Connect with us

Science

Yanny or Laurel? It’s Your Brain Not Your Ears That Decides

This internet hullabaloo underscores the marvelous, effortless, constant work of the human brain.

The Conversation

Published

on

Jennell Vick, Case Western Reserve University

As a speech scientist, I never thought I’d see so much excitement on social media about one tiny little word.

The clip, which went viral after being posted on Reddit, is polarizing listeners who hear a computer voice say either “Laurel” or “Yanny.” @AlexWelke tweeted, “This is the kinda stuff that starts wars.” While I can’t prevent a war, I can explain some reasons why this sound file has created such a controversy. Basically, the “word” relies on some tricks of acoustics. Your brain, and those of the millions of other Twitter viewers, is responsible for the rest.

Kudos to University of Minnesota speech-language researcher and professor Ben Munson for his original analysis explaining how the acoustic file can lead listeners to one of two conclusions. He used spectrographic analysis to demonstrate how the sound file might create confusion.

The discrepancy in what people hear comes down to a few different possibilities, none of which sort it out for certain. Clearly, though, one cause of its trickiness is that the sound file is synthesized, which is different than real speech. It’s akin to the synthetic flavors encountered in the candy world – think Jelly Belly Buttered Popcorn, the preference for which is as polarizing as this Yanny/Laurel thing.

Without a doubt, all this confusion is only possible because of the consonants in “Yanny” and “Laurel.” The “y,” “n,” “l” and “r” sounds are really 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 judgment, called interpolation, similar to how you can so easily read partially erased text.

This spectrogram visually represents the sound frequencies in the ‘Yanny’ or ‘Laurel’ clip.
(Image: Jennell Vick, CC BY-ND)

The fact that, for the life of me, I can only hear “Laurel” is because of a phenomenon called categorical perception. Originally described in 1957 and supported by countless additional studies, the idea is that your brain naturally sorts things into categories.

For example, my husband and I can never agree on the color of our couch (definitely green, not black, by the way), because while there is easily a continuum between very dark green and black, the boundaries between them vary for everyone. While we could agree that our couch looks blackish green, there is no such compromise in the perception of speech. Without conscious effort, our brain decides what our ears are hearing. Black or green, not blackish green. Yanny or Laurel, not some blend.

Whatever your brain tells you about Yanny/Laurel, the whole controversy should help everyone understand why it’s so hard to have a conversation in a noisy restaurant or why people with hearing loss sometimes “mishear” what you have to say. Listening to speech feels like a basic skill, but understanding speech is really an amazing feat. People perceive messages using the information available, which is sometimes incomplete. Our brains also make predictions based on past experiences. Listening in a foreign language, even if you are a fluent speaker, is challenging because your brain uses predictions based on both languages, but is unduly influenced by your experiences with your native language.

The ConversationThis internet hullabaloo underscores the marvelous, effortless, constant work of the human brain.

Jennell Vick, Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences, Case Western Reserve University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sign up for the Morning Scoop

and wake up with us each day.

CMN Reports

National News5 hours ago

Where are the Children?

Officials at the ORR were unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475 children.

by , University of North Texas
National News1 day ago

“Our Ancestors Tamed a Continent” says Donald Trump

America is great and part of being great is admitting wrongs and growing from them.

by , Montclair State University
Morgan Freeman at opening ceremony for Invictus games. Morgan Freeman at opening ceremony for Invictus games.
Entertainment1 day ago

Morgan Freeman Responds to and Denies Assault Allegations

Earlier this week, eight people came forward and accused Morgan Freeman of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. The actor was...

by , Penn State University
Academics1 day ago

Closing Time: College Edition

You don't have to go home but you can't stay here. Or go to school here.

by , University of Pittsburgh
Doctor holds a newborn baby after a Caesarian. Doctor holds a newborn baby after a Caesarian.
National News1 day ago

American Birthrate Declines at a 30 Year Low According to the CDC

The free world is facing a population crisis.

by , The Catholic American University
Business2 days ago

NASA Awards $43.5 Million to Small US Businesses

Phase I of this program allows small businesses to work with the big guys.

by , SUNY New Paltz
Campus Crime2 days ago

School Shooting in Noblesville Indiana

The twenty-third school shooting this year.

by , University of Albany
National News3 days ago

Bucks Player Tased in ‘Disturbing’ Arrest Video

Sterling Brown says his arrest was "wrong and shouldn't happen to anybody."

by , Temple University

Top Reads