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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)

T-Rex of Spring

In Paris, I witnessed my first professional ballet performance with Le Lac des cygnes, or Swan Lake, performed by the Universal Ballet company.

Both the dancing and the music were incredibly beautiful, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the grace of the dancers and the harmony of the music.

Which is why I can understand how audiences in the 1900s must have been shocked after listening to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring right after a delightful traditional ballet like Swan Lake. In class, we learned about how Stravinsky’s orchestral and ballet piece debuted in 1913, surprising audiences and causing such strong emotions that in early performances the audiences actually began rioting in the theater. If you listen to it yourself, you can understand how the melody is the furthest from graceful or traditional—if you can even locate what you think is the melody, that is. Personally, I found it very uncomfortable to listen to at first, and I felt my heart rate pick up slightly—and I have heard a lot of weird things! Even though audiences were scandalized when it first came out, by 1981 this piece was popular enough to be incorporated into a famous animated movie called Fantasia, where it was paired with the animations of the Big Bang, dinosaurs fighting in the rain, and then their extinction. (My description doesn’t do it justice, so check out an excerpt here)

Screenshot from the dino fight

The reason why I found this interesting is that I have a crippling fear of dinosaurs–even though I should be an adult, I am still terrified of creatures that no longer exist on this planet and that I will never encounter. But this had me wondering: like many other people, I watched all the Fantasia movies when I was younger. Could my fear of dinosaurs stem from the fact that as a child, I watched this Rite of Spring segment and was scared by the music, but then associated it with what I was seeing on the screen—dinosaurs? Or in the words of Wong et al. (2019), “How does a stimulus never associated with danger become frightening?”

In their recent study, they discuss the concept of how your sensory and emotional experiences share common elements that can overlap. Their example is of a hiker in a rainforest: on the first day, the hiker hears an unfamiliar sound and sees an unfamiliar animal. If the next day the hiker sees that unfamiliar animal on a poster labeled “extremely dangerous”, then when the hiker hears that unfamiliar sound, they may become scared even though they were never directly conditioned to be afraid of the sound. To investigate this phenomenon, they tested how rats can integrate a “sound-light” memory with a “light-danger” memory. They did this by mimicking the hiker scenario: they first exposed the mice to a sound and a light, then a light and a shock, followed by the official testing of the sound and light separately to observe the fear response in the mouse.

They found that the mice showed fear in response to the sound, even though the sound was never associated with shock. In addition, they discovered that this process of association likely takes place in the perirhinal cortex, as rats who were damaged in this area of the brain were not able to associate the sound with danger. They concluded that stimuli could be associated together in a fear memory network, and that memories stored in one region of the brain can be retrieved with information elsewhere in the brain in a process called “memory-chaining” (Wong et al., 2019). It would be helpful, however, if they had done more testing to see whether this effect is observed for all associations, or whether there are some situations where this associative “memory-chaining” does not occur.

Furthermore, another study by Soeter and Kindt (2015) presented data that also supports this conclusion, but specifically investigating reconsolidation of memories—a critical aspect of memory formation and retrieval. They viewed any fear memory as a “flexible representation of the original learning experience”, and therefore tested what types of cues could trigger fear memory. They found that even abstract cues that are not directly associated with a potentially dangerous stimulus could trigger reconsolidation of memories (Soeter & Kindt, 2015), which provides another perspective towards fear learning and fear associations. These studies were particularly interesting as their results have implications in conditions such as anxiety disorders, as they often involve learned fear associations. By understanding the connections and conditions for consolidation and retrieval of these fear memories, the foundation of knowledge for future research grows and can lead to the development of potential therapies.

I’m still not sure about whether my fear of dinosaurs were from my association of the fear I felt hearing the Rite of Spring and seeing the dinosaurs, but with this study it seems like it could be possible. Still, definitely staying away from any Jurassic Park remakes for now!


Soeter M, Kindt M (2015) Retrieval cues that trigger reconsolidation of associative fear memory are not necessarily an exact replica of the original learning experience. Front. Behav. Nerosci. 9:112.

Wong FS, Westbrook RF, Holmes NM (2019) ‘Online’ integration of sensory and fear memories in the rat medial temporal lobe. eLife. 8:e47085.

Image 1 taken by me

Image 2 from

Image 3 from Wong et al (2019)

A Symphony of Birds

Paris is a city of lights, but also a city of sound. The peacefulness of the gardens surrounding the cityscape is no match to the hustle and bustle of everyday city life. Sometimes the sound is welcomed, such as a talented neighbor’s piano playing or an excellent street musician’s violin performance under the Arc de Triomphe. However, sometimes it is less welcomed, such as a taxi honking or an amateur trumpeter interjecting himself on my metro ride. Despite that, I absolutely love the sounds around the city. An overlooked, but equally important aspect to the music of the city, is the music of the animal residents of Paris. Every morning, I walk outside my apartment and generally hear the sound of some animal within five minutes of stepping foot outside my door. Whether it is two pigeons fighting over food by a bakery or two dogs barking as they pass each other, it is clear that animals have specific abilities to communicate unique to each species.

