The interaction of surfboard, wave and seabed provides a dynamic framework for modeling how the mind operates. For example, we can imagine language riding the mind like a surfer riding a wave. According to this analogy, the act of surfing represents linguistic expression, with the shape of the wave representing the range of meanings that can be expressed.

Characterising the various sounds that form speech, the penetration and release phases in surfing are analogous to obstruents and sonorants. Obstruents are produced by obstructing the airflow against a range of articulation points within the vocal tract. By contrast, sonorants are produced without obstructing airflow through the vocal tract. Since obstruents and sonorants alternate like the penetration and release phases of surfing, speech is analogous to the surfer’s repertoire of manoeuvres, with each angle of resistance corresponding to a particular sound.

Numerous sounds remind us of shapes. This is classically demonstrated by the Kiki and Bouba experiment.[i] In this experiment, a drawing of two aliens is presented (see fig.1). The subject is asked to identify which alien is Kiki and which is Bouba.

The vast majority of respondents identify Kiki as the pointy shaped alien and Bouba as the rounded one—indicating that our perception of sound and shape overlaps. This form of cross modal perception is analogous to the surfboard designer’s ability to associate the shape of a surfboard with its response during surfing manoeuvres. The sound of the word “kiki” is more closely associated with sudden changes in direction, as depicted by the drawing of a spiky figure. By contrast, the sound of the word “bouba” is more closely associated with long, drawn out turns, as depicted by the drawing of a curvaceous figure.


Figure 1. Kiki & Bouba.

The stimulation in one modality that triggers sensations in another is called synaesthesia. For example, a synaesthete may consistently experience a specific colour when hearing a particular tone or looking at a certain numeral. Mild forms of synaesthesia permeate consciousness, as revealed by the sounds Kiki and Bouba, which invoke an association with shape. Colours are also mixed with sounds, as indicated by the polysemous word “tone”, with low pitch sounds linked to dark colours and high pitch with light colours.[ii] Dance could be regarded as a form of synaesthesia, in this case sensory-to-motor, where the rhythm of physical movement mimics the auditory rhythm.[iii] Even the design skills of a surfboard shaper could be regarded as sensing a synaesthetic link, in this case, between surfing manoeuvres and the shape of the surfboard.

As a form of motor-to-sensory synaesthesia, the surfboard shaper’s skill is probably underpinned by mirror-neurons; so-named because they fire in response to movements that share a common trajectory,[iv] whether performed by you or someone else. Mirror neurons are believed to be implicated in learning to speak. They facilitate the transfer of skills, e.g. from parent to child, by coding movements in terms of their purpose. As a result, the mind learns how to deal with objects through their use, which is fundamentally different to their spatial presence, since the use of an object extends the self beyond its physical limits.

To design a surfboard as an extension of the self, the surfboard shaper has to decipher surfing manoeuvres in terms of spatial and temporal relations. The various axes of penetration and release represent the set of alternatives from which manoeuvres are composed, just as the letters of an alphabet are combined to form words. The similarity between the movements of surfing and the movements of speech is evident in passages that employ onomatopoeia, where the sound of a word, or group of words, seems to characterise its meaning. For example, the following passage demonstrates the perceptual overlapping of sound and movement:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance,
‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows,
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar,
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.

Alexander Pope (1711)

The sense of movement invoked by onomatopoeia is analogous to the perceptual overlapping required to design a surfboard. Firstly, the set of speech sounds is analogous to the set of curves present in a surfboard. Secondly, the sense of movement induced by the speech sounds is analogous to manoeuvring the surfboard. In both language and surfing, the (temporal) sequence connects the components that are (spatially) separated from alternatives. Just as the components of language are assembled to generate speech sounds in the vocal tract, the components of surfboard design are assembled to generate manoeuvres on a wave. Moreover, the meaning of the poem is analogous to the order of execution, since this displays the surfer’s understanding of the wave, which is analogous to our understanding of context.

Next chapter: Syntax.


[i] Ramachandran, V.S., & Hubbard, E.M. (2001). Synaesthesia – A window into perception, thought and language. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8 (12), p.19.

“If you show [the picture] to people and say ‘In Martian language, one of these two figures is a “bouba” and the other is a “kiki”, try to guess which is which’, 95% of people pick the left as kiki and the right as bouba, even though they have never seen these stimuli before. The reason is that the sharp changes in visual direction of the lines in the right-hand figure mimics the sharp phonemic inflections of the sound kiki, as well as the sharp inflection of the tongue on the palate. The bouba/kiki example provides our first vital clue for understanding the origins of proto-language, for it suggests that there may be natural constraints on the ways in which sounds are mapped on to objects.”

[ii] Ward, J., Huckstep, B. and Tsakanikos, E. (2006). Sound-colour synaesthesia: To what extent does it use cross-modal mechanisms common to us all? Cortex, 42, p.279.

“In sum, our conclusion is that the type of sound-colour synaesthesia reported here is a genuine phenomenon in which pitch heights map on to colours as a function of the lightness. We suggest that this variety of synaesthesia recruits normal mechanisms of cross-modal perception and attention and can therefore be used to speak to theories of normal cognition.”

[iii] Ramachandran, V.S., & Hubbard, E.M. (2001). Synaesthesia – A window into perception, thought and language. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8 (12), p.19.

“Second, we propose the existence of a kind of sensory-to-motor synaesthesia, which may have played a pivotal role in the evolution of language. A familiar example of this is dance, where the rhythm of movements synaesthetically mimics the auditory rhythm. This type of synaesthesia may be based on cross- activation not between two sensory maps but between a sensory (i.e., auditory) and a motor map (i.e., Broca’s area). This means that there would be a natural bias towards mapping certain sound contours onto certain vocalizations.”

[iv] Arbib, M.A. (2005). From monkey-like action recognition to human language: An evolutionary framework for neurolinguistics. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 28 (2), p.112.

“During training, the output of the F5 canonical neurons, acting as a code for the grasp being executed by the monkey at that time, was used as the training signal for the F5 mirror neurons to enable them to learn which hand-object trajectories corresponded to the canonically encoded grasps. Moreover, the input to the F5 mirror neurons encodes the trajectory of the relation of parts of the hand to the object rather than the visual appearance of the hand in the visual field. As a result of this training, the appropriate mirror neurons come to fire in response to viewing the appropriate trajectories even when the trajectory is not accompanied by F5 canonical firing.”