Author Archives: Aliyah Auerbach

What’s That Name: Bouba or Kiki edition

A name is a very important way to distinguish people, yet a very arbitrary and random measure. When you think of your own name, I doubt you even think twice. It has been with you all your life and you’ve learned, very early on, that it is specifically associated with you. As you’ve progressed through life, you have no doubt interacted with people of all different names, all of whom have played different roles in your life.

Me and my roommates on a weekend trip to Belgium. After a month of living in Paris with them, I know their names and share the experiential connection of this program with them.

When it comes to strangers, however, we have no connections that tell us anything about their lives. We know nothing about who they are, yet there can be something in their face that makes us randomly associate them with a name. Personally, whenever I’m at the airport for a long time, I resort to people-watching: I do not know the man who passes me, yet I feel as though his name must be something like “Bob”, or “Lou”. How can I possibly make such an association with a complete stranger?

As it turns out, the answer may have to do with cross-modal communication. Originally it was thought that this kind of “arbitrary connection” sort of communication existed only in the rarest cases, such as a person with synesthesia (individuals who experience activation of one seemingly unrelated sense when another is activated). However, an experiment known as the Bouba-Kiki effect served to change the public view on cross-modality between senses.

The Bouba-Kiki Effect: Which of these two objects seems more like a Bouba? Which do you see as Kiki?

Observing the figure above, which of the two shapes do you feel is Bouba? Which would you call Kiki? The answer seems to come easily, doesn’t it? Turns out, the vast majority of people who took this test called the figure on the left Bouba and the one on the right Kiki. If there was truly no association between this unknown shape and these seemingly arbitrary names, how could a majority of people consistently come to the same conclusion?

The Bouba-Kiki effect describes this phenomenon in which names are randomly assigned to abstract shapes in a systematic manner (Cuskley, Simner, and Kirby, 2017).  In the example above, Bouba is a name that requires the mouth to form a rounder shape. Bouba sounds softer and more rotund, and the physical sensation of saying this name aligns with the rounder and gentler abstract shape on the left. Saying Kiki induces sharper pointed sounds, such as how the abstract shape on the right is physically spiky and harsh. These results indicate that we may all have synesthetic tendencies and make arbitrary connections between different types of data.

Figure: Example stimuli faces shown during the Barton Bouba-Kiki experiment

Even though it may seem like a stretch, a recent study by Barton and Halberstadh (2017) seeks to prove that this random association is also present when we are identifying the faces of complete strangers. In this experiment, participants were shown a set of random faces that were either quite angular or quite round (see above), and they were asked to randomly assign names to these faces, in ranked order. Six names were available to choose: Jono, George and Lou were the “round” names, while Mickey, Kirk, and Pete were the “pointy” names.

After 20 randomized trials in which participants ranked names for these face stimuli, a significance was found for sharper faces (those on the left of the above figure) that were named from the “pointy” name category, as well as for rounder faces (those on the right of the above figure) named from the “round” name category. This means that the odds of naming a face with its correspondingly sharp or round name are greater than random chance.

Figure: Senatorial candidates and their name-face association. A higher score represents POORER fit between name and face, while lower score represents HIGHER fit between name and face.

These connections between face shape and name identification have interesting implications. Are peoples’ names completely arbitrary? According to the figure above, Bob Weygand would have a social advantage over Rocky Raczkowski due to a better fit between name and face. Socially, certain face shapes carry expectations about the attached name; when these expectations are violated, more complex social judgments take place about the quality of that person’s character (Barton and Halberstadh, 2017). It has been shown that people who “match” with their name (in terms of the distinctions mentioned above) are generally seen as having a character consistent with their name and appearance. For example, in the political sphere, candidates with well-fitting names tend to win their seats by about a 10-point margin as compared with competing politicians (Barton and Halberstadh, 2017).

So there you have it! Your face might give people a clue as to what your name could be, and you may get an innate social advantage by having a high association between your face and your name. Looks like our parents had a lot to consider when they chose our names!


Barton, D. N., & Halberstadt, J. (2017). A social Bouba/Kiki effect: A bias for people whose names match their faces. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 25(3), 1013-1020. doi:10.3758/s13423-017-1304-x

Cuskley, C., Simner, J., & Kirby, S. (2015). Phonological and orthographic influences in the bouba–kiki effect. Psychological Research, 81(1), 119-130. doi:10.1007/s00426-015-0709-2

Roommate picture: From Me

Bouba-Kiki picture:

Both Face Stimuli pictures: Barton and Halberstadh (cited above)

Nighttime in the City of Lights

During the day, Paris is a bustling metropolitan city, housing thousands of people as they take to the streets on their way to work. Once the sun sets, however, I begin to understand why this is the City of Lights. The Eiffel Tower lights up much of the night sky, twinkling at the onset of each new hour. While daytime bakeries close, late-night restaurants and cafes open their doors to the evening-inclined general public. On late night walks back to my apartment, I never fail to notice Parisian couples lounging at an outdoor café, enjoying the nighttime air with a drink and a pastry. Here, it seems to be a widely recognized and embraced concept that Parisians are night-folk.