1 Metro performer during daily ride on line 8


One of my favorite sounds to hear in Paris is the tweeting of birds up in the trees while I walk below on the street. During my time here in Paris, I have been exposed to the knowledge of bird songs in my classes and how their songs act as communication to one another. One questioned asked in class was “If some animals can be shown to have language, do they also create art?”. When I first heard this question, I immediately imagined monkeys holding a paintbrush behind a canvas with paint splattered on it and thought how I wasn’t so sure that it could be considered art. Upon further thinking, I thought of how art can be more than drawing, it could be related to dancing or singing. Instantly I started wondering if some birds may actually be singing for aesthetic purposes or just for their own personal entertainment. I knew that songbirds, like canaries or finches, are even known to have neural circuitry that shows that they are selective in what singing they process from other birds in order to rely on their memories for song learning (Phan et al., 2005). I then began to investigate if birds have been shown to exhibit any capacity of artistic expression and found an article by Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner (2017) that demonstrated the auditory skills and musical preferences of grey parrots in captivity.

2 What I initially thought of as animals creating art

According to Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner (2017), grey parrots are quite intelligent and have high audible skills and musical talents. Male parrots are even known to have songs that are specific to only themselves and are able to provide highly trained song learning to their offspring (Berg et al., 2011). The aim of their study was to determine how music and the use of musical instruments would influence the activity of grey parrots and add to their audible enrichment.  A central experiment of the study focused on how the parrots would interact and manipulate a music-producing joystick test device. The parrots’ beaks and legs were able to freely manipulate two joy sticks in two different experimental set ups. The first set up gave one joystick that produced sound and another joystick that remained silent. The preference for the grey parrots to activate the joystick that produced sound over silence demonstrates how parrots are more inclined to have auditory stimulation than to be without it (Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner, 2017). In the second set up, there were two active joysticks, one set to 90 beats per minute and the other set to 120 beats per minute. This setup was used in order to gain a better understanding of musical and auditory preferences of individual grey parrots. The results from the second setup demonstrate that the parrots preferred to play beats at 90 beats per minute over 120 beats per minute. The spontaneous interaction of the parrots with the joystick device demonstrates that they have a potential capacity to exhibit musical expression.

3 Joystick Test Device used by Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner (2017)

The real world application of the Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner (2017) study implies that musical instruments can significantly benefit grey parrots in captivity by giving them a creative outlet for expression. The strength of this experiment was the use of these two different set ups. By being able to compare sound to silence and then strengthen that result (birds prefer auditory stimuli to silence) by specific was measure of beat the grey parrots prefer, it really helps those curious (including me) to agree with their conclusion that grey parrots can not only have vocal singing capabilities, but that they can  consciously process music and have the capability to manipulate a simple form of a musical instrument. While I believe that their experiment, for the most part, was strongly thought through, there is one aspect of their experimental design that I find questionable. Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner (2017) state that their method to ensure that the birds acknowledged and used the musical joystick was to have a person stay present with the parrots and motivate them to engage with it. This alarms me as a possible confounding variable as they do not go in depth describing what their specific methods were to motivate the birds. The idea to measure grey parrot beat preference and frequency preference proved insightful and begs me to ask the further question of could birds, songbirds and non-songbirds, be shown to have the capability to synthesize the beats that they prefer and make a music all their own?


Works Cited

Berg, K. S., Delgado, S., Cortopassi, K. A., Beissinger, S. R., & Bradbury, J. W. (2011). Vertical transmission of learned signatures in a wild parrot. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences279(1728), 585-591.

Gupfinger, R., & Kaltenbrunner, M. (2017, November). Sonic experiments with grey parrots: A report on testing the auditory skills and musical preferences of grey parrots in captivity. In Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Animal-Computer Interaction (p. 3). ACM.

Phan, M. L., Pytte, C. L., & Vicario, D. S. (2006). Early auditory experience generates long-lasting memories that may subserve vocal learning in songbirds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences103(4), 1088-1093.


Image 1: taken by me

Image 2: taken from:


Image 3 taken from: Gupfinger, R., & Kaltenbrunner, M. (2017, November).

Talking about talking

During everyday life, its easy to take language for granted. You go about your day able to almost seamlessly communicate with others. However, when you’re in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, it’s impossible not to notice. Language becomes a thing you think about every day, trying to pick up words and hoping you’re pronouncing the words correctly. When we were talking about animal language in class, it made me wonder why do we have such an advanced way of communicating with each other. We had learned about various ways that animals communicate in some of my previous classes, however, humans have always found a difference in our language that we believe makes it unique. So, what is it that allows us to have the ability to create complex languages?

Picture of me on the phone. Picture credits: Genevieve Wilson

Lai et al. (2001) found that the Foxp2 gene plays a large role in our ability to speak by studying the DNA of people who had a language disorder. According to Schreiweis et al. (2019), the gene is found in throughout many species of animals, however, humans have a slightly different version of it. In order to study the effects of the difference, they altered the gene in mice to resemble the human version and compared them to mice with the normal mouse gene. They found that the human version of the gene caused more neurons to express Foxp2 than the normal mouse version did in areas where there was a lot of expression. However, they also found that in areas of the brain without a lot of Foxp2 expression, the human version caused even less expression than the normal mouse gene did.

Castellucci et al. (2016) also studied the effects of Foxp2 in mice, however, they studied the effects of getting rid of the gene instead. Because mice who don’t have the gene at all end up dying as juveniles, they studied mice with only one copy of the gene and its impacts on mating calls. They found that the mice with only one copy of Foxp2 didn’t produce sounds longer than 75 ms while the mice with both copies did. They also found that the mice with only one copy of the gene produced more consistent sounds than the mice with both copies.

