Author Archives: Sarah Taha

Lookin’ Sharp Kiki

My roommates and I have set a routine during our 5-week Paris study abroad trip. Every day we leave our apartment at the 15tharrondissement(district) and take the metro to the 11tharrondissement. We make our way to the boulangerie. With croissants and coffee in hand, we walk to class.

Last night, as I was trying to fall asleep, I thought of tomorrow’s usual croissant breakfast. It was then that I realized that when I thought of the word croissant I thought of a crescent shape. Whereas the thought of an éclair was associated  with an oblong shape. A mille feuille had a rectangular shape. Were these associations random?

Image of éclairs, croissant, and some other pastries including croissants, respectively.

Take a look at the two shapes presented below, which one would you associate with the word boba, and which with kiki?

Image from Ramachandran and Hubbard 2001 bouba-Kiki experiment; the shapes that they presented to their participants.

I bet you would choose the one on the right to be bouba and the one on the left to be kiki. How did I know? As it turns out, we have a bias towards associating certain words with shapes irrespective of language and age.

Researchers studied individuals with synesthesia, which is a condition of blending sensory experiences with each other (Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001). For example, someone hearing a C note would associate it with the color blue. However, these researchers expected that the blending of sensory experiences extends to all normal individuals who exhibit synesthesia to a certain extent. Researchers asked participants to identify bouba or kiki to each of the shapes you saw above (Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001). The results revealed 95% of participants associated the shape on the right with bouba. That is how I knew which association you were going to make. The results of the study, and the choice you just made yourself, depicts that our shape and sound associations are not completely random.  Ramachandran and Hubbard (2001) speculate that the shape of the speaker’s lips—whether they are open and round, or wide and narrow—and the visual perception of an object being sharp or rounded are represented by parts of the brain that are connected with one another. Thus, there are connections between the sensory brain areas, brain areas related to perception, and the motors brain areas, brain areas related to movement. Other researchers also examined the effect of vowel and consonant shapes on the meaning of the random letters represented (McCormick et al. 2015). These findings suggest that there are not only connections between our brain areas related to shape and sound, but also connections between sounds and our understanding of the meaning associated with them.

This makes me wonder, would someone who is not an English speaker still match the shape on the right with bouba?

As both an English and Arabic native speaker, I have realized that I chose the shape on the right to be bouba because the “b” in both English and Arabic represents a softer sound, which would be associated with the rounder shape. However, do people who have not been influenced by the English language still associate the same shape with the sound?

Researchers found that indeed non-Westerners, who live in Himba of Northern Namibia, a remote population isolated from Western influence and written language exhibited shape-sound associations when presented with bouba and kiki (Bremner et al., 2013).

Looking at the identification made by participants above and my own identification of the two shapes as a twenty-year-old. I begin to wonder, as a child, would I still have chosen kiki to be the shape on the left?

Image from Maurer et al. (2006) experiment; the images and words that they presented to their participants.

Maurer et al. (2006) studied the bouba-kiki paradigm on 2.5-year-old children comparing them to adults. The researchers looked at the effect of age in the bouba-kiki phenomenon and whether it influences learning of language. The experiment consisted of a pair of rounded and pointed shapes and 2 random letters that the children identified with each of the shapes. There were four different trials. The results showed that regardless of age, participants matched rounded shapes with words that had rounded letters (ex. B, O), while the pointed shapes were matched with unrounded letters (ex. K, T). Thus, this depicts that shape-sound mapping occurs in children and may influence language development. This means that as a child, I would have still chosen the same shapes to represent bouba and kiki. However, there is a drawback to this study as children at 2.5 years have already learned how to say words. Hence, the possibility of vocabulary influencing their shape-sound mapping cannot be eliminated. Therefore, no direct conclusions can be made about its implications on the evolution of language. The researchers strengthened their conclusion by not only including bouba and kiki words and shapes, but also testing other shape and word associations. Thus, emphasizing that we are biased towards shape-word associations, which are independent of age.

So, shape-sound associations impact our categorization and representation of things. Now, when I think about croissants being crescent shaped and éclairs being oblong, I question: is my vocabulary affecting my word-shape association? This is something that remains unknown. Thus, future studies need to look at whether infants who have not yet learned how to speak would have the same shape-sound associations. Our insight that shape-sound associations are neither language dependent nor age dependent emphasizes that this phenomenon could be a part of the evolution of language. Further research is needed to explore this aspect of language.



