Hey there, folks! How’s it going? Good? Good. Let’s begin by addressing the question posed in the title of this post. If you’re not familiar with The Bouba-Kiki Effect, bear with me. We’ll start with a basic explanation and move forward with some of the deeper implications. If you’ve ever searched for ‘synesthesia test’, ‘test for synesthesia’, or something similar, chances are that you’ve come across the Bouba-Kiki image (shown lower in this post): two distinct shapes – one Bouba, and one Kiki. Which is which, though? (Scroll down, look at the image, and decide for yourself.) Actually, there’s no correct answer. This image (coupled with the question of which is Kiki, and which is Bouba) is not so much a test for synesthesia as it is evidence of the fact that shapes are not necessarily named arbitrarily – an experiment first conducted in 1929 by psychologist Wolfgang Kohler (pictured above-left). Don’t leave yet, would-be synesthetes – his findings (and those of others who’ve done similar experiments since) are quite interesting.
The experiment, first conducted by Kohler on the island of Tenerife (whose occupants primarily speak Spanish), consisted of the psychologist showing subjects a picture of two figures (very similar to those shown below) and asking them which was named “takete” and which was named “baluba”. Interestingly enough, the results were overwhelmingly similar – the data revealing that the majority of test subjects assigned the name “takete” to the jagged, star-like shape (on the left) and “baluba” to the blobbish, rounded shape (on the right).
Over a half a century later, in 2001, a nearly identical experiment was conducted by Vilayanur Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard – using the names “kiki” and “bouba” rather than “takete” and “baluba”. In using American college students and Tamil speakers in India as subjects, the two found that 95-98% assigned the name “bouba” to the rounded shape and “kiki” to the jagged. Pretty cool, huh? So, what are the implications? What does this have to do with having synesthesia?
Born from the original experiment (by Kohler) and those subsequent is the “Bouba-Kiki Effect” – a strong suggestion that the naming of objects (whatever those objects may be) is not entirely arbitrary. Instead, names may be derived from the way formations of specific sounds relate to the physical attributes of objects. This may sound confusing, and it probably is, but it’s also somewhat intuitive. For instance, in the case of our experiment, subjects may have been more inclined to assign the name “bouba” to the rounded shape because, when spoken, the pronunciation of that name requires a more rounded mouth. Similarly, the K sound in “kiki” is harder – more jagged, if you will. We’re just scratching the surface, obviously.
The connections drawn between the neurological condition of synesthesia and the Bouba-Kiki Effect are fairly obvious. In fact, the effect has been described as being representative of “synesthesia-like mappings” in the brain, where one sense has a steadfast, underlying connection to another. We’ve discussed personification previously, and for me, this concept of sound symbolism is just another gateway through which personalities can be assigned to and perceived from inanimate objects. Interesting – to say the least.
Test or Not a Test?
All things considered, I’d say that the Bouba-Kiki image (and question) is less of a synesthesia test, and more of an insightful look into the condition itself. For me, it’s affirmation that we all have a little synesthete in us. What do you think?