All of this was super interesting, but mice are a little different from people. So, what is it that Foxp2 does in people? For obvious reasons, there haven’t been experiments with Foxp2 in humans but there have been more studies done on the family that Lai et al (2001) studied. For example, Schulze et al. (2018) used this family to study Foxp2’s effects on working memory, or the memory of what just happened. They first gave both the family members with the mutation and controls with the normal gene an IQ test. They then did various memory tests such as giving them a sentence, asking them to say if it was true or false, then asking them to repeat the last word. They found that the people with the altered Foxp2 gene did worse on the tasks than the control participants did. This could indicate that language is important in our working memory or that the Foxp2 gene also plays a role in working memory. Emmorey et al. (2017) also looked at the association between working memory and language, but without looking at the Foxp2 gene. They studied 3 groups of people: monolingual English speakers, deaf American Sign Language speakers, and people who spoke both languages. They had the participants perform various tasks such as being shown a simple picture, for example a letter, and having to remember which direction it was facing. They found that the way that you speak does have an impact on how you remember things, but most of their results seemed to apply to how you remember language.

The idea that language could impact memory was fascinating, but human experiments can’t prove a cause. Schreiweis et al. (2014) did an experiment in mice where they compared mice with the human version of Foxp2 with the wildtype mice. They trained the two groups of mice to a maze and found the human version of the gene did impact the mice’s learning. However, they said that the reason for the change still wasn’t known. Language obviously plays a large role in human cultures; however, it seems like there is still a lot that is unclear about how we are able to talk. It’s crazy how much one gene can impact our ability to communicate with one another. However, I think for now I would settle for learning some other languages instead of understanding language itself.




Works Cited

Castellucci, G. A., Mcginley, M. J., & Mccormick, D. A. (2016). Knockout of Foxp2 disrupts vocal development in mice. Scientific Reports, 6(1), 1-12. doi:10.1038/srep23305

Emmorey, K., Giezen, M. R., Petrich, J., Spurgeon, E., & O’Grady Farnady, L. (2017). The relation between working memory and language comprehension in signers and speakers. Acta psychologica, 177, 69–77. doi:10.1016/j.actpsy.2017.04.014

Lai, C. S., Fisher, S. E., Hurst, J. A., Vargha-Khadem, F., & Monaco, A. P. (2001). A forkhead-domain gene is mutated in a severe speech and language disorder. Nature, 413, 519-523. doi:

Schreiweis, C., Bornschein, U., Burguière, E., Kerimoglu, C., Schreiter, S., Dannemann, M., … Graybiel, A. M. (2014). Humanized Foxp2 accelerates learning by enhancing transitions from declarative to procedural performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(39), 14253–14258. doi:10.1073/pnas.1414542111

Schreiweis, C., Irinopoulou, T., Vieth, B., Laddada, L., Oury, F., Burguiere, E., . . . Groszer, M. (2019). Mice carrying a humanized Foxp2 knock-in allele show region-specific shifts of striatal Foxp2 expression levels. Cortex. doi:10.1101/514893

Schulze, K., Vargha-Khadem, F., & Mishkin, M. (2018). Phonological working memory and FOXP2. Neuropsychologia, 108, 147–152. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2017.11.027



Me on the phone. [Personal photograph taken in Paris apartment]. (2019, June 28).

Taken by Genevieve Wilson

Stop and See/Smell/Hear the Flowers

When I was a little kid, my favorite book was Philippe in Monet’s Garden, a picture book about a frog who escapes a Parisian frog catcher and finds a home on the famous painter’s estate. When I was a few years older, I marveled at the beautiful paintings of the waterlilies in Monet’s pond. Needless to say, I was thrilled to take a day trip to Giverny and see for myself the iconic place that has enthralled me for years. The grounds of Monet’s home did not disappoint; I consider this outing to be one of my favorite things I have done in France.

The cover of my favorite children’s book, Philippe in Monet’s Garden by Lisa Jobe Carmack and Lisa Canney Chesaux.

Despite my love for all of the art that originating from that special place, while walking through the gardens I wasn’t thinking about paintings or talking frogs; I was swept up in the beauty of it all. It’s not everyday you find yourself in a place so dense in natural beauty, but even the parks around Emory seem to have this soothing effect on me.

A number of scientific studies have set out to explore this phenomenon that I have observed. Large scale studies of different populations have concluded that people who live close to nature, whether it be Monet’s gardens or Piedmont park, tend to be happier and experience less mental distress than those who live in more urbanized areas (White et al., 2013; Shanahan et al., 2015). Another experiment in 2012 found that patients with various mental health disorders reported higher mood and self-esteem when they participated in nature walks compared to indoor exercise (Barton et al., 2012). Since access to nature can serve as both a preventative measure and a component of treatment, it seems to be an excellent candidate for further public health research.

