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Sound of Certain Words Can Increase Stress Levels, Research Suggests

Sep, 2020

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In the current COVID-19 crisis, hearing the word ‘virus’ can increase stress levels. However, new research suggests that even the sound of the word can have a substantial impact on blood pressure levels.

A team of researchers from Cornell University's Cognitive Science Program suggest that certain sound combinations can trigger intense emotional response compared to other words. This is likely to play a major role in language acquisition of children and explain the evolution of language. Moreover, the research explains why people identify a spiky shape as 'kiki' and a rounded shape as 'bouba' when asked to guess. This psychological 'matching’ effect has been studied extensively and has been found to be universally observed across cultures and ages. However, experts are yet to agree on the reason for this.

According to the new study, the amount of emotional arousal which we feel on hearing sounds or seeing objects can be the missing link which could explain why we tend to connect spikes and rounded shapes as 'kiki' and ‘bouba'. The authors write that often the association between the meaning of a word and its sound can be subjective, in the sense that characteristically the sound of a word doesn’t always explain its meaning. Although, previous research has revealed that sounds often carry subtle hints about the object they are referring to.

Participants were asked to rate emotional intensity experienced for auditory and visual stimuli from previous studies. The researchers observed that spiky shapes and nonwords like 'kiki' elicit emotional stimulation. ‘Virus’ is one such word, which is discomforting as opposed to rounded shapes and nonwords like 'bouba'. These findings have led researchers to conclude that several correlations between sound and meaning in human vocabulary are motivated by our responses to the input, whether auditor or visual. The study also highlights the role which human emotions play in the evolution and development of language by forming a relationship between abstract notions such as shapes and linguistic indications such as words in the cognitive affective personality system.

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