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Laurel vs. Yanny: The Real Questions People Should Be Asking, and How the Debate Sheds Light on a Much Bigger Picture

Laurel vs. Yanny: The Real Questions People Should Be Asking, and How the Debate Sheds Light on a Much Bigger Picture

There currently is an ongoing debate surrounding an audio clip that either sounds like "Yanny" or "Laurel" depending on who is listening. | Pixabay/StockSnap

People who are often online would have already heard of the Laurel vs. Yanny debate by now.

There have been a lot of speculations and hypotheses explaining the latest mystery to hit the web, but as the world scrambles for an explanation for it, more questions tend to surface.

For the uninitiated, Laurel vs. Yanny started when a student decided to look up the definition of "laurel" on an online dictionary, which provided an audio recording that to her, sounded "yanny."

The student then shared it on social media, and sure enough, it became the new blue or gold dress from three years ago as some people said they clearly hear Laurel while others say it is definitely Yanny.

A lot of individuals have chimed in trying to make sense of the fact that people are hearing two different things off of the same recording. Some said that it may have something to do with the quality of the device that people use to listen to the recording or the quality of the audio itself.

Pascal Wallisch, who works as a clinical assistant professor of psychology at New York University, where he also heads the Fox laboratory, however, believes this to be far from the case.

In an article he wrote for Slate.com, he provided a spectrogram of the original Laurel recording, which revealed that low-pass filtered versions of the recording, wherein vibrations at high frequencies are suppressed, produce sound much closer to Laurel to most people while the other side of the spectrum, the high-pass filtered versions, tends to make it sound like a wispier Yanny.

It is being theorized by some that age might be a factor in what someone hears in the Laurel vs. Yanny recording. The range of human hearing comprises frequencies from 20 to 20,000 hertz, which happens to be the hearing range of younger people.

As people get older, the hearing ranges shrink starting at the higher end of the range. In short, older people might more likely be in the Laurel camp simply because their auditory system tones down the high frequencies while the younger ones will likely hear Yanny in the recording.

This does not explain everything though. This theory is challenged by the fact that there are much younger people who hear Laurel instead of Yanny and that the recording's high-frequency ranges are not even that high.

This begs an intriguing question though — why are some people more inclined to hear the higher frequencies while others, the lower ones? Wallisch believes that experience of the person listening might be the primary driving force.

He goes on to explain that getting to the bottom of the Laurel vs. Yanny mystery boils down to a person's expectations and prior experience.

He proves this by providing two versions of an audio recording of a speech. The first one is digitally modified for someone to have a hard time making out the words being said and the second one is the original, unaltered version.

Users will see that after listening to the first one and then the second one, going back to the altered version will be a different experience because of the expectation the unaltered sound clip embedded on the brain. Simply put, expectations can define what someone will hear, and are in turn, shaped by the person's experience.

Another question is born out of this though — why does each person's experience yield different experiences? Another thing to ask is how do these experiences shift in the sense that the same person will hear Laurel one time and Yanny another time.

Wallisch explains that this has something to do with what the brains tells one to believe. In the concept of the infamous color-changing dress of 2015, it is to be understood that perception is pretty much a guess, but it does not feel like it because the brain convinces individuals of their certainty of the interpretation.

Guesses, which can be right or wrong, are formed in the brain by putting together assumptions from prior experience. Seeing that people go through different experiences in their lives, their assumptions vary, and in turn, their interpretations.

In line with this, Wallisch thinks that the Laurel vs. Yanny mystery sheds some light on something so much more significant — the brain's tendency for "subjective overconfidence," which is when a person feels like he or she is completely sure the recording was saying one thing to the point that it becomes ridiculous to think that it is saying something else.

This makes the brain unable to have "epistemic humility," which gives other people the purpose to keep the subjective overconfidence in check and keep the brain "modest," so to speak.

This is considered a strength of one great society, but modesty is not really very easy to come by especially in the age of social media, making it dangerous too. Wallisch points out that in the case of the latter, "this cognitive diversity has been weaponized to the point of extreme tribalism."

While all this hardly renders the Laurel vs. Yanny closed (if anything it just scratched the surface), one thing it successfully did is start discussions about a much bigger picture beyond what people are hearing.

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