Can Words Trigger a Response from Your Senses? Find Out with the Investigating Word Modalities Project

Investigating Word Modalities seeks citizen scientists to help investigate words attached to senses.

SciStarter is shuffling science into the language department. Explore the science of words with these citizen science projects!


Modality describes a pathway in the body through which a stimulus is registered.  It essentially refers to one of the five senses.  For example, the stimulus light is registered through the visual modality with the eyes.  However, unexpected stimuli can sometimes trigger a modality, such as words.  The goal of the Investigating Word Modalities Projectis to explore which words elicit a response from the auditory (hearing) or visual modalities.

Drs. Bonnici and Simons from the Memory Lab at the University of Cambridge are performing the research, which Simons describes as “a small pilot study.”  They ask that participants take a quiz rating how strongly a series of words are associated with an auditory sensation, a visual sensation, or both.  The words range from onomatopoeia, in which the word mimics the sound it is describing, to names of objects that make sounds, to things that make no sound at all.  Similar types of words are explored for the visual modality, ranging from things that can be seen to those that are invisible.

A sample question from the online quiz showing the modality ranking procedure, where 6 indicates a strong experience. “SciStarter” in this case would be the word being investigated.

When I took the quiz, it was interesting to see what words triggered a sensory response. I found that a number of words describing silent objects still caused me to have an auditory response, while similarly, I experienced visual sensations with words that name invisible things. I also found that many words evoked distinct auditory or visual memories.

Overall, the quiz was a fun exploration of the associations made my brain.  If you have a spare twenty minutes, give it a shot – you, too, might be surprised by the response of your senses.  Plus, you’ll be helping scientists understand how words can elicit a modality.

Emily Lewis is a PhD candidate in chemistry at Tufts University, where she analyzes catalysts for synthetic fuels on the nanoscale. She received her BS and MS degrees from Northeastern University, and her thesis work examined fuel cell catalysts under real operating conditions. She loves learning about energy and the environment, exploring science communication, and investigating the intersection of these topics with the policy world. When she’s not writing or in the lab, you’ll probably spot Emily at the summit of one of the White Mountains in NH. Follow her: @lewisbase,

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