Work ceased for several minutes at Gizmodo Media this afternoon as everyone stopped to listen to a four-second sound file of someone either saying “laurel” or “yanny.” No one could agree. I heard “laurel.”
No joke, this question divided staff, with many insisting the other side couldn’t possibly be hearing what they claimed. It’s essentially an audio version of the god-forsaken dress. But how could people hear such different words in the same sound file? You probably won’t be surprised to learn it has a lot to do with you as an individual.
“If I cut your ears off and put someone else’s on your head, sounds would sound different,” University of Chicago psychologist Howard Nusbaum, who studies speech science (and heard “laurel,” by the way), told Gizmodo.
We all have ear canals that hear sounds, and differently shaped outer ears that focus sounds into those canals. These two properties could increase or decrease how you hear different pitches, or sound wave frequencies.
“The signal information is present for both words in the acoustics, but some people are listening to some frequencies and others are listening to other frequencies.”
Matt Mikkelsen, a sound and audio engineer, corroborated Nusbaum’s explanation. But there’s more—how you listen to the recording may change whether you’re on team “yanny” or “laurel.” Using different headphones or speakers could highlight different pitches.
Then, there’s the brain between those ears. “Your brains play a big part in shaping sound and how we hear it,” said Mikkelsen. If you go in thinking you’ll hear one, you might hear it to start. You might, on repeated listen, convince yourself that you hear the other, as happened to several of us in the Gizmodo newsroom. Mikkelsen also said perhaps folks who live in New York City hear differently than folks from the country because they’re used to loud noises.
So, don’t get mad if you hear “laurel” and your friends hear “yanny.” Even something like hearing is subjective. And if you listen enough, you might begin to hear things the other way, too.