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Yanny or Laurel?: Questioning the Question

Meet the twin of the black and blue, white and gold dress. Explore the scientific responses to the phenomenon that tore the Internet apart.

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Image from SELF

Yanny or Laurel? As a controversial video on Reddit went viral, this question quickly divided the nation within minutes, confusing millions of listeners as some heard “Yanny”, others heard “Laurel”, and few could even switch between both. (1) As tensions rose between the two factions, scientists decided to settle the issue by examining the video even further, looking at its auditory and cognitive aspects that ultimately revealed unsettling phenomenons.

In his interview with Verge Science, assistant professor of audition and cognitive neuroscience at Maastricht University, Lars Riecke, strongly claims that there is no real definite answer, stating that “the input can be organized in two alternative ways”. (2) Moreover, people’s interpretation of the sound strongly depended on the perceived frequency where “Yanny” is associated with a higher frequency compared to “Laurel”. Taking his proposition even further, Riecke explains that the cause behind the frequency variation stems back to the audio system in addition to the engineering of your ears and your psychological mind. To explain, older age correlates to a larger lost in hearing of the higher frequency ranges, justifying why young adolescents are more likely to hear “Yanny” while older adults are common among the “Laurel” family. In the end, your brain unconsciously chooses specific frequencies to pay attention because the audio automatically becomes filtered to the point that only what your brain interprets matters. (3) Overall, increasing the pitch of the sound file produces more “Laurel” listeners while decreasing it results in more “Yanny” supporters.

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Image from Healthline

Moreover, it is also plausible that what you hear turns out to be exactly what you expected the answer to be in the first place. Bharath Chandrasekaran, a professor in communications sciences and disorders department at the University of Texas at Austin, explores that one’s surroundings such as the noise level also contribute to the overall perception of the sound: “Because it’s noisy, your brain is filling in with what it thinks it should be”, causing the answer to be even more ambiguous. (4) In a profound sense, the idea that an alteration in pitch drastically alters a person’s impression of a single noise clearly elucidates that there are many answers to this one question, revealing a broad yet striking generalization about society as a whole. Matthew Leonard, PhD, an assistant professor of neurological surgery at UC San Francisco, comments about the beauty behind this Internet debate: “The same physical sound is going into everyone’s ears, but we hear completely different words. It’s really a striking demonstration of how our brains try to make sense of the world around us in ways that we are not even aware of.” (5)

yanny v laurel
Image from Wired

While several scientists are sitting on the fence about this issue, some are trying to prove that there is a clear answer whether it be “Yanny” or “Laurel”. Despite all the research done to resolve this conundrum, there are still many ardent proponents on both sides, proving that science cannot always answer every question or at least convince the world that they are wrong. Therefore, are you a Yanny or a Laurel?


References and Footnotes

(1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7X_WvGAhMlQ

(2) https://www.theverge.com/2018/5/15/17358136/yanny-laurel-the-dress-audio-illusion-frequency-sound-perception

(3) https://www.popsci.com/yanny-laurel-scientific-evidence#page-3

(4) https://www.theverge.com/2018/5/15/17358136/yanny-laurel-the-dress-audio-illusion-frequency-sound-perception

(5) https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2018/05/410411/yanny-vs-laurel-neuroscientist-weighs

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