Laurel versus Yanny is dividing the nation. It seems like we had barely settled down from the blue and black (or white and gold?) dress debacle, when YouTube star Cloe Feldman decided to publish a four-second video originally posted on Reddit by user RolandCamry. Within a couple days, the clip asking viewers whether they hear the word “Laurel” or the word “Yanny” has garnered over 100,000 likes on Twitter–and sparked intense debate.
Everyone from Health staffers (full disclosure: I am a Laurel) to Chrissy Teigen and Mindy Kaling can’t seem to agree, so we felt it was time to call in an expert. Don Vaughn, PhD, a neuroscientist and musician, is helping us make a sound judgment on the matter.
“It’s a really interesting phenomenon,” he tells Health. The brain tries its best to create “one unified model of the world,” he says–but at the end of the day, one person’s individual brain is just one individual interpretation, he explains. “Your brain’s job is to construct the most likely reality, so it makes the best guess.” The result? In a split second, you hear either Laurel or Yanny.
But, Vaughn argues, you can probably hear both.
“If I say, ‘I know you hear it as Yanny, but I want you to sit here and listen to Laurel, I think most people can hear it either way,” he says. “It’s a conflict between our first gut reaction and the fact that there is another interpretation, but it’s inconvenient to do that work.”
In addition to your brain’s unique interpretation of the clip, whether you hear Laurel or Yanny also depends on your ability to hear high and low frequencies. Like Teigen told Kaling, “They’re saying younger, more beautiful people hear yanny!!!!!” And she might be onto something.
Inside your ears are small sensors called hair cells. They pick up on sound waves and send them to the brain, Vaughn says. “If you lose all your hair cells you can’t hear.” Noise exposure can damage these hair cells, and they don’t grow back.
Vaughn speculates that people who are older and have fewer hair cells are more likely to hear Laurel because they can’t hear the higher frequencies of Yanny. “We know that other animals on the planet specialize in hearing different frequencies,” he says. “Some birds only hear high frequencies, and whales hear low-frequency content. It’s not a stretch that some people pay more attention to high frequencies.” The frequencies in the viral clip are extreme, he adds: Most of us are used to hearing more mid-range frequencies, which could make it even trickier to tell if it’s Laurel or Yanny.
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As other outlets have noted, playing with the frequencies in the video can make Laurel or Yanny suddenly appear. “As a DJ, to me, it sounds like if you were to low-pass it (keeping the sound at low frequencies), I bet you’re much more likely to hear Laurel,” Vaughn explains. “And if you were to high-pass it (keeping the sound at high frequencies), you’re much more likely to hear Yanny.”
Maybe, he says, it’s like showing a group of people something that’s red-orange. Some would call it red, while others would argue that it’s orange. “The real question is what percentage hear both to some degree,” he says.
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