Bremner, A. J., Caparos, S., Davidoff, J., de Fockert, J., Linnell, K. J., & Spence, C. (2013). “Bouba” and “Kiki” in Namibia? A remote culture make similar shape–sound matches, but different shape–taste matches to Westerners. Cognition126(2), 165-172.

Maurer, D., Pathman, T., & Mondloch, C. J. (2006). The shape of boubas: Sound–shape correspondences in toddlers and adults. Developmental science9(3), 316-322.

McCormick, K., Kim, J., List, S., & Nygaard, L. C. (2015, July). Sound to Meaning Mappings in the Bouba-Kiki Effect. In CogSci (Vol. 2015, pp. 1565-1570).

Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. M. (2001). Synaesthesia–a window into perception, thought and language. Journal of consciousness studies8(12), 3-34.

Image References:

Image 1:

Image 2: Figure from the paper: Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. M. (2001). Synaesthesia–a window into perception, thought and language. Journal of consciousness studies8(12), 3-34.

Image 3: Figure from the paper: Maurer, D., Pathman, T., & Mondloch, C. J. (2006). The shape of boubas: Sound–shape correspondences in toddlers and adults. Developmental science9(3), 316-322.



Google Map directions of the 5-minute walk from the ACCENT center to Pause Café.

“It’s a 20-minute walk,” sighed my American friends, complaining that it was “too long.” It was our first week in Paris on our study abroad program, and we were planning on going to a café. After Google maps indicated that the metro stop was far from the original café, we ended up going to Pause Café. It was on the corner of the street near the ACCENT center, where our daily classes are held.


Image of Pause Café.

I was shocked by the lack of energy that we had. Looking around us, Parisians were walking from place to place without breaking a sweat. Walking for twenty minutes, even thirty, was typical for a Parisian. This got me thinking, how different would my life be if I lived in Paris. In Atlanta, shops and restaurants were far apart, sidewalks were narrow, and the city was difficult to explore without a car. But in Paris, everything was nearby, and sidewalks were wide. If I were to walk this much every day for the rest of my life, how would that impact my health?

Exercise is known to have many health benefits. A fact that has been ingrained in my mind since elementary school. What I knew was that exercise could prevent heart attacks and diseases, but not its effect on the brain.

Researchers show that exercise improves memory, specifically our memory of certain places and events (Cassilhas et al., 2016). The anterior hippocampus provides us with the ability to imagine our house and move around our neighborhood (Zeidman and Maguire, 2016). As we get older the hippocampus decreases in volume resulting in increased forgetfulness (Raz et al.,2005). However, there may be a way to halt those effects and possibly reverse them.

Erickson et al. (2011), reveal in their study that physical exercise improves our long-term memory, specifically our navigational memory. By exercising 3 times a week for one-year, participants had an increase in the volume of their anterior hippocampus. However, participants who did not exercise had a decreased anterior hippocampal volume. Overall, the study showed that only the decreased volume in the anterior hippocampus can be reversed with exercise, but not other parts of the hippocampus. This is a well-designed experiment because 120 participants were involved in the study, which makes the results more applicable to the general public by representing different types of people in the population. The differences in the size of the anterior hippocampus can be better observed and statistically tested with this large number of participants. Further, by testing participants prior to the exercise protocol, after 6 months, and after one year, we can look at the effects of exercise on the anterior hippocampal volume both in the short-term and long-term.

Graphs of the increase in the volume of the anterior hippocampus for the exercise group (blue line) compared to the decrease in the volume of the anterior hippocampus for the control (red line), evident in both the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere of the hippocampus.

Writing this now, I regret missing that 20-minute walk because I now know that a little exercise every day goes a long way in improving my memory. This leaves me wondering, is there a certain time frame when I should be exercising after learning new material?

Researchers performed a study to test whether there is an appropriate time to exercise after learning to improve memory recall (Van Dongen et al., 2016). Participants were assigned into three groups; those who exercised immediately, those who exercised after 4 hours and those who did not exercise. They learned to associate a certain object with a location (refer to image below).The researchers then asked the participants to recall that association. The results showed that exercising 4 hours after learning instead of immediately after enhanced participant’s ability to remember those associations compared to those who did not exercise. Hence, properly timed exercise can enhance long-term memory. The researchers strengthen their conclusion by controlling for problems that could affect the results.Such as having half the participants perform the task at 9AM, while the other half perform it at 12PM. This accounts for the differences in performance at different times of the day, which ensures that improvement in memory recall is occurring due to exercise.