Long after the sun sets, the lights of Paris are still up and brighter than ever. View from a street corner blocks from the Eiffel Tower.

This is a far cry from the nighttime environment in my hometown, a city on the outskirts of the Metro Atlanta area. I was always used to complete darkness at night, with no late-night city life to brighten the night sky. Even in Atlanta lights don’t shine quite as brightly. While I think the Parisian street scene is charming and I absolutely adore its thriving nightlife, it has left me struggling to get to sleep in the city where the lights never fade.  I’ve only been here a month, but I wonder how all of this consistent light affects the sleeping patterns of the average Parisian relative to the people living in smaller, less heavily lit areas. Does the constant exposure to bright city lights at night-time in cities like Paris result in later sleep cycles that significantly differ from populations living in areas with less nighttime light pollution?

To answer this question, it is important to understand how variation in sleep cycles is defined. People can be sorted into two groups based on their times of wakefulness and alertness – “morning” or “evening” type people. These distinctions refer to a person’s chronotype, which measures individual differences in lifestyle and alertness in the morning versus the evening (Sun 2019). Morning-type people are more likely to get up earlier and exercise more, while evening-types typically go to sleep later, eat later, and wake up later. Based on the social environment alone, Paris seems to encourage more evening-oriented people.

Image result for morning vs evening type chronotypes

Both chronotypes depends on chemical signaling in the brain to fall asleep at their respective times. Sleep relies on a neurotransmitter known as melatonin, a hormone operating in synchronicity with the onset of nighttime darkness. Melatonin is important for regular and consistent sleep, and delays in its release are expected to play a role in sleep disorders such as insomnia (Shechter 2018). This means that any factor that influences the release of melatonin prolongs wakefulness at night and causes difficulties in getting to sleep. One factor that has continuously shown associations with these delays is presence of light during and leading up to sleep (Shechter 2018). If light is present on a consistent basis, the regular delay of melatonin can cause an adjustment in chronotype towards being more evening inclined. In addition to delaying melatonin production, light alerts parts of the brain that control initiation and maintenance of sleep. (Sun 2019).

As shown above, melatonin is active in the dark. Presence of light inhibits the melatonin pathway and delays sleep.

A study compared circadian patterns between residents of a rural town and members of a small urban area (Carvalho 2013). They had a similar question, and collection of data involved comparison of light exposure and sleep patterns, as well as a structured chronotype questionnaire. The results they obtained show a significant difference between rural and urban populations in spread of chronotypes: the rural subjects showed a predominantly morning chronotype while the urban subjects were predominantly evening-oriented.

As shown above, there is a significantly difference between rural and urban subjects with regards to chronotype.

Their reasoning was that rural workers are exposed to sunlight during the day while they work, which reinforces the need to sleep when the sun goes down. Since urban citizens typically do not work outside, in-the-sun jobs, they are not exposed to as much natural sunlight and do not have their sleep cycles naturally reinforced. Instead, they tend to work technology-based jobs where they are at a computer screen (Carvalho 2014). This results in increased intake of bright and unnatural light, which is independent of the actual daylight (as one can use a computer at night). This would align with the Parisian lifestyle of bright light that is inconsistent with the light of the sun, which tampers with the natural sleep cycle. This reasoning was a strength of the study and proved their conclusion with valid evidence.

A weakness of this study was that it failed to address the possibility of other factors that may have influenced their data. The results they received were very strong, but the influence of light could have been a correlation instead of a causation. They made no effort to test for other variables that may have impacted results, such as timing of social events, parents with young children who require continuous attention, and other non-light related factors.

Based on these results, it looks like the late-night hustle and bustle does have a neurological effect on sleeping patterns. While it doesn’t hurt to be on the computer past sunset, it is clear that continued light during nighttime delays melatonin release on a consistent scale, which can result in the shifting of sleep cycles to an evening chronotype. Turns out there may be some nighttime benefits to living in small towns after all!


Carvalho, F. G., Hidalgo, M. P., & Levandovski, R. (2014). Differences in circadian patterns between rural and urban populations: An epidemiological study in countryside. Chronobiology International, 31(3), 442-449.

