Neural basis of sound-symbolic pseudoword-shape correspondences

Deborah A. Barany, Simon Lacey, Kaitlyn L. Matthews, Lynne C. Nygaard, K. Sathian

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Non-arbitrary mapping between the sound of a word and its meaning, termed sound symbolism, is commonly studied through crossmodal correspondences between sounds and visual shapes, e.g., auditory pseudowords, like ‘mohloh’ and ‘kehteh’, are matched to rounded and pointed visual shapes, respectively. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during a crossmodal matching task to investigate the hypotheses that sound symbolism (1) involves language processing; (2) depends on multisensory integration; (3) reflects embodiment of speech in hand movements. These hypotheses lead to corresponding neuroanatomical predictions of crossmodal congruency effects in (1) the language network; (2) areas mediating multisensory processing, including visual and auditory cortex; (3) regions responsible for sensorimotor control of the hand and mouth. Right-handed participants (n = 22) encountered audiovisual stimuli comprising a simultaneously presented visual shape (rounded or pointed) and an auditory pseudoword (‘mohloh’ or ‘kehteh’) and indicated via a right-hand keypress whether the stimuli matched or not. Reaction times were faster for congruent than incongruent stimuli. Univariate analysis showed that activity was greater for the congruent compared to the incongruent condition in the left primary and association auditory cortex, and left anterior fusiform/parahippocampal gyri. Multivoxel pattern analysis revealed higher classification accuracy for the audiovisual stimuli when congruent than when incongruent, in the pars opercularis of the left inferior frontal (Broca's area), the left supramarginal, and the right mid-occipital gyri. These findings, considered in relation to the neuroanatomical predictions, support the first two hypotheses and suggest that sound symbolism involves both language processing and multisensory integration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number108657
StatePublished - Sep 9 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience

Cite this