The Internet Ponders This Critical Question: Do You Hear ‘Laurel’ or ‘Yanny’?

Science has weighed in on this pressing issue of the day and we now have a winner — with good news for the 'losers'

Sometimes the internet universe tires of debating war, political ideology and other serious topics and becomes fixated on fun, silly conundrums.

This is one of those times.

A simple audio clip ignited a social media firestorm Monday night, and the still-burning issue is this: Do you hear the word “Yanny,” or the word “Laurel”?

A four-second audio clip was originally posted to Reddit by user RolandCamry three days ago along with a question: “What do you guys hear?” (Check it out for yourself, in the video below!)

In the clip, a robot voice speaks a single word two times.

RolandCamry’s simple question, which should have had a simple answer — didn’t. Instantly, the internet took sides, and the clip with its associated question went as viral as viral gets, similar to “the dress” mind-bender in February 2015, when the country was divided over whether the colors of a dress were black and blue or white and gold.

In the viral audio mystery happening now, some listeners swore they heard “Laurel.” The others insisted the word in question was “Yanny.” Some even said they heard both.

A word war ensued, dividing households, workplaces, and other formerly cohesive groups.

Naturally linguists, audiologists, phoneticians, and assorted science-types — along with scores of internet sleuths — have offered their expertise in providing a definitive answer. Also naturally, their conclusions leave room for interpretation.

Taking the various scientific sources into account, a clear conclusion has emerged. Those who hear “Laurel” may be right, in that the original clip likely is a pronunciation of the word “Laurel.”

However — and this is big — people who hear “Yanny” are brainier.

Examining a spectrogram of the clip, Brown University phonetician Chelsea Sanker explained it is “not prototypical” of either word, as The Atlantic reported. Sanker also delivered this bit of disappointing news for “Yannies”: The middle consonant is not even an “n.”

Brad Story of the University of Arizona’s Speech Acoustics and Physiology Lab dealt yet another blow to #TeamYanny in National Geographic’s coverage. Story (callously, at least to #Team Yanny) noted, “I’m pretty sure the original recording was ‘Laurel.'”

He explained that since the clip is not of high quality and what listeners hear can vary, there is room for interpretation. Our brains, essentially, fill in the blanks when not given sufficient information.

Other professionals and ambitious amateurs in outlets such as The New York Times and BuzzFeed have offered additional explanations for the phenomenon. These include differences related to the equipment over which a listener hears the clip; age-related differences in ear physiology leading to differences in the ability to hear various frequencies; and even listeners’ native language.

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Since the robot voice in the short audio clip lacks crispness, listeners may well be influenced by having already seen (in written reports, or on video text overlay) what they anticipate hearing. So they’re primed to hear one or the other.

The poll many listeners have answered contains both words, so listeners may be primed to hear one or the other, and their brains may accommodate them in hearing precisely that.

Audrey Nath and Michael Beauchamp of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston conducted research in 2013 that vindicates #TeamYanny.

In this research, they investigated what’s called the McGurk effect, an auditory illusion that occurs when “humans perceive mismatched audiovisual speech as a completely different syllable.” Those with a strong left superior temporal sulcus (STS) response when presented with mismatched stimuli were more likely to experience the McGurk effect.

The STS is the region of the brain critical for “multi-sensory integration of auditory and visual information about both speech and non-speech stimuli,” Nath and Beauchamp explained. In another scientific paper published by Trends in Cognitive Science in 2015, Beauchamp said that particular brain region is “linked [to] many other cognitive functions, especially those related to social cognition and perception.”

So what does this mean for #TeamYanny?

If Story is correct, and the original does say “Laurel,” then those who are hearing “Yanny” are probably experiencing some form of the McGurk effect.

And since those who experience the McGurk effect have stronger responses in the STS of their brain, well, maybe they’re just smarter and more socially aware than the nation’s “Laurels.”

The fierce debate shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Michele Blood is a Flemington, New Jersey-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to LifeZette who is firmly and unapologetically #TeamYanny.