Audio illusion cuts deep into what’s human

Online voice clip divides listeners into ‘Laurel’ and ‘Yanny’ camps just as do world and local events from the Middle East to ‘one country, two systems’   

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 May, 2018, 2:23am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 May, 2018, 2:23am

You hear Yanny, I hear Laurel. An audio illusion from an online voice clip with just two syllables has ignited a fierce internet debate, dividing listeners into opposing camps. One side hears “Yanny”; the other insists it’s “Laurel”.

People who hear one or the other are certain that they are right, so the other side must be wrong. A minority are not so sure but tend to put aside the ambiguities they hear and commit to either Yanny or Laurel.

But it turns out what you hear pretty much depends on the audio conditions you are under and equipment you use.

Nobody can agree if this robot says ‘Yanny’ or ‘Laurel’

“When there is more energy towards the mid and higher frequencies, people tend to hear Yanny,” explained Poppy Crum, who is chief scientist at Dolby Labs in San Francisco. 

“When the low frequencies are more emphasised, people will hear Laurel.”

She said our brains want to “categorise” the elements of speech when they are ambiguous. That’s why some people pass them either into the Laurel box or Yanny box.

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Doesn’t what Crum describe cut across much of human experience?

For one thing, we are not good at living with, and accepting, ambiguities. We insist on seeing things black or white, true or false, right or wrong, even when there isn’t enough evidence or knowledge to justify our committing to one or the other position.

(By the way, I urge you to watch Crum’s lecture on YouTube on how the latest sound systems model the way our brain turns noise into music. Sometimes, our brains do recognise truth and beauty!)

As for the online brawl over two sounds, “It’s so clearly Laurel,” quipped supermodel Chrissy Teigen. “I can’t figure out how one would hear Yanny.”

But some do hear Yanny!

Think about what you see with news photos of Palestinians storming a border fence resulting in 60 killed and hundreds injured by the Israeli military; and those of well-dressed dignitaries, many kilometres away from the killings, celebrating the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem.

On Gaza’s bloody day, why did Israel use snipers?

What are you processing in your mind when one camp says China is committed to a peaceful rise and another warns it is a threat to world peace? 

Is Beijing committed to maintaining or dismantling “one country, two systems”?

Are our rebellious young people democracy fighters or fai tsing (rubbish youth)?

It’s worth remembering that while you most definitely hear Yanny, others, with equal conviction, hear Laurel.