Image of task protocol: associating an object with a location. The orange box represents the study phase, while the blue box represents the testing phase.

So, my elementary school teacher was right after all. Exercise is important for a healthy heart and, as it turns out, a healthy memory. Not only does this motivate me to exercise more often, but also, these studies give me hope for new intervention methods for patients with memory recall deficits. An example would be Alzheimer patients, who struggle with navigating the world (Weller et al., 2018). Another would be patients with major depressive disorder, who have memory impairments in encoding and recalling information (Gourgouvelis et al., 2017). It is cases like these that highlight the importance of understanding the impact of exercise on memory.

Now, when my friends and I have the option between using the metro or walking for 20-minutes, we choose the latter. Living in Paris for 4 weeks today, I have assimilated with the Parisian way of life. I am now able to walk in Paris for hours without the slightest soreness in my legs. It has become my new way of life.



Cassilhas, R. C., Tufik, S., & de Mello, M. T. (2016). Physical exercise, neuroplasticity, spatial learning and memory. Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, 73(5), 975-983.

Erickson, K. I., Voss, M. W., Prakash, R. S., Basak, C., Szabo, A., Chaddock, L., … & Wojcicki, T. R. (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(7), 3017-3022.

Gourgouvelis, J., Yielder, P., & Murphy, B. (2017). Exercise promotes neuroplasticity in both healthy and depressed brains: an fMRI pilot study. Neural plasticity, 2017.

Raz, N., Lindenberger, U., Rodrigue, K. M., Kennedy, K. M., Head, D., Williamson, A., … & Acker, J. D. (2005). Regional brain changes in aging healthy adults: general trends, individual differences and modifiers. Cerebral cortex, 15(11), 1676-1689.

Van Dongen, E. V., Kersten, I. H., Wagner, I. C., Morris, R. G., & Fernández, G. (2016). Physical exercise performed four hours after learning improves memory retention and increases hippocampal pattern similarity during retrieval. Current Biology, 26(13), 1722-1727.

Weller, J., & Budson, A. (2018). Current understanding of Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis and treatment. F1000Research7.

Zeidman, P., & Maguire, E. A. (2016). Anterior hippocampus: the anatomy of perception, imagination and episodic memory. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 17(3), 173.

Let’s Van Go(gh) to Arles

Narrow streets, old buildings, and small shops were in sight as I walked with a group of my friends towards the renowned Vincent Van Gogh Café. We were in Arles, a city in the south of France where the Dutch painter Van Gogh lived for more than a year and created some of his best work. Once we reached the square, a yellow café was to our right, and in blue writing “Le Café La Nuit” and “Vincent Van Gogh Café” were spelled out.  Red couches and vases of yellow sunflowers lined the walls. People were rushing in and out, and tourists were taking pictures.

The image of Vincent Van Gogh Café in 2019 compared to Van Gogh’s painting in 1888.

This café, once a place where Van Gogh spent his time painting, now differed from the one depicted in his painting. Chairs were replaced by couches, empty stores fronts were changed to buzzing restaurants and hotels, a few circular tables were swapped for large rectangular tables. Intrigued, we did not stop there. Our next stop was the hospital ward courtyard, where Van Gogh was admitted twice, and created three known paintings.

The courtyard of the hospital ward in Arles (2019), with a replica of Van Gogh’s painting in the foreground.

You might be confused right now if you have not heard about Van Gogh’s story. Hospital ward? Twice? Van Gogh left Paris for Arles because of his mental health. However, after a few months in Arles, his mental health deteriorated. A razor covered with blood in hand, Van Gogh had maimed his ear, after arguing with his house guest (Khoshbin and Katz, 2015). At Hotel Dieu Hospital, Dr. Felix Rey treated Van Gogh, bandaged his ear, and diagnosed him with epilepsy. In a letter Dr. Rey wrote, there were times when Van Gogh “loses his train of thought and speaks nothing but disjointed words… he went to lie down in another patient’s bed and would not leave it… he chased the sister on duty… he went to wash in the coal-box” (Van Gogh Museum). He was then transferred to the asylum Saint-Remy-de-Provence, where Dr. Theophile Peyron, recorded Van Gogh’s medical condition as having “suffered an attack of acute mania with visual and auditory hallucinations that led him to mutilate himself by cutting off his ear” (Van Gogh Museum). So, was Van Gogh certainly epileptic? Or did he suffer from another neurological disorder?

