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Laurel/Yanny: A Sound Illusion

Millions of people have been confused by a recording of a single word. They can’t decide if it says “Laurel” or “Yanny”. There is an answer, but there are also good reasons to be confused.

We get our information about the world through our five senses: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting. When our senses get fooled, it’s called an illusion. Most people have heard of optical illusions – drawings or pictures that can trick our sense of sight.

Vase/Faces Optical Illusion.
Vase/Faces Optical Illusion. Do you see a vase, or two people facing each other?
(Source: John Smithson, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Auditory illusions – sounds that fool the brain – are less common.

Earlier this week, millions of people on the Internet were surprised and confused by an auditory illusion. This illusion is a short little recording, sometimes called a “sound clip”. When some people hear the voice in the clip, they think it is saying “Laurel”. When others listen, they think it says “Yanny”. Some people have heard the sound both ways, but not at the same time. It always seems to be saying one or the other.

Here’s the sound. See what you hear.

What do you hear – Laurel or Yanny?
(Source: via Wikimedia Commons.)

Many people have tried to explain why this recording is confusing. One important reason is that the recording is not very clear. The sound clip came from a website to help people learn words. It really did say “Laurel”. But the recording that many people were hearing was played through speakers and recorded again. That made the sound harder to hear clearly.

Recording the sound again also added more high pitched noise to the sound. One expert says that when the sound has more higher sounds mixed in, it sounds like “Yanny”. But when the lower parts are louder, it sounds more like “Laurel”. So one reason that people hear different things is because they may be better or worse at hearing high sounds.

The New York Times created a tool which lets people change the pitch of the sound so it sounds lower or higher. Using this tool, many people are able to hear both sounds.

Although people may think that the words “Laurel” and “Yanny” are completely different, experts say that they are not. Sound travels through the air in waves. When experts used a computer to look at the waves made by the words, “Laurel” and “Yanny” looked similar.

Duck-rabbit illusion.
Our brain can jump between two ways of understanding something.
Duck-rabbit illusion. Do you see a duck or a rabbit?
(Source: Wikimedia Commons .)

Think again about optical illusions. When there are two different ways to make sense of something, sometimes our brain jumps back and forth between the two choices.

For anyone who’s wondering, “Yanny” is not an actual English word. “Laurel” is a common name, a family of plants, or a wreath made out of those plants. The laurel wreath is a symbol of victory. Does that make it the winner?

Laurel wreath
In English, Laurel usually means a family of plants, or a wreath made from these plants.
(Source: Indolences, via Wikimedia Commons.)


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