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A research shows a word can sound ’round’ or ‘sharp’


Perception is a complex thing. When we hear certain sounds, we try to perceive it as having a specific shape. There is a new research in Psychological Science (a Journal of Association for Psychological Science) that studies how these perceptions are fundamental before our consciousness takes over.

A research shows a word can sound like a shape even before we process it

Such experiment had already been done 85 years ago, when they found out about “the bouba-kiki effect”, and a lot of other experiments have been done since then. The effect indicates that we associate “bouba” with soft-looking, round shapes, while we associate “kiki” with spiky-looking, angular shapes. Both “bouba” and “kiki” are words without any meaning. It’s same across all cultures through the globe, and indicates the universal mapping of this perception.

This new research from three experiments analyses the effect in a deeper level. Researcher Shao-Min (Sean) Hung of Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore states that, “This is the first report that congruence between a visual word form and the visual properties of a shape can influence behaviour when neither the word nor the object has been seen.”

Hung and co-authors Suzy Styles (Nanyang Technological University) and Po-Jang Hsieh (Duke-NUS Medical School) presented different images to the left and right eyes of the participants while doing one experiment. A series of flashing images was presented to the participant’s dominant eye while a target image that gradually faded in was presented to the non-dominated eye. At first, the participants could only see competing, flashing images.

The target image was a non-sense word, bubu or kiki, inside of a shape. At times, they presented bubu or kiki inside of a round shape and at times, they presented bubu or kiki inside of an angular shape. As before, bubu inside of a round shape meant congruency, kiki inside of an angular shape meant congruent, anything else meant incongruent. The participant had to press a key when the target image became visible.

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The result showed that “the target image broke through to conscious awareness faster when it was congruent than when it was incongruent, indicating that participants perceived and processed the relationship between word and shape before they were consciously aware of the stimuli.”

Just to make sure that participants were mapping roundness or angularity of the word sounds and not just the shapes of letters in the written word, they taught participants to read two unfamiliar letters that lacked distinctive round or angular components. Participants learned how to associate “bubu” and “kiki” sound with two unfamiliar letters.

The results showed the same thing. Whatever letter was taught as “bubu” broke through awareness faster when it was inside of a round shape, and whatever letter was taught as “kiki” broke through awareness faster when it was inside of an angular shape.

Hung explains, “The findings here show that once we have learned the sound a letter, we are able to not only extract the sound without consciously perceiving the letter, but also map this unconsciously extracted sound to an unconscious shape.”

This bouba-kiki effect is said to have taken its root outside of awareness, when people listen to the sound too.

In the third experiment, these researchers presented a faint shape very briefly between two image that masked the shape’s visibility while varying the intensity of the shape so that they can determine the level at which the shapes became visible to the participants.

The result wasn’t any different. Hung says, “All these findings expand the limit of unconscious processing, demonstrating that crossmodal mapping occurs outside the realm of conscious awareness.”

The combination of these three experiments indicate the same thing: the bouba-kiki effect is unconscious and it takes place before we can consciously form relationship between sound and shape. Hung concludes that a word can sound like a shape before the shape has been seen.

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