Shechter, A., Kim, E. W., St-Onge, M., & Westwood, A. J. (2018). Blocking nocturnal blue light for insomnia: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 96, 196-202.

Sun, J., Chen, M., Cai, W., Wang, Z., Wu, S., Sun, X., & Liu, H. (2019). Chronotype: Implications for sleep quality in medical students. Chronobiology International, 1-9.


What Colorful Language!

We always see it in the movies: the younger child and the father laying together in the grass, gazing up at the midday sky. She asks what color the sky is, and he says blue without hesitation. Such a simple answer to what is, in reality, such a complex question. Over the past few weeks, to combat my occasional homesickness, I’ve found myself looking up to the sky, wondering if my parents can see the same sky back home in Georgia. When we discussed the colors of the sky in class, it encouraged me to investigate the simple answer to the question: what color is the sky?

Just one example of the types of colorful skies one could witness here in Paris.

The real answer, it turns out, depends on a variety of factors; the time of day, location of the viewer, location of the sun, the viewer’s visual abilities, language, mood, etc. From personal experience, I believe the same sky can be different colors to the same viewer in different states of mind. For example, individuals experiencing sadness have a greater tendency to “focus on the tree instead of the forest” (Gasper 2002), which translates to not seeing the full visual picture and instead fixating on visual detail, such as the shade of one item instead of the collective colors in a room. In a more scientific sense, a red-green colorblind viewer would have a different visual opinion of a sunset than a normally sighted individual. But what about language?

Interestingly enough, language and culture also exert a large influence on color perception; different languages have different words for different colors, and some only have one word for a whole category of colors. The color category perception effect (Zhang 2018) describes this phenomenon in which “people were more likely to distinguish colors from different colors than those that landed in the same area.” Those who speak languages that have more words for different colors would, under this theory, be better able to distinguish various shades than those who speak a language with fewer words for color. Based on this perception of color, two people from different cultures could view the sky in different shades. The figure below displays how the color wheels of the English and Greek lexicon differ due to variations in groupings.

Image result for the color wheelImage result for color wheel in greek

There is evidence that language centers in the brain are activated with color perception; in an experiment performed by Siok et al., when stimuli are observed from different linguistic categories, there is a greater activation of visual cortex areas 2/3 – the areas responsible for color vision. This enhanced V2/3 activity coincided with enhanced activity in the left posterior temporoparietal language region, which suggests a top-down control from the language center to modulate the visual cortex (Siok 2009). In other words, increased activity in language perception areas of the brain correlates to increased modulation of color vision before you’ve had the chance to pay conscious attention (Athanasopoulos 2010).

This is especially relevant in Paris; as an English-only speaker in a world of French speakers, I can’t help but wonder how differences in our color-related vocabulary translate to questions like that of the sky’s color. It is known that language effects sensory perception in its earliest stages (Athanasopoulos 2010), but would learning French color vocabulary change my perception of what colors I see? A previous experiment (Theirry 2009) demonstrated a difference in brain activity for both a native Greek and English speaker, the former of which makes a lexical distinction between light blue (ghalazio) and dark blue (ble). This is shown in the figure below, which demonstrates a greater Visual Mismatch Negativity response for the Greek participant when they were observing a blue stimulus due to greater lexical representation for this color.

A report of differences between speakers of different languages in early color perception. The shaded area represents presentation of a specific marker between 170 and 220 milliseconds post-stimulus. Notice the difference in negative response between Native English and Native Greek for the color blue.

In summary, the influence of language is one often underestimated when considering why we see the colors we do. I believe perception of color is a uniquely integrative experience, combining elements of culture, background, language, personality, and individuality to create specific visuals distinctive to one person. This seems all the more evident in Paris; everything is so new, so fresh and exciting that I cannot help but feel that the very colors of Paris hold something special that I have not seen elsewhere. So what color is the sky? You may be surprised, as I was, to find your answer constantly changes.


Athanasopoulos, P., Dering, B., Wiggett, A., Kuipers, J., & Thierry, G. (2010). Perceptual shift in bilingualism: Brain potentials reveal plasticity in pre-attentive colour perception. Cognition, 116(3), 437-443. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.05.016

Gasper, K., & Clore, G. L. (2002). Attending to the Big Picture: Mood and Global Versus Local Processing of Visual Information. Psychological Science, 13(1), 34-40. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00406

Siok, W. T., Kay, P., Wang, W. S., Chan, A. H., Chen, L., Luke, K., & Tan, L. H. (2009). Language regions of brain are operative in color perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(20), 8140-8145. doi:10.1073/pnas.0903627106

