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What’s in a Name? The Merging of Sound and Mood

bouba-and-kikiEmbodied cognition dances in a multi-dimensional universe, existing in thousands of separate guises…

Take, for example, the pair of odd shapes in this image. 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 relate to 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.

What’s in a Name? The Merging of Sound and Mood

John DiPrete

John DiPrete has contributed to Psych Central, MacWorld, Perceptual and Motor Skills, Medical Hypotheses, Speculations in Science and Technology, among other outlets. His Web site,, explores the fun side of neuroscience (ranging from tactile illusions to brain teasers), and has been recommended by PC World Online.

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APA Reference
DiPrete, J. (2018). What’s in a Name? The Merging of Sound and Mood. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 2 Nov 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.