Yanny and Laurel. Two relatively obscure names currently causing mass confusion among the people of the interwebs.
The clip, which has gone viral since being posted on Reddit earlier this week, plays a male voice that either utters one name or the other, depending on who you ask.
(Think of it as the audio equivalent of the black and blue/white and gold dress that circled on social media in 2015.)
What do you hear?! Yanny or Laurel pic.twitter.com/jvHhCbMc8I
— Cloe Feldman (@CloeCouture) May 15, 2018
It ended up on social media courtesy of a US high-school freshman named Katie Hetzel who came across it while studying for a world literature class earlier this month. When she hit play on the Vocabulary.com file, she heard “yanny” instead of the word spelled out on the screen.
“I asked my friends in my class and we all heard mixed things,” says Hetzel.
She recorded the audio on her phone (hence the distorted sound) and posted it on Instagram, which was later shared to Reddit.
So, it’s definitely ‘Laurel’ then. Right?
Well, technically yes. But that doesn’t mean people who hear “Yanny” are wrong. It just means they interpret the sound differently.
But why/how does that happen?
According to Lars Riecke, an assistant professor of audition and cognitive neuroscience at Maastricht University, it could be down to the construction of the audio file itself.
As The Verge explained, “The acoustic information that makes us hear Yanny is higher frequency than the acoustic information that makes us hear Laurel.”
This Twitter user demonstrated the phenomenon by manipulating the clip:
Okay, you’re not crazy. If you can hear high freqs, you probably hear “yanny”, but you *might* hear “laurel”. If you can’t hear high freqs, you probably hear laurel. Here’s what it sounds like without high/low freqs. RT so we can avoid the whole dress situation. #yanny #laurel ???? pic.twitter.com/RN71WGyHwe
— Dylan Bennett (@MBoffin) May 16, 2018
As we get older, we tend to start to lose our ability to hear higher frequency ranges. So which word you hear could be as simple as your level of hearing loss. Reicke hears “Laurel”, for example, while his eight-year-old grandchild hears “Yanny”.
But Riecke noted that it’s also likely to be a combination of the mechanics of your ears, the audio system playing the sound (which may influence the frequencies) and what your brain expects to hear.
Wait. What do you mean by ‘expects to hear’?
As Jennell Vick, Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, explained via The Conversation, “without conscious effort, our brain decides what our ears are hearing”.
In the case of the “Yanny vs Laurel” clip, she argues that the confusion is only possible due to the consonants in the two words – “y,” “n,” “l” and “r”. These are known as “the chameleons of speech”.
“The way one pronounces them morphs based on the sounds that come before and after them in a word. Because of this, it is the brain of the listener that decides their identity, based on context. In this case, the sound is missing a few elements and your brain automatically makes a judgement.”
It does this based on past experiences.
But University of Texas Communications Sciences Professor Bharath Chandrasekaran pointed to another element that may help your brain make this judgement: visual cues. As he noted via The Verge, the clip being circulated online is accompanied by the written question “Yanny or Laurel”, which may play a role in shaping what people hear.
Here’s another example of this. The same sound is played over different images, and most people observe that it seems to change accordingly.
So where do you land? #teamyanny or #teamlaurel?