Me in Monet’s garden, and just as happy as Philippe to be there! Giverny, France

But what is it about nature that has such a profound effect on us? The primary shortcoming in proposals to incorporate nature into public health initiatives is a poor understanding of what kind of natural experience is helpful (Hartig et al., 2014; Shanahan et al., 2015). Since the rise of urbanization, human beings have lost much of the connection with nature we once had; in order to optimize an effort to bring the health effects of nature to cities, we need to better understand the mechanisms of these effects (White et al., 2013; Shanahan et al., 2015). Current research tends to focus on the visual system, but my walk in Giverny was about more than the sights; the smell of the flowers, the sound of the wind in the vines, and the warmth of the sun on my back all contributed to my experience. A recent attempt to translate nature into a mental health treatment failed for this very reason; participants viewing a simulated natural environment reported less stress reduction than controls who were in the actual outside environment and complained of a disconnect from “real nature” (Kjellgren & Buhrkall, 2010). A multi-sensory system study on the effects of nature could help bridge the gap between the clear benefits to be had and the best method to adapt them to an increasingly urban world (Franco et al., 2017).

The sounds of nature are considered to be especially pleasing; people prefer the sounds of nature to those of a city and many buy recordings of natural sounds to help them relax or sleep (Yang & Kang, 2007; Alvarsson et al., 2010). A group of researchers wanted to test the effect of natural sounds on stress levels after a challenging task by measuring skin conductance levels (a well known measure of stress) in a group that was played bird song and a group that was played other noises (Alvarsson et al., 2010; Cummings et al., 2007). They found that participants who were played nature sounds recovered faster from the stress of the task than groups who were played generic noise. This is only one experiment of many documenting the positive effects of nature sounds, but it demonstrates that there is a potential for auditory stimulation to become a part of alternative mental health treatment regimens.

The olfactory system is also plays an important role in a holistic experience of nature. The smells of nature can help to immerse us in an outdoor experience, and it has been demonstrated that certain odors evoke emotional responses (Glass et al., 2014; Franco et al., 2017). The popularity of essential oils as a natural remedy attests to this fact.

My dog Ruby knows a little something about the positive effects of floral odors on mood. Emory University, GA

A 1998 study used an EEG to measure the effects of relaxing and alerting (lavender and rosemary respectively) essential oils on the brains of participants. The EEGs showed that participants who smelled the lavender exhibited more alpha and beta bands, a measure of relaxation, than they did before exposure. Participants who smelled the rosemary exhibited fewer alpha and beta bands than they did before exposure, indicating alertness. These results were supported by self-reporting from the participants and an anxiety questionnaire (Diego et al., 1998). The exact underlying mechanisms of these effects remain unclear, but suggest that olfaction is a key piece to the positive mood effects created by spending time in nature.

In isolation, each of these sensory systems has been demonstrated to contribute in some manner to the mental health of the test subject. In nature, we are experiencing sensory input to all of these systems and more, all at once. It would certainly be difficult to encapsulate all of these factors into an artificial natural environment in a setting like a hospital, but the research certainly makes a compelling case for the inclusion of parks or other natural environments in cities. In the meantime, my walk through Monet’s gardens was the refreshing stress relief I needed to finish up this study abroad program on a high note, and I’ll be making a concerted effort to find an equally inspiring spot back in Atlanta.

Works Cited

Alvarsson JJ, Wiens S, Nilsson ME (2010) Stress Recovery during Exposure to Nature Sound and Environmental Noise. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 7(3): 1036–1046

Barton J, Griffin M, Pretty J (2012) Exercise-, nature- and socially interactive-based initiatives improve mood and self-esteem in the clinical population. Perspect Public Health 132(2): 89-96

Cummings ME, El-Sheikh M, Kouros CD, Keller PS (2007) Children’s skin conductance reactivity as a mechanism of risk in the context of parental depressive symptoms. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry 48(5): 436-445

Diego MA, Jones NA, Field T, Hernandez-reif M, Schanberg S, Kuhn C, Galamaga M, McAdam V, Galamaga R (1998) Aromatherapy Positively Affects Mood, EEG Patterns of Alertness and Math Computations. International Journal of Neuroscience 96(3-4): 217-224

*Franco LS, Shanahan DF, Fuller RA (2017) A Review of the Benefits of Nature Experiences: More Than Meets the Eye. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 14(864): doi:10.3390/ijerph14080864

*Glass ST, Lingg E, Heuberger E (2014) Do ambient urban odors evoke basic emotions? Frontiers in Psychology 5(340):

Hartig T, Mitchell R, de Vries S, Frumkin H (2014) Nature and health. Annual Review of Public Health 35: 207-228

Kjellgren A & Buhrkall H (2010) A comparison of the restorative effect of a natural environment with that of a simulated natural environment. Journal of Environmental Psychology 30(4): 464-472

Shanahan DF, Fuller RA, Bush R, Lin BB, Gaston KJ (2015) The Health Benefits of Urban Nature: How Much Do We Need? BioScience 65(5): 476-485

White MP, Alcock I, Wheeler BW, Depledge MH (2013) Would You Be Happier Living in a Greener Urban Area? A Fixed-Effects Analysis of Panel Data. Psychological Science 24(6): 920-928

Yang W & Kang J (2007) Soundscape and Sound Preferences in Urban Squares: A Case Study in Sheffield. Journal of Urban Design 10(1): 61-80

* Indicates that an article was published online, and DOI is given in place of page numbers

What’s the Neuroscience Behind the Bouba/Kiki Effect?

(Ramachandran, 2004)

Let’s start off with this famous experiment done by neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard (Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001). They asked American college undergraduates and Tamil Speakers in India “which of these shapes is bouba and which is kiki?” What do you think?

