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Sound illusion: Do you hear “Yanny” or “Laurel”?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2018

Take a listen to this short audio clip of a computerized voice speaking a single word repeated twice:

Do you hear it saying “Laurel” or “Yanny”? Opinions are mixed: some people report hearing “Laurel” and others “Yanny”. Both Vox and the NY Times took stabs at possible explanations.

Of course, in the grand tradition of internet reportage, we turned to a scientist to make this article legitimately newsworthy.

Dr. Jody Kreiman, a principal investigator at the voice perception laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, helpfully guessed on Tuesday afternoon that “the acoustic patterns for the utterance are midway between those for the two words.”

“The energy concentrations for Ya are similar to those for La,” she said. “N is similar to r; I is close to l.”

At first I thought the whole thing was a joke, like a circa-2018 rickroll. When I listened to the clip on my iPhone speakers and iMac speakers, I clearly heard “Yanny”. But then I plugged my headphones into my iMac and clearly heard “Laurel”. Weird! Even weirder: after unplugging my headphones and playing the clip again through my iMac speakers, I now heard “Laurel”. WTF? But then if I played it once more through the speakers, it turns back to “Yanny”. I’ve done this about 10 times and it happens this way every time: “Yanni” on speakers, “Laurel” on headphones, “Laurel” on speakers, “Yanny” on speakers. It’s like my brain remembers the “Laurel” it heard in the headphones, but only long enough to hear it exactly once through the speakers. FASCINATING.

See also the McGurk effect.

Update: Here’s a thread from psycholinguist Suzy Styles that explains what’s going on with this illusion.

In short, this #earllusion contains acoustic info from both names. ‘Yanny’ is clearer in the higher frequencies because of the clear signal for “y” sounds in F2. ‘Laurel’ is clearer in the low frequencies for F1. Play with your stereo settings and watch your brain switch tracks!

(via @wisekaren)

Update: Wired’s Louise Matsakis tracked down where the audio clip originated: a vocabulary.com definition for the word “laurel”.

On May 11, Katie Hetzel, a freshman at Flowery Branch High School in Georgia, was studying for her world literature class, where “laurel” was one of her vocabulary words. She looked it up on Vocabulary.com and played the audio. Instead of the word in front of her, she heard “yanny.”

“I asked my friends in my class and we all heard mixed things,” says Hetzel. She then posted the audio clip to her Instagram story. Soon, a senior at the same school, Fernando Castro, republished the clip to his Instagram story as a poll. “She recorded it and put it on her story then I remade the video and posted it,” Castro says. “Katie and I have been going back and forth and we both agree that we had equal credit on it.”

The audio clip in question was not constructed digitally…it was recorded by an opera singer in 2007.

“It’s an incredible story, it is a person, he is a member of the original cast of Cats on Broadway,” says Marc Tinkler, the CTO and cofounder of Vocabulary.com. He says that when the site first launched, they wanted to find individuals who had strong pronunciation, and could read words written in the international phonetic alphabet, a standardized representation of sounds in any spoken language. Many opera singers know how to read IPA, because they have to sing in languages they don’t speak.

Vocabulary.com has since added “yanny” to their site.

It’s a shame (but not surprising) that almost all of the social media coverage played up the Team Yanny vs Team Laurel aspect of this whole thing — “Which of Your Friends Is the Dumbest For Hearing ‘Yanny’” OMG CLICK HERE TO DRAG THEM ON SOCIAL — because the actual story and science are really interesting and will stay with you longer than you’ll be caught in public wearing that “team #yanny” tshirt you bought through someone’s Insta Story (swipe up!). (thx, liz)