Epilepsy is a neurological condition that is defined by recurrent seizures and can affect people of all ages. Van Gogh was described by doctors as having seizures, which is the reason for the primary diagnosis of epilepsy. However, the best method for diagnosis is through the use of an electroencephalography (EEG), a machine that records the electrical activity of the brain (Guerreiro, 2016). Epileptic patients have unusual activity in their brain cells(neurons), which makes an EEG a good tool to detect epilepsy. However, in 1889, when Van Gogh was diagnosed, the EEG had not yet been discovered. Thus, with no scans to look at, this brings to question whether the diagnosis of Van Gogh was accurate.

EEG image of a normal (seizure-free) brain compared to an EEG image of the brain of an epileptic patient (Ebrahimpour et al. 2012).

Another study revealed that auras are important in diagnosing patients as epileptic (Liu et al., 2017). An aura consists of all the sensations that a patient experiences prior to a seizure. The type of aura the patient experiences conveys what part of the cerebral cortex, outermost region of the brain responsible for decision making and speech, is affected (Liu et al., 2017). Epileptic patients could have sensory (related to the senses) or cognitive auras (related to thoughts), as well as unspeakable feelings (Liu et al., 2017). These characteristics were evident in Van Gogh, since he had auditory and visual hallucinations and he was unable to express his thoughts. However, the findings do not explain the depressive symptoms and the urge to commit suicide that Van Gogh experienced.

The more I look at the symptoms described by the doctors, the more I realize that Van Gogh was more likely a schizophrenic. Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that encompasses hallucinations, delusional thinking and cognitive problems (Seidman and Mirsky, 2017). One study examined the effects of depression and cognitive impairment on adults with schizophrenia (Raykeer et al., 2019). Patients who had schizophrenia had increased depression and cognitive impairments, which they measured through “quality of life exams,” a common well-known method. Both depression and cognitive impairments were observed in Van Gogh, according to the medical records written by Dr. Peyron. Further, individuals with schizophrenia lack empathy, are unable to understand what other people are feeling based on gestures, and have poor problem-solving skills (Couture et al., 2006). All of these symptoms were manifested by Van Gogh. Therefore, it is likely that he may have been schizophrenic, although there is no conclusive evidence to determine his neurological condition.

Now, as I continue walking towards the river in Arles, I see a replica painting of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night, 1889,” outside a gallery. This was a painting he made through his window when he was institutionalized at Saint Remy Asylum. Some people say that it was a visual hallucination because Van Gogh’s room did not have a view of the city and the trees were not shaped like flames, nor did the stars whirl as they appear in his painting. So, what was Van Gogh’s medical condition? The question remains unanswered, but if you asked me, I would say all signs point to schizophrenia.

Image of Van Gogh’s Starry Night 1889 painting.



Couture, S. M., Penn, D. L., & Roberts, D. L. (2006). The functional significance of social cognition in schizophrenia: a review. Schizophrenia bulletin32(suppl_1), S44-S63.

Ebrahimpour, R., Babakhan, K., Arani, S. A. A. A., & Masoudnia, S. (2012). Epileptic seizure detection using a neural network ensemble method and wavelet transform. Neural Network World22(3), 291.

Guerreiro, C. (2016). Epilepsy: Is there hope? Indian Journal Of Medical Research144(5), 657.

Khoshbin, S., & Katz, J. (2015). Van Gogh’s Physician. Open Forum Infectious Diseases2(3), ofv088.

Liu, Y., Guo, X. M., Wu, X., Li, P., & Wang, W. W. (2017). Clinical Analysis of Partial Epilepsy with Auras. Chinese medical journal130(3), 318.

Pascal de Raykeer R, e. (2019). Effects of depression and cognitive impairment on quality of life in older adults with schizophrenia spectrum disorder: Results from a multicenter study. J Affect Disord. 256, 164-175.

 Seidman, L. J., & Mirsky, A. F. (2017). Evolving notions of schizophrenia as a developmental neurocognitive disorder. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society23(9-10), 881-892.

Van Gogh Museum. (2009, October). Vincent Van Gogh The Letters. Van Gogh Museum. Retrieved from


Paintings from:

Van Gogh V. (1889). The Starry Night. Retrieved from

Van Gogh V. (1888). Café at Night. Retrieved from


Georgia On My Mind

White earplugs hang from the ears of every person in my view. Surrounded by people from all sides, I heard a mixture of different songs, different artists, and different genres echo in the quiet metro. Every day, at 8:55 AM I  got on the metro at La Motte-Picquet- Grenelle and 16 stops later, I  got off at Ledru-Rollin, where my classes are. Even though I  saw different people rushing in and out of the metro, I never failed to spot the white earphones or ear pods in people’s ears.

