Bouba and Kiki

The merging of sound and mood

Embodied cognition dances in a multi-dimensional universe, existing in thousands of separate guises...

Take, for example, the pair of odd shapes above. If asked which shape is called "bouba," and which is "kiki," 98% of people say the blob is "bouba" and the other is "kiki." The reason appears inherent in the shapes: the blob is softer and rounder, the other shape (kiki) is harder and sharper. Bouba is spoken in soft tones, while kiki is spoken in hard tones. The blob shape is calm, the pointed shape is manic.

Shapes and sounds merge together in certain forms of synesthesia, a condition in which those who have it experience incredible sense-blending. The question arises: Are the general effects of synesthesia unique only to them?

Apparently, that's not the case, according to Bouba and Kiki.

Shapes and sounds merge in all of us, to some degree. Not just shapes and sounds. Sounds and moods can be merged, too; one famous example lies in the practice of meditation. The mantras in mantric meditation merge the common mantra "sounds" into calming moods. Most meditation mantras brim with the "soft" consonants — like n or l — free of the more "cutting" consonants like k and t. Internal sounds merge into "emotional" shapes.

For example, words like love and fun are smoother in diction — and calmer in their psychological effect — than words like kill and hate.

Mantras consist of repetitious chanting, or internal mental repetition, whose "sound" preference could be a result of the brain's intrinsic predisposition. If you scan through the mantra lists in detail (do a google search for additional mantras), you can see for yourself...

A list of popular mantras...
aum (pronounced om or oom)
Aum Namah Shivaya
Aum Namo Narayanaya
Aum Shri Ganeshaya Namah
Aum Kalikayai Namah
Namo Arihantânam
Namo Siddhânam
Namo Âyariyânam
Namo Uvajjhâyanam
Namo Loe Savva Sahûnam
Om Namo Narayanaya
Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya
Om Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram
Ram Nam
Tat Twam Asi
Aham Brahma Asmi

A list from Transcendental Meditation:

Like Bouba herself, the mantras appear round and smooth on the lips and tongue, helping to induce peaceful states of mind. Mental recitation of a mantra offers the same emotional resonance as the spoken pronunciation, regardless of the language. In other words: Sound, shape, and mood seem to intersect in certain areas of the brain, appearing to resemble the cross-stitching effects found in synesthesia.

As we focus on mindfulness and meditation in the pursuit of health and happiness, it's important to keep in mind the underpinnings of the brain that blend together the spiritual and natural realms in this conscious (and unconscious) quest. The successful practice of meditation can benefit from the insights gleaned from neuroscience, embodied cognition, and the richness of human language and intuition.

More information on bouba and kiki can be found in: V.S. Ramachandran (2001). Synaesthesia — A window into perception, thought and language Journal of Consciousness Studies Link to abstract

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John DiPrete is a Web designer with a passion for neuroscience, art, and business. His work has appeared in MacWorld, Perceptual and Motor Skills, Medical Hypotheses, Speculations in Science and Technology, among other outlets. His Web site ( has been recommended by PC World Online. Readers can subscribe to his free email updates at