What does “kiki” look like? What does “bouba” look like? Not your Bubbe, but the nonsense word “bouba.” With what shape would you associate it?
It may sound funny, but this is a real question that psychologists ask, and believe it or not, in 95-98% of cases, research shows that “kiki” is imagined as a sharp pointy object and “bouba” as round soft one. And this “bouba/kiki effect” – I kid you not, this is what it is called – indicates that, in our minds, sounds have a visual component.
Such research is part of a larger field of study into multi-sensory integration and into the phenomenon of synesthesia. This is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sense leads to an automatic reaction in another. For those people who have it, sounds may evoke colors, touch may trigger smells, images may translate into sounds.
There is no statistical proof that Jews are more prone to synesthesia than other people, but anecdotal evidence suggests that we might be. Jewish rituals tend to combine so many of the senses, and in this regard we are highly unusual. Many other belief systems insist that, to communicate with the Divine, people must detach ourselves from our senses. We don’t.
The reason that we Jews don’t embrace that point of view is that when we encountered God at Mout Sinai, we had an experience of … mass synesthesia! At Mount Sinai, the Jewish people saw the sounds and learned how to connect heaven and earth, the transcendent and the sensory.
This sermon describes the power of the senses [and sensuality], and why they are so important to bringing spirituality into our lives.
It also explains how the simple Yizkor ceremony stimulates a synesthesia of a kind, as we listen to the holy words, taste the pain of our loss, and see in our minds eye our loved ones even though they are physically no longer with us. And we become poignantly aware that – although we can no longer touch them in this world – we feel that we are connected with them nevertheless.