong is a symptom of overfamiliarity, where repetition of information causes anguish. Recently I've been experiencing this in another form, where endlessly spiralling thought processes drive me very mildly nuts. Fortunately I have a wise friend called Sarah, who offered some soothing advice. "Pretend it's stuff that doesn't matter," she said. "Take all your thoughts and feelings about everything – including how you think and feel – and let it be as it is. Just say, 'That's fine'. And then, if you think 'But it's not fine!', answer that with: 'It's also fine to think that it's not fine'.

After a while you knacker yourself out, and that's when the sane truth of things starts to appear." I'm now about to use this strategy to find out the true meaning of the word "house". If I find out, you'll be the first to know.