Explained! Why we can't agree on the viral 'Yanny' or 'Laurel' sound

Not since The Dress has the internet ripped itself in half over a sensory puzzle like this.

In case you haven’t been online in the last 24 hours, that puzzle is a two-syllable sound clip that appeared on Reddit and has since gone viral.

When you hit the Play button, a computer-generated voice says the word, looping it over and over. The word is “Laurel.”

Or maybe “Yanny” (pronounced “yeah-knee”).

Some people hear “laurel” and will go to their graves insisting that there’s no other possibility. Others hear “Yanny” and nothing will budge their opinions. In-office polls put the perceptions right around 50-50.

I heard “laurel” on my laptop. My wife, at her office on her phone, texted that she heard “Yanny.” We were each dumbfounded.

When she got home, though, listening on a different device in a different room, we both heard “Yanny.” But when I played a pitch-shifted (higher or lower) version, it was indisputably “laurel” for both of us.

In desperation, I sought an expert opinion. Dr. Bradford May, an auditory scientist at Johns Hopkins University, puts it like this:

“Computer synthesis programs can produce unnatural sounds that fall on the boundaries between the two sounds. The listener will place these chimeric sounds into one category or the other depending on the best match. Because humans have differences in their auditory function and category boundaries, some will hear ‘yanny,’ while others will hear ‘laurel.’ This relates to the difficulty some Japanese speakers have with R vs. L sounds, which are not distinguished in the Japanese language.

Related: Wild optical illusions 

Optical illusion photographs
See Gallery
Optical illusion photographs

A terrier dog driving his car on a sunny day in the Jerusalem Forest.

(Photo by Dan Porges via Getty Images)

Golden Eiffel Tower fitting on the cityscape with the real one in the background.

(Photo by Artur Debat via Getty Images)

Cows with one head

(Photo by Randi Shepard via Getty Images)

Shadow of a tennis player hitting a tennis ball

(Photo by Polka Dot Images via Getty Images)

Children using beach sand to cover themselves to give the illusion of a headless person lying on the beach.

(Photo by Douglas Sacha via Getty Images)

A woman appearing to push large beach ball

(Photo by Nine OK via Getty Images)

A man's silhouette appearing to hold the moon like a basketball

(Photo by Ovidiu Caragea / EyeEm via Getty Images)

A cloud being used as topping for an ice cream cone

(Photo by Evelyne Sieber / EyeEm via Getty Images)

An illusion of a crescent moon serving as a boat's sail

(Photo by Sten Knudtoft / EyeEm via Getty Images)

Optical illusion. This building in Paris, close to the Church of the Sacred Earth, seems to be skew, while in fact it is the green lawn that goes up hill.

(Photo by Busà Photography via Getty Images)

Two grazing donkeys seem to form one two-headed donkey

(Photo by Inbal Caspi / EyeEm via Getty Images)

A man with a horse's head instead of his own

(Photo by Mubadda Rohana / EyeEm via Getty Images)

Two cyclists on a flat boardwalk

(Photo by Cosmo Condina via Getty Images)

Optical illusion, man being kicked in the air in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, South America

(Photo by Harald von Radebrecht via Getty Images)

An illusion of a man throwing an airplane

(Photo by Dariusz Myszkowski / EyeEm via Getty Images)


“Humans learn language by learning to attend to meaningful sound patterns, and by learning to ignore specific acoustic features of those sounds that are not important. So, a child, an adult female, and an adult male will produce very different acoustic patterns when they say ‘yanny,’ but you will hear ‘yanny’ because you are attending to the underlying meaningful pattern, not the talker-specific acoustic features. This is called categorical perception.

“You will never confuse ‘yanny’ and ‘laurel’ when spoken by actual talkers, because they can only produce natural sounds that fall within the distinct parameter spaces of the two sounds.”

In other words, if the yanny/laurel puzzle weren’t computer-generated, it couldn’t exist. The sound we’re hearing is a combo that merges the two words; we hear different things because our hearing is different, and because our brains categorize differently.

Bottom line: As with The Dress, someone has stumbled upon an absolutely incredible razor’s-edge bit of hybrid sensory input. It doesn’t matter if you hear “Yanny” or “Laurel”; the good news is that you’re right.

David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. You can sign up to get his stuff by email, here.  

More from David Pogue:

Read Full Story