May 17, 2018

Why your friends keep talking about 'Yanny' vs. 'Laurel'—and what science says

Daily Briefing

    This week, the internet erupted into a passionate debate: What, exactly, was said in a short, viral audio clip? If you've found your closest personal relationships torn apart by the controversy, we're here to help you patch things up: Medical science can (probably) explain why some people are 100% confident they hear "Laurel," while others are equally adamant they hear "Yanny."

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    The backstory

    According to the New York Times, the Yanny-Laurel debate gained traction after Roland Szabo, an 18-year-old high school student in Georgia, posted an audio clip to Reddit. From there, it was posted on Twitter—where it garnered more attention.

    Szabo said he found the original clip on vocabulary.com. While on that website the audio clip was formally associated with the word "laurel" on the website—bad news for all "Yanny" advocates—Szabo found that when he played it out loud, people in the room disagreed about what they heard.

    According to the Times, the sound has been described as "black magic." A poll on The Verge found:

    • 43% of listeners heard "Laurel";
    • 40% heard "Yanny"; and
    • 17% said they could hear both.

    The science behind the dispute

    How is it possible that two people can hear the same recording but hear different things? According to experts, the answer "has to do with your sound card, your ears, and your brain," The Verge reports.

    Lars Riecke, an assistant professor of audition and cognitive neuroscience at Maastricht University, said the recording is an "ambiguous figure," meaning "the input can be organized in two ways" depending on the frequency. The acoustic information that corresponds with the "Yanny" sound is higher, while the information that corresponds with the "Laurel" sound is lower. 

    According to Patricia Keating, a linguistics professor and the director of the phonetics lab at the University of California-Los Angeles, whether a person hears "Yanny" or "Laurel" depends "on what part (what frequency range) of the signal you attend to." And while she said she has "no idea why some listeners attend more to the lower frequency range while others attend more to the higher frequency range," she speculated—along with other experts—that the difference could come down to age.  

    According to The Verge, older adults are less able to hear higher frequency ranges—which may explain why Riecke heard "Laurel" while his eight-year-old daughter heard "Yanny."

    But Riecke also said differences in audio systems could explain the discrepancy. The Verge reports that changing the sound mix to emphasize higher versus lower frequencies could shift a listener's perception from one of the terms to the other. As one Reddit user wrote, "If you turn the volume very low, there will be practically no bass and you will hear Yanny." However, another Reddit user countered the claim, noting, "I literally just turned all frequencies below 1khz to negative 70 decibels and I still hear 'laurel.'"

    Another possible factor could simply be what people expect to hear, The Verge adds. Bharath Chandrasekaran, a professor in the department of communications sciences and disorders at the University of Texas at Austin, noted the visual cue that comes with seeing the words could influence what people hear. Moreover, people's auditory perceptions are shaped by the listener's previous experiences, Chandrasekaran explained, which is why musically trained people can, for example, more easily pick out the individual components of a symphony. (According to The Verge, Chandrasekaran is already rounding up "Laurel people and Yanny people" to study their brain waves.)

    The debate remains unresolved for now, but—as with the infamous debate over The Dress—a "definitive scientific explanation will probably surface," the Times reports. "Until then, baffle your friends and astound your enemies, until the next random internet phenomenon has you doubting your own senses" (Becker/Lopatto, The Verge, 5/15; Salam/Victor, New York Times, 5/15).

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