Did you pick the right one as “bouba” and the left one as “Kiki”? Yes, your instinct was correct. 95% to 98% of subjects responded the same way as you just did (Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001). Another group of researchers tested this similar question to toddlers. The finding was that the associations of “kiki” to jagged shapes and “bouba” to rounded shapes were consistent even prior to language development (Maurer et al., 2006). These results suggested that no matter the test subjects were different native languages speakers or very young children, people were always able to make this association.

Ramachandran and Hubbard reasoned that because of the sharp form of the visual shape, subjects tended to map the name “kiki” onto the left figure, and because of the rounded auditory sound, subjects tended to map the name “bouba” onto the right figure (Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001). Other researchers have proposed that perhaps this effect happened because when you say “bouba”, your mouth makes a more rounded shape, whereas when you say “kiki”, your mouth makes a more angular shape (D’Onofrio, 2014). It has also been suggested that this Bouba-Kiki effect (BK effect) could occur through cognitive mechanisms similar to those that underlie synesthesia (Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001), the phenomenon in which someone experienced sensation in a particular modality (hearing, for example) when a different modality was stimulated (seeing a particular color, for example). To sum up, one thing that scientists agreed on was that in order for the BK effect to take place, some sort of integration of shapes and sound occurred in the brain (Spence and Deroy, 2013).

All these explanations made sense, right? But after learning about all BK effect in Dr. O’Toole’s class, I was still curious about how and where these integration processes happened in my brain when I selected “bouba” to the right figure and “kiki” to the left figure. To investigate this phenomenon one step further, two neuroscientists from Sorbonne University in Paris published their study using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) (Peiffer-Smadja and Cohen, 2019).

These researchers had two questions in mind. Question #1: did this integration of shapes and sounds occur at an automatic or a controlled level? In other words, would participants show a BK effect even when no explicit judgment was required on audio-visual matching? Question #2: did this integration take place in our sensory cortices or in our supramodal regions (areas of the brain that have abstract functions to more one type of sensory input)?

In order to test the first question, the researchers designed a task called Implicit Association Test (IAT). The underlying trick is that responses are supposed to be faster and more accurate when concepts are strongly associated. In this case, we would predict that the response to be faster and more accurate whenever “kiki” sounds were paired with spiky shapes (congruent block) than whenever “kiki” sounds were paired with rounded shapes (incongruent block).

For each trial, participants were simultaneously presented with a pseudoword and a shape. The participants in this task were asked to decide if the pseudoword contained the sound “o” or the sound “i”. Then they had to decide if the shape was round or spiky. As anticipated, responses were faster and more accurate in congruent blocks than in incongruent blocks. This experiment was a clever twist to the traditional “BK” experiment. Here, the participants were never explicitly asked about matching the shapes and sounds. Still, the bouba-kiki sound-shape association had an impact on their behavior even when it was irrelevant to the task. The persistence of the BK effect even in this setting suggested that it may came at least in part from automatic perceptual stages of stimulus processing, which was separated from attention and task-related influences. The first mystery was solved.

Next, using fMRI, the authors were looking for which brain regions were activated when the subjects performed implicit BK matching tasks. Participants were simply asked to pay attention to both visual and auditory stimuli when sometimes the pairs were matching (bouba-round) and sometimes the pairs were mismatching (bouba-spiky). They found that cross-modal matching influenced activations in both auditory and visual sensory cortices. Moreover, they found higher activation in the prefrontal cortex to mismatching stimuli than to matching stimuli. Taken together, when the pairs were matching, the visual cortex (where visual information is processed by the brain) and the auditory cortex (where auditory information is processed by the brain) showed more activation. On the contrary, when the pairs were mismatching, prefrontal cortex showed more activation.

(Neuro4Kidz , 2018)
The prefrontal cortex is the front part of the frontal lobe and has been implicated in cognitive behavior planning, personality expression, decision making and social behavior (Yang and Raine, 2009).



(Broda-Bahm, 2013)

So, what could we conclude from these findings? Results indicated that BK matching had an effect on the early stages in sensory processing, while mismatching had an effect on the later stages of supramodal processing. As a follow-up, the authors hypothesized that the crossmodal BK effect perhaps was modulating the executive processes (processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior) in the prefrontal cortex.

Bear in mind that these conclusions should be taken as preliminary findings. The common problem with fMRI study is that a structure active for a task does not mean it is critical for the task. So, the only certain inference we can make from the study is that prefrontal activation is related with part of the integration processes of BK effect. In the scientific literature, mechanisms involved in cross-modal integration is currently not well-understood (Peiffer-Smadja and Cohen, 2019). For hundreds of years, we have been investigating how our brain processes sensory information. And this BK effect perhaps now provides us a unique window to look into how our brain combines all these sensory information and create a coherent picture of how we perceive the world around us.

Works Cited

Broda-Bahm, K. (2013, April 8). Ban the Bullet (From Your Slides). Retrieved from Persuasive Litigator:

Neuro4Kidz . (2018, June 2). Build that Prefrontal Lobe up. Retrieved from Medium:

D’Onofrio A (2014) Phonetic Detail and Dimensionality in Sound-shape Correspondences: Refining the Bouba-Kiki Paradigm. 57:367-393.

Maurer D, Pathman T, Mondloch CJ (2006) The shape of boubas: sound–shape correspondences in toddlers and adults. 9:316-322.

