For those who don’t know about this yet, please do this before reading further: You have been given two names- “Bouba” and “Kiki”. Now look at the above picture with the two figures and name them either as “Bouba” or “Kiki”.
Most of you will name the jagged figure on the left as “kiki” while the curvy one on the right as “bouba”. But why?
In 2001, V. S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard repeated Kohler’s experiment (which used the words “takete” and “maluma” and similar pictures) using the words “kiki” and “bouba” and asked American college undergraduates and Tamil speakers in India “Which of these shapes is bouba and which is kiki?” In both the English and the Tamil speakers, 95% to 98% selected the curvy shape as “bouba” and the jagged one as “kiki”, suggesting that the human brain is somehow able to extract abstract properties from the shapes and sounds.
According to V.S. Ramachandran, this experiment gives us an insight on how our language evolved and also on our ability to think in “abstract” terms. In his recent book ‘The tell-tale brain’, he proposes his own theory of how language evolved- ‘The Synaesthetic Bootstrap Theory’ as he likes to call it, where he begins his research by focusing on people having Synaesthesia, a neurological rarity in which two or more senses are connected. For example music might be “seen” in colours and patterns, taste may be seen in shapes. And he comes to the conclusion that all of us have synaesthesia to some degree; as in this bouba-kiki case the visual and auditory maps in our brains are getting “linked”. “Boubaness” or “kikiness” arises between two stimuli that are otherwise utterly dissimilar: an image formed on the retina versus a sound activated in the cochlea of the ear, hence the common denominator is indeed abstract.
This linking or mapping or “cross-modal abstraction” seems to occur in the IPL (Inferior Parietal Lobe, a part of brain that is exaggeratedly developed in humans as compared to other apes, and also, Einstein’s brain had a much larger IPL compared to the average human brain size).
Notice that this theory is hugely different from the now discredited Onomatopoeic Theory of words, which states that words are made only on the “imitation” of the sound- as in this example there is no sound at all. Via Neuroresearch