The Metro line M8 taken from La Motte-Picquet- Grenelle station and the 16 stops before arriving to Ledru-Rollin station (the start and stop are identified by the red boxes).

On the streets of Paris, people of various ages walked to the beat of their songs pumping in their ears. So why are Parisians infatuated with music?

A picture of a Parisian on the metro listening to music.

It turns out that our brain interprets music as a pleasant and rewarding experience (Ferreri et al., 2019). In scientific terms, a well-known neurotransmitter, dopamine, is a chemical substance that is released by neurons when we experience pleasure. An experiment performed by Ferreri et al., 2019 studied the role of dopamine on feelings of pleasure and motivation to listen to music. They did that by  having volunteer participants receive orally either a chemical that enhances dopamine, prevents dopamine, or does not affect dopamine in their brains while they listen to music. The results show that the participants who  take the dopamine enhancer  have increased feelings of pleasure and motivation to listen to music, while the opposite effects are seen for individuals who  take the dopamine inhibitor. So, people like Parisians who listen to music experience a rush of pleasure. A simple analogy is that an individual’s brain reacts similarly when listening to music as it does if that individual takes potent drugs, such as cocaine.

The one thing that is constantly surrounding us anywhere in the world is music, whether we are at a supermarket, a café, or a mall. We are constantly being stimulated by music as it is becoming an integral part of every culture. Not only does it touch our mood and emotions, but also it influences our thoughts. Have you ever listened to a song and started to think about all your future life decisions? Of a memory with your friends? Of the challenges you have been through?

Well, researchers show that stronger emotions are experienced when we involve our personal memories  while listening to music whether we find it pleasant or unpleasant (Maksimainen et al., 2018). When we enjoy a song, our memories of certain events heighten our emotional response. This is why when we listen to our favorite song, we start remembering things that happened to us and we feel like we are experiencing these emotions again. But wait, there’s more…music affects parts of the brain that are involved in processing information that go beyond our emotions.  One study examines a circuit of 3 main networks in the brain of preterm compared to full term newborns (Lordier et al., 2019). The findings revealed that preterm infants who are introduced to music in the intensive care unit at the hospital have significantly more connections in the orange and blue networks compared to preterm infants who were not exposed to music. The brain regions involved in the orange network are the superior frontal gyrus, the auditory cortex, and the sensorimotor area, which are involved in cognitive control, auditory processing and motor control, respectively. The brain regions involved in the blue network are the thalamus, precuneus, and parahippocampal gyrus, which are involved in processing information from our senses, recall of memories and encoding and retrieval of memories, respectively. The important take away is that preterm infants who are exposed to music have brain networks that develop more similarly to full term newborns. This means that music plays a role in enhancing our brain networks, which indirectly affects higher cognitive functions.

An image of the brain that shows the networks of interest in the Lordier et al. (2019) study.

Now, as I stand in the metro unlike my first day in Paris, I am the one with the white earphones hanging from my ears. As I listen to country and pop songs, I enjoy every moment of my metro ride instead of counting the minutes  till I reach my destination. I am relaxed, experiencing my own rush of pleasure. Each song evokes in me a different memory, a different feeling than the last. Listening to Ray Charles, Georgia on my mind, I reminisce about my experiences in Atlanta.  Music, a part of our daily lives that we often disregard, actually has a strong influence on our brain network and emotional experiences.

An image of me on the metro with my earphones in, listening to music after spending 2 weeks in Paris.


Lordier, L., Meskaldji, D., Grouiller, F., Pittet, M., Vollenweider, A., & Vasung, L. et al. (2019). Music in premature infants enhances high-level cognitive brain networks. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 201817536. doi:10.1073/pnas.1817536116

Ferreri, L., Mas-Herrero, E., Zatorre, R., Ripollés, P., Gomez-Andres, A., & Alicart, H. et al. (2019). Dopamine modulates the reward experiences elicited by music. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences116(9), 3793-3798. doi:10.1073/pnas.1811878116

 Maksimainen, J., Wikgren, J., Eerola, T., & Saarikallio, S. (2018). The Effect of Memory in Inducing Pleasant Emotions with Musical and Pictorial Stimuli. Scientific Reports8(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-018-35899-y