Do you think the spikier shape on the left is kiki and the rounded one on the right is bouba? If so, you have just proven something called the bouba/kiki effect.* Wolfgang Köhler, a German-American psychologist, first observed this phenomenon in a group of Spanish speakers in 1929. In 2001, neuroscientists Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard expanded upon this study. They posed the same question to English-speaking college students in the US and Tamil speakers in India. The majority of participants said the curvy shape is bouba and the pointy shape kiki. These results suggest that there is a universal understanding of abstract concepts based on shapes and sounds.
How did I, as an illustrator, stumble upon this psychological phenomenon? As with many things in life, it involved a lot of coffee, detours, and internet rabbit holes.
My family hails from Taiwan, where my grandma grew up speaking Japanese and Taiwanese. I grew up speaking English and Mandarin, and have always wanted to bridge the language gap between us. This led me to a “Meta Skills for Language Learning” class, where my teacher introduced us to the bouba/kiki effect. After three degrees of Wikipedia hopping, I stumbled upon the notion of ideasthesia and was immediately captivated: “a neuropsychological phenomenon in which activations of concepts (inducers) evoke perception-like sensory experiences (concurrents).” The more I dug in, the more I saw how this seemingly unrelated concept might inform my work as a commercial illustrator. This lens for interpreting the world has the potential to not only guide our work but also reignite confidence in our creative instincts.
Where did these ideas come from? How do we connect the senses with cognition?
We can trace the origins of ideasthesia to a phenomenon known as synesthesia, “a rare phenomenon in which real sensory experiences evoke sensory experiences that are not directly caused by outside physical events,” according to ideasthesia progenitor Dr. Danko Nikolić. Those who have synesthesia might see a number and register it not only as the number itself but also as a particular color. Those who do not experience synesthesia perceive things in a 1:1 manner. They hear sound, see a color, feel a texture.