Peiffer-Smadja N, Cohen L (2019) The cerebral bases of the bouba-kiki effect. NeuroImage 186:679-689.

Ramachandran V, Hubbard E (2001) Synaesthesia—A Window Into Perception, Thought and Language.

Ramachandran VS (2004) A brief tour of human consciousness: From impostor poodles to purple numbers. New York, NY, US: Pi Press, an imprint of Pearson Technology Group.

Spence C, Deroy O (2013) How automatic are crossmodal correspondences? Consciousness and Cognition 22:245-260.

Yang Y, Raine A (2009) Prefrontal structural and functional brain imaging findings in antisocial, violent, and psychopathic individuals: a meta-analysis. Psychiatry Res 174:81-88.

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:

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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.


Synesthesia: A hereditary superpower?

A lone man playing the electric guitar in a small living room. As he plays each individual chord, he begins to describe a scene similar to those of painting. A swirl of blue and green here, a swirl of yellow there, each individual chord contributing towards the tapestry of sound like an individual paint stroke in a grand painting. The phenomenon this man is going through is known to the scientific community as synesthesia. 

Painting Composition VII by Wassily Kandinsky: the painting is said to reflect the experience Kandinsky had while listening to a symphony

Synesthesia is a neurological condition where the activation of one sensation often leads to an involuntary activation of another sensory sensation (Asher, 2009). It is stated to affect around two to four percent of the world’s population, with many famous artists and musicians such as Wassily Kandinsky and Kanye West suggested to have this particular sensory phenomenon. So while this seems all well and good, but now you are probably asking what the deal is with the man that I mentioned in the beginning. Well, that man I was describing, in the beginning, happens to be my older cousin.


My cousin has a subclass of synesthesia classified as chromesthesia. Whenever he hears sounds such as music, he often sees flashes of color within his field of vision. He described the phenomenon of being like his own individual superpower, where he could see the world in his own unique way, and science seems to back up his own individual statement. A study conducted by Ward and company in 2017 found that when scientists look at the V4 part of the visual cortex (which is stated to be responsible for object recognition) shows that individuals with synesthesia showed greater visual performance compared to the general public (Ward 2017). As a common individual, I always wondered what it would be like to see through my cousin’s eyes. After experiencing a multitude of sounds here in Paris, from the roar of the metro to a local philharmonic orchestra playing in Luxembourg garden, a new question began to pop into my head, why didn’t I have this condition? What was the underlying mechanism behind this phenomenon that allowed my cousin to develop this ability and I wasn’t?

A local orchestra performance was done in Luxembourg Garden in Paris: how would it look to someone with synesthesia?

While many methods such as specific types of drugs and hypnotic techniques have been noted to develop a false synesthetic like experience researchers call “artificial synesthesia”, the main underlying factor within the development of synesthesia seems to focus on a genetic influence (Deroy and Spence, 2013). A study conducted by Barnett and company in 2008 investigated the familial patterns of those who developed synesthesia. By conducting a systematic survey of 53 measured synaesthetic, it was found that nearly 42 percent of those who participated in this survey reported a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) who also was a synesthetic (Barnett, 2008). What was interesting about this was that these first-degree synesthetic individuals did not necessarily share the exact same type of synesthesia, but may actually have different subsets. This research reflects the idea of synesthesia being a hereditary trait within immediate family members. This idea of the heritability of synesthesia is further supported when we look at the genetic markers underlying synaesthetic.


An investigation done by Asher and company in 2009 set out to understand the genetic influence that may underlie the development of synesthesia. Asher began his investigation by looking at a large group of 43 families of synesthetes recruited from the Cambridge Synaesthesia Research Group database (196 total participants, 121 who were affected, 68 unaffected and 7 unknown). After analyzing the genetic information of all individuals, it was suggested that four chromosomes (labeled 2q24, 5q33, 6p12, and 12p12) were said to hold evidence of genetic linkages (Asher 2009). What this means is that these genes were identified to have been inherited together within families of those who have synesthesia. 


While this information suggests a strong heritable cause for the development of synesthesia, the effect seems to be limited to those of immediate family members. Second-degree relationships like those between me and my cousin do not seem to reflect any correlation in terms of synesthetic heritability. While my cousin and I have been as close as brothers since as long as I could remember, it seems that our genetic code seems to keep me away from experiencing the sounds of the worlds in his eyes.


Although I may not be able to see the world through a near superhuman form of vision, it doesn’t change the amazement that this could mean towards the development of future generations. With synesthesia showing a strong genetic heritability, who knows, maybe this superhuman-like ability may be the visionary way to experience the world in the future.


Asher, J. E., Lamb, J. A., Brocklebank, D., Cazier, J. B., Maestrini, E., Addis, L.,Monaco, A. P. (2009). A whole-genome scan and fine-mapping linkage study of auditory-visual synesthesia reveals evidence of linkage to chromosomes 2q24, 5q33, 6p12, and 12p12. American journal of human genetics, 84(2), 279–285. doi:10.1016/j.ajhg.2009.01.012


Barnett K, Finucane C, Asher J, Bargary G, Corvin A, Newell F, et al. (2008) Familial patterns and the origins of individual differences in synaesthesia. Cognition. 2008;106(2):871‐893. 10.1016/j.cognition.


