Yanny or Laurel? Your Brain Hears What It Wants To



It’s mind-bending: Several days into an online debate, there is still not a clear scientific consensus as to why some people hear “Yanny” and others “Laurel” when they listen to a now-viral clip posted online.

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For about a week, the debate has engulfed the internet as self-proclaimed Yannies and Laurels battle over whose ears—and brains—are right. People have posted memes and gifs featuring couples fighting over misspoken names, wizards casting spells, a fed-up Jack Torrance from the horror film The Shining, and of course the singer Yanni to express their confusion and disbelief that others could experience the exact same thing in completely different ways. The scientific theories as to what’s going on are also plentiful.

Scientists do agree that ambiguity plays a role. The recording is low quality, which means the brain is hit with an ambiguous stimulus. Any time that happens, scientists say, the brain rushes in to fill in the gaps. That patching depends on experience. What’s going on in the Yanny v. Laurel scenario is still to be determined.

The origin of the clip is unclear but the debate took off after a

Twitter

user posted a quiz asking readers to vote, spurring more than 80,000 retweets—and some questions for scientists. This sort of thing has happened before. In February 2015, a similar debate raged online over the color of a striped dress. Some saw it as black and blue, others as white and gold.

The Yanny-Laurel sound bite is the latest example of a so-called sensory illusion, a type of mind trick played on one or more of the five senses, say several psychologists. One example is the phantom pain amputees sometimes feel in their missing limbs. Psychologists are interested in such illusions because they can provide insights—not just about how brains generally process information but about popular culture and even individuals.

People subconsciously bring “a lot of themselves” to what they hear, says

Diana Deutsch,

a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego. She has done research on so-called phantom words, or words “that are not really there.”

In her research, Dr. Deutsch has played looping sound clips of nonsensical chatter and asked listeners to write down what they hear. The lists, she says, can reflect people’s mood or history. Spanish speakers hear Spanish words; war veterans say they hear things like “kill” or “don’t die;” and randy college coeds sometimes perceive “words I shouldn’t repeat over the phone,” she said.

“It’s like a Rorschach test,” said Dr. Deutsch, who is writing a book on how humans perceive speech and music.

In the case of Yanny and Laurel, she hears neither, but instead a mashup that sounded something like “yeary,” she said. She thinks most people are hearing Laurel or Yanny because the words are right there on the screen in the viral tweet. The effect is known as priming and has to do with how experience can bias perception.

“If you were to present different words visually instead, some people may well hear the sound that corresponds to what they’re seeing,” she added. Visual cues tend to override other senses.

A similar phenomenon is at work when people misperceive song lyrics or spoken words. So-called mondegreens happen when the brain parses words in ways that aren’t correct, but make some logical sense because of prior expectations. For instance, in Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” the artist sings, “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.” But the particular sequence of consonants, plus expectations of what people normally kiss, creates a “slip of the ear,” according to

Andrew Nevins,

a linguist at University College London. The lyrics are often mistaken for “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.”

From the Archives

“What color is this dress?” sparks fierce debate on Twitter and in offices. Columbia University’s Dr. Kenneth Miller explains why we see different colors. Photo: Facebook/Caitlin Jae (Originally published Feb. 27, 2015)

In the case of Yanny and Laurel, some posited it was all a conspiracy and a random sound generator was spoofing the world.

But that theory doesn’t resonate with

Pascal Wallisch,

a New York University assistant professor of psychology. He said he ran the recording through a spectral analyzer to “confirm it’s not a party trick,” he said. Others have done similar tests and posted their results to social media. He and his teaching assistant also heard different names simultaneously. “What’s really compelling is that you have two different people who hear two different things at the same time,” he said.

His sound judgment: The phenomenon is real and the differences in perception might boil down to the frequencies that people are most used to hearing. That could explain why—at least anecdotally—older people tend to hear Laurel, which corresponds to lower frequencies. As people age, higher ones become harder to hear. Another possibility: Speakers on different devices filter out different frequencies, which might also explain why some people have heard the clip both ways. More research is needed to know for sure, other scientists said.

Write to Daniela Hernandez at daniela.hernandez@wsj.com

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