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Yanny or Laurel: why do some people hear it differently?

Yanny versus Laurel

Do you hear “Laurel” or do you hear “Yanny”? That’s the question that many people are asking today, after this audio clip went viral on social media:

To understand why this is, we sought the expertise of Dr. Andrew Dimitrijevic, Research Director of the Sunnybrook Cochlear Implant Program. Here’s what he had to say:

The audio clip is an example of a bistable auditory perception. It’s kind of like tick-tock versus tock-tick.

Why are people in Laurel and Yanny camps? There are probably two factors:

Pitch differences between “L” and “Y”

Different speakers (such as computer speakers or cellphones) will accentuate frequencies differently. If your speakers can’t play high frequencies clearly you might hear “Laurel” because there’s more low frequency in “Laurel.” Conversely, “Yanny” has more high frequencies, and if your speakers are better at high frequencies then you will hear “Yanny.”

Environmental noise is also a factor. Different frequencies will get drowned out differently. A subway might drown out lower frequencies, and you might hear “Yanny.”

Your brain

Your brain is always trying to interpret the environment and give meaning to sound. We hear with our ears but listen with our brain. When we hear a sound, our brain is comparing it to a template in our brain that we have developed and stored from childhood. So if the “Yanny” module or brain representation in your brain is bigger than “Laurel” because you grew up listening to Yanny, you might hear “Yanny.” Context is important. If you heard the audio-clip in a record store or in line at a Yanny concert you would probably hear “Yanny.”

Ultimately, what’s probably happening is combination of the two factors: acoustics and brain interpretation. The audio clip is poor quality. So right off the bat your brain is in “guessing mode.” With no context (such as a sentence or a scene) you brain is guessing more. If your brain’s representation of “Laurel” happens to be more sensitive than “Yanny,” your brain would latch on to “Laurel.”