Deroy, O., & Spence, C. (2013). Training, hypnosis, and drugs: artificial synaesthesia, or artificial paradises?. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 660. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00660


Roe, A. W., Chelazzi, L., Connor, C. E., Conway, B. R., Fujita, I., Gallant, J. L., Vanduffel, W. (2012). Toward a unified theory of visual area V4. Neuron, 74(1), 12–29. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2012.03.011


Ward J, Rothen N, Chang A., et al. (2017) The structure of inter-individual differences in visual ability: evidence from the general population and synaesthesia. Vis Research;141: 293–302.


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Image 2: Taken by me

Mon-ayyy I can see!

I’ve worn glasses ever since I was in second grade. Yes, I was unfortunately THAT Asian girl who wore her hair in a middle part, high ponytail every day and had blue plastic glasses. Ever since I got glasses, naturally, my vision has gotten worse and I currently stand at a -9.00 prescription for my contacts. As someone who has had bad vision for two-thirds of her life, I was particularly intrigued by our vision module during our “Arts on the Brain” class. We began to explore the world of sight and learned that many famous artists had some sort of visual impairment. Claude Monet, a French impressionist painter, had cataracts which are speculated to have aided him in trailblazing the Impressionist art style. Our class wrapped lab goggles in plastic wrap to mimic the effects of cataracts, and we were able to see the beautiful gardens in Giverny through Monet’s eyes. This led me to research more about the cognitive effects of having visual impairments, specifically cataracts, and what Monet’s cognitive state might have been like.

Left to Right: original photo, drawing, drawing with cataract glasses

First, what exactly are cataracts? A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye, which lies behind the iris and the pupil. Our lens is analogous to a camera lens, hence the name, and it refracts light rays to help focus on image on the retina. A clear lens lets us see a clear picture. The lens is made of water and protein that is arranged in a precise way to keep the lens clear and let light pass through it. However, as we age, some of the protein may clump together and start to cloud a small area of the lens. This is a cataract. Over time, the cataract may grow larger and cloud more of the lens, making it even harder to see (NEI, 2015). Usually, aging is the most commons cause for cataracts, but traumatic injuries, UV exposure, and certain medical problems can also lead to the development of cataracts (Boyd, 2018).

Normal eye vs. Eye with cataract

Monet was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes in 1912 at the age of 72, which aligns with what we would expect for age-induced cataracts. Monet was very reluctant to go through cataract surgery, and in the end, he only had restorative surgery in one eye. His left eye, clouded by a dense yellow cataract, could not see violets and blues, but his right eye could see these colors clearly. This distortion in color perception and acuity had an impact on his work where tones became muddier and darker and forms became less distinct. Monet apparently complained that “colors no longer had the same intensity for me” and that “reds had begun to look muddy”, and that “my painting was getting more and more darkened” (Gruener, 2015). Monet was audibly upset about his impairment, but I wonder if his mood or cognitive state would have been improved if he had gotten the surgery in both of his eyes.

Monet’s paintings of water lilies are impacted (Left 1889 vs. Right 1915)

Some studies have been conducted that look at the impact of cataract surgery on cognitive function in an aging population. A study by Jefferis et al. looked at the effect of cataract surgery on cognition, mood, and visual hallucinations in older adults who had bilateral cataracts. Participants, who were all 75 years of age or older, were assessed pre and post-operatively. The investigators measured visual acuity through logMAR, Addenbrooke’s Cognitive Examination (ACE-R), the 15-item Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS-15), and the North East Visual Hallucinations Inventory (NEVHI) (Jefferis et al., 2015). ACE-R evaluated six cognitive domains: orientation, attention, memory, verbal fluency, language, and visuospatial ability (Mioshi et al., 2006). Small but significant benefits in cognitive scores were seen 1 year after surgery, but there was no statistically significant difference in mood or hallucinations.

A different study by Fukuoka et al. in 2016 found that cataract surgery could improve cognition, although there was insufficient evidence for a definite conclusion (Fukuoka et al., 2016). A follow-up study in 2018 found that cataract surgery may play a role in reducing the risk of developing mild cognitive impairments independently of visual acuity, but not for dementia (Miyata et al., 2018). A loss of vision can be associated with loss of cognition. It is interesting to see how when the sensory input of sight is disturbed, there are cognitive effects that occur. The relationship between vision and cognition have not been explored extensively, but there are specific visual disorders that have been shown to share common pathogenic pathways with Alzheimer’s disease (Rogers & Langa, 2010). Some speculate that individuals with visual impairment allocate more attention resources to processing sensory information, leaving fewer resources for cognitive tasks (Lindenberger & Baltes, 1994). Additionally, there is a common factor to vision and cognition and that is the degeneration of central nervous function (Christensen et al., 2001. These studies provide great insight into how Monet or even people like our grandparents might be affected by declining vision.

Cute elderly couple with glasses

Cataracts and cognitive impairment are both age-related diseases. Especially with how the proportion of older adults are increasing in the world, it is important to see how we can improve their quality of life as they get older. These studies allowed us to gain more insight into how vision or sight for older populations may have an additional benefit of cognitive improvement.


