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Yanny or Laurel? Why we hear different words in this viral audio clip

There has been an ongoing social media debate this week about whether people hear the word ‘yanny’ or ‘laurel’ when listening to an audio clip that went viral on Twitter.

Although many people can argue about who is right and who is wrong, the reasoning behind what you hear depends on different factors.  

The debate originally sparked from this Tweet.

Although you may think you hear with your ears, you actually hear with your brain

Audiologist, Dr. Kevin Franck, the director of audiology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear explained to Time why the population is divided on what word they hear.

“Spoken language puts relatively arbitrary barriers around sound to turn it into very different meanings,” says Franck. “Those boundaries could be drastically or subtly different for each of us.”

Factors that influence what we hear are the native languages we speak, where we grew up, and how our brain processes sound. 

“Factors that influence what we hear are the native languages we speak, where we grew up, and how our brain processes sound.”

Nina Kraus from Northwestern University’s Brain Volts lab told National Geographic a similar explanation to what Franck said.

“The way you hear sound is influenced by your life in sound—what you know about sound,” says Kraus.

Also, the fact that you were expecting to hear either ‘yanny’ or ‘laurel’ also changes how you perceive what you hear. 

“Much of what you hear, is about what you’re expecting to hear,” Krauss told NPR.

Thoughts from the deaf and hard of hearing community

An audio debate over the internet affects the deaf and hard of hearing community in a different way.

One of the most popular responses to this debate is from deaf actress and activist, Marlee Matlin.

Depending on the severity of a person’s hearing loss impacts whether they can even hear the audio clip. For people with milder hearing loss, the audio clip could be heard differently depending on whether or not you are wearing hearing aids. 

Anna Biggins, Senior Audiology Manager at Phonak, explains why wearing hearing aids may change how a person hears the word. 

“This is related to neurons firing to parts of the brain and interaural time differences,” Biggins says. “If the input signal is temporally close, it makes sense that small differences in timing, the shape of the ear, even the headset or hearing aid that you listen to the sound through will affect whether you hear one word or the other or something different.”

Just a change in timing, the shape of the ear and what you are hearing sound through (speakers, headphones, hearing aids) affects what you hear.

Todd Ricketts of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Hearing and Speech Sciences Department gave a similar explanation to the Associated Press.

“This is a relatively low-quality signal that is played over a variety of devices and the sound was developed to be on a perceptual border,” Ricketts says. “For example, with a full-range higher quality speaker, I clearly only hear laurel, but over my computer speakers, I clearly only hear yanny.”

“For example, with a full-range higher quality speaker, I clearly only hear laurel, but over my computer speakers, I clearly only hear yanny.”

Brad Story, a professor of speech, language and hearing sciences at the University of Arizona, also mentions how the two words have similar waveform patterns, which can easily confuse the brain. The quality of the sound also determines what your brain hears.

“So with a recording that’s somewhat ambiguous and low-quality, it’s not surprising that some people may flip those when they’re perceiving that word,” Story told NPR. “That probably wouldn’t happen in a high-quality recording or if it were spoken in a full sentence to give people more context clues.”

What started out as an audio clip, then a social media debate, has now turned into an opportunity to better learn how we listen using our brain and how our brains process sound.

What do you hear when you listen to the audio clip? Let us know in the comments!

Editorial Staff
I work at Phonak and write for HearingLikeMe.com.

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