Thierry, G., Athanasopoulos, P., Wiggett, A., Dering, B., & Kuipers, J. (2009). Unconscious effects of language-specific terminology on preattentive color perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(11), 4567-4570. doi:10.1073/pnas.0811155106

Zhang, J., Chen, X., You, N., & Wang, B. (2018). On how conceptual connections influence the category perception effect of colors: Another evidence of connections between language and cognition. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 50(4), 390. doi:10.3724/sp.j.1041.2018.00390


The Music of the Metro

Paris is a unique city experience unlike any other I’ve partaken in. So many sites to visit, places to eat, districts to explore…how can one possibly get to them all? Simple: the Metro! Paris has an extensive metro system that covers any point you could ever want to visit. Atlanta may be fantastic in other respects, but the MARTA is definitely not set up for the burdens of massive public transportation. Riding the Metro daily to and from class was an entirely new process for me to get used to, from the rapidly closing doors to complete lack of personal space. Attached here is a picture of me in front of the station for the Balard train at the ACCENT center stop, Ledru Rollin.

Pictured above: the Balard Metro station as I wait for the next upcoming train three minutes away.

One of the first things I noticed about Metro riding was the efficiency; the doors closed so quickly after each person, I was shocked no one got stuck! As I got used to the train, I observed a noise that is played in front of every door right before it closes to alerts passengers that the door is closing. This noise is poignant and cutting, eliciting a harsh auditory reaction that informs passengers to stay clear of the area. As you hear it, you register that it is loud and unpleasant. What interested me so much is how this closing noise utilizes tonal dissonance to be more brash and effective. Attached below is an audio recording of the noise, taken during my morning commute (it may not open in Chrome, but it works in other web browsers).–mZPmrnmW2g42v8B_1V6CJ7B2vPkn5R/view?usp=sharing

This simple use of two tones causes such a visceral reaction for a reason; the frequencies of pitch and how they travel to the brain. Two pitches that are half or eight steps apart affect the same area of the basilar membrane, a structure located in the cochlea that is responsible for converting sound waves into nerve impulses that head to the brain. This joint stimulation results in beating (roughness in the basilar membrane) at a frequency that is determined by the difference between the two frequencies of the initial pitches (Johnson-Laird 2012). The clash between these almost-identical frequencies interact with one another to make a warbling, distorted sound.

This can be defined as a harmonically incongruous combination of notes, which is one that does not conform to the rules of harmony. The response to this in the brain is called the early right anterior negativity (ERAN); this event-related potential component occurs at an early latency, is prominent over anterior regions of the scalp, and tends to be lateralized to the right side. The amplitude of this response is modulated directly by attention and is more prominent in those with a familiarity towards music. An experiment was done observing harmonically incongruous chords in the context of a melodic sequence of chords and is shown in the figure below. Harmonically incongruous chords result in an attenuated response of neuronal firing when the tonal discord is in different positions (Positions 3, 5, 7) in the melodic phrase (Leino 2007). The hemispheric lateralization of the ERAN response is visible in the Position 3 example. In Position 7, the incongruous chord occurs at the end and elicits the strongest response and the greatest difference in neuronal firing rates.

Shows the difference in neuronal firing rates in specific areas of the brain during harmonically congruous and incongruous chords,

Of course, every individual has a different level of pitch identification. Absolute pitch refers to the phenomenon of identifying any pitch without given an external reference. Even during our pitch identification process, we activate the auditory cortex, prefrontal cortex, and certain parietal regions of the brain (Brauchli 2019); yet, we are not all as heavily invested in pitch as a musical function. Why is the ability to identify harmonic versus dissonant sounds in everyday life even important? Besides the tones used in music, language lends itself to a variety of colorful tones and variations in pitch. We use pitch in everyday conversation with specific inflection; for example, a rising pitch at the end of a sentence is often used to indicate a question. On the Metro, this understanding is important because it allows us to register a harmonically incongruous sound like the door closing and turn that into information: the train will soon close the doors. A small part of the everyday Parisian experience, yet an important one nonetheless. Maybe this is something you have yet to notice about the Metro experience, but it is fascinating regardless!

Aliyah Auerbach

Brauchli, C., Leipold, S., & Jäncke, L. (2019). Univariate and multivariate analyses of functional networks in absolute pitch. NeuroImage, 189, 241-247. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.01.021

Jonhson-Laird, P. N., Kang, O. E., & Long, Y. C. (2012). On Musical Dissonance. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 30(1), 19-35.

Leino, S., Brattico, E., Tervaniemi, M., & Vuust, P. (2007). Representation of harmony rules in the human brain: Further evidence from event-related potentials. Brain Research, 1142, 169-177. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2007.01.049