Boyd K (2018) What Are Cataracts? American Academy of Ophthalmology

Fukuoka H, Sutu C, & Afshari NA (2016) The impact of cataract surgery on cognitive function in an aging population. Current Opinion in Ophthalmology 27:3-8

Gruener A (2015) The effect of cataracts and cataract surgery on Claude Monet. British Journal of General Practice 65:254-255

Jefferis JM, Clarke MP, & Taylor JP (2015) Effect of cataract surgery on cognition, mood, and visual hallucinations in older adults. J Cataract Refract Surg 41:1241-1247

Lindenberger U, Baltes PB. Sensory functioning and intelligence in old age: a strong connectionPsychol Aging 1994; 9:339–355

Miyata K, Yoshikawa T, Morikawa M, Mine M, Okamoto N, Kurumatani N, Ogata N (2018) Effect of cataract surgery on cognitive function in elderly: Results of Fujiwara-kyo Eye Study. PLoS One 13

National Eye Institute (2015) About Cataracts. National Eye Institute

Rogers MA & Langa KM (2010) Untreated poor vision: a contributing factor to late-life dementia. Am J Epidemiol 171:728-235

Tay T, Wang JJ, Kifley A, et al. Sensory and cognitive association in older persons: findings from an older Australian populationGerontology 2006; 52:386–394


At Giverny: My own


Monet, Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies (1889):

Monet, Water Lilies (1915):

Old people with glasses:

Goo Goo for (Lady) Gaga

In the chapter we read in class, we saw how Stravinsky’s music had a disrupting effect on the listeners’ ears because it was distinct from the sounds they had heard in the past. There were dopaminergic neurons that fired when met with such sounds. But most importantly, these neurons then lead to plasticity in the auditory cortex. It points to an idea that maybe manipulating the use of music can lead to changes in other areas of the brain, not just the auditory cortex. Music plays a role in our daily lives. Who doesn’t love to listen to music while riding the metro to class every day? Those 20 minutes allow me to jam out to my favorite songs and destress for the day. I don’t know how I’d function without it. There have been studies that have shown that music is a great stress reliever (Linnemann et al., 2018).

This then made me wonder, if music plays such a big role on our lives (I mean the same 10 songs are trending worldwide), then could music go beyond just pleasure and truly have effects on our brain? Is there just a pleasant component to music or can it also be beneficial to us? I decided to look into a 2019 study that studied the effects of music on premature infants.

The salience network model

Pre-term babies have a variety of medical complications that can lead to them being in the NICU for weeks or months. While in the NICU, Lordier et al. set to test whether playing music to preterm infants would enhance their brain development (2019). With the use of fMRI testing, they test the brain connectivity in the subjects while they are in a resting state. They first measured the resting-state functional connectivity, which is a measure of the statistical dependencies between different brain regions. The greater the connectivity, the more brain maturity. They measured this prior to music exposure in normal and pre-term babies and found that pre-term babies’ connectivity was significantly less than the full-term babies. Within the connectivity calculation, there is a salience network which helps a person detect a certain stimuli and respond to it accordingly. The salience network connects 3 main areas, for simplification purposes, we can call them the auditory and sensorimotor networks, the thalamus, and the visual cortex. The salience network is made up of the insula, often involved in sensory processing and cognitive abilities, and the anterior cingulate cortex, often involved in emotion and information processing.

The researchers recruited 24 full-term infants and 39 preterm newborns. Within the preterm group, 20 received the musical enhancement while the other 19 did not. They had 3 distinct songs: a song for the baby to wake up to, a song for an awake baby, and a song that helps the baby fall asleep.  The music was played to them for 5 days a week until they were released from the hospital.

Image describing the process of music listening

The results show that there is an increased connectivity in the regions of the sensorimotor network and the thalamus, but not the in the orbitofrontal cortex/visual cortex. This data supports the idea that music does in fact enhance a premature baby’s brain network.  Although this is a good place to start, I believe that further studies should be done to determine what type of music works best and to maybe follow the test subjects through the years to see the effects. Also, it was unclear why one area of the brain, the orbitofrontal cortex did not show an increased connection since when comparing to adults, there is a significant amount of greater activity in this area (Brown et al., 2004).

The results of the study showing the strengthening of the pathways

So, now it makes so much sense why the people who first heard Stravinsky were in a riot, music exposure plays a big role in our lives from such an early age. This study showed us how music is not only something you hear for entertainment purposes; it also has the potential to actually enhance the brain connections of these infants. Prior studies have shown that adults are also able to enhance their brain networks by learning how to play music or by listening to pleasant music (Tanaka and Kirino, 2017). So now that we have seen the extent of music on brain region connectivity, you might want to start putting in your headphones. I know I won’t be feeling guilty for drowning out the world in those 20 minutes of riding in the stuffy metro.


Brown S, Martinez MJ, Parsons LM (2004) Passive music listening spontaneously engages limbic and paralimbic systems. Neuroreport 15, 2033–2037.

Dolezel, Jodi. “Premature Birth Facts and Statistics.” Verywell Family, Verywell Family, 24 June 2019,

Linnemann A, Ditzen B, Strahler J, Doerr JM, Nater UM (2015). Music listening as a means of stress reduction in daily life. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 60:82–90.

Lordier L, Meskaldji D, Grouiller F, Pittet MP, Vollenweider A, Vasung L, Borradori-Tolsa C, Lazeyras F, Grandjean D, Van De Ville D, and Hüppi PS (2019). Music in premature infants enhances high-level cognitive brain networks. PNAS. 116 (24) 12103-12108.

Tanaka S, Kirino E, Reorganization of the thalamocortical network in musicians. Brain Res. 1664, 48–54 (2017)

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