We love a good illusion, and when Yanny vs. Laurel went viral, we stopped working entirely for a few hours while we engaged in lengthy debates with our coworkers.
Was it yanny? Laurel? Did it matter? Does anything matter?
What do you hear? Yanny or laurel pic.twitter.com/z2haRLi7I3
— VIBRA ULTRA ZEN ✨📿🔮 (@Desahogada) May 23, 2018
If you’ve been living under a rock where the internet doesn’t exist, first of all, we’d love to come live with you under your magical rock. Secondly, here’s what you need to know about the strangest internet debate since #TheDress.
1. The Yanny vs. Laurel debate apparently started in a Georgia high school.
Student Katie Hetzel was studying “laurel” for her history class, per CBS News, when she looked up the word on Vocabulary.com and nonchalantly clicked the “pronunciation” button, unaware that she was launching a bizarre cultural moment.
“I thought I was losing it,” she told CBS. “I clicked the audio button to tell me a word to spell and I hear ‘Yanny’ and I was like, this isn’t one of my vocabulary words.”
After showing the audio to a few of her classmates, she posted the clip online. At some point, self-described social media influencer Cloe Feldman tweeted about the controversy, adding in a simple graphic. From there, all hell broke loose.
it's so clearly laurel. I can't even figure out how one would hear yanny.
— chrissy teigen (@chrissyteigen) May 15, 2018
Soon, celebrities were weighing in; Chrissy Teigen heard “laurel.” Mindy Kaling heard “yanny.” Charles Barkley claimed that he heard “doughnut.”
2. The audio clip sounds computerized, but it’s actually a recording of a person.
Wired contacted Vocabulary.com to find out how they’d developed the robotic voice heard in the clip…only to find out that the voice wasn’t actually coming from a computer.
“We hired a bunch of opera singers to record 200,000 words, basically,” Marc Tinkler, CTO of Vocabulary.com, told Wired. He explained the recording process: Opera singers sat down with “really nice microphones” and read through a dictionary, one word at a time, pronouncing each entry as clearly as possible.
The voice behind the laurel/yanny recording is the now-64-year-old Jay Aubrey Jones. He uttered “laurel,” along with around 36,000 other words, into a microphone 11 years ago. “I recorded my batch of words,” the singer-actor told TIME, “and I thought that was that.”
Once the debate began over a decade later, Tinkler didn’t initially reveal the actor’s identity since he wasn’t sure whether the singer would appreciate the viral fame. Turns out Jones doesn’t mind it; he’s just amused and confused. He’s on Team Laurel, by the way, though he told TIME that he can hear a trace of “yanny.”
In case you’re wondering, the voice likely sounds robotic due to heavy use of compression; the overtones of the reader’s voice become more pronounced in a way that sounds unnatural to the human ear.
3. All told, the scientific explanation for Yanny vs. Laurel is pretty simple.
In a sense, both of the sounds are there.
“The acoustic patterns for the utterance are midway between those for the two words,” Jody Kreiman, principal investigator at the voice perception laboratory at the University of California in Los Angeles, told The New York Times.
Here’s the simplified version: When we speak, our vocal cords create several series of pitches, called formants. When the opera singer read the word “laurel,” his voice created high formants with patterns similar to the sound of “yanny.”
Laurel or Yanny? — Illustration by Jeff Sequeira pic.twitter.com/SE7Huq6cHw
— comic story (@comicsstory) May 23, 2018
Add in some digital compression, and you’ve got a sound that could really be either word—although, taking the speaker’s intention into account, we’ve got to say that it’s really “laurel.” Sorry, #TeamYanny.
[on first date]
me: so yanny or laurel?
them: i always hear yanny
me: [shoving breadsticks into my purse] i’m sorry i have to go
— jay (@deerinahat) May 17, 2018
If you’re still having trouble hearing one or the other, The New York Times created a tool that varies the frequencies, allowing the listener to determine how much yanny he wants in his laurel or vice-versa. Alternately, you could simply play the original clip a few times, focusing on the higher and lower frequencies until you hear both (or until your coworker throws a stapler at your head).
4. There’s an even better clip for studying this sort of phenomenon.
In 2014, YouTube user DosmRider uploaded this clip of a small Ultimate Omnitrix toy saying “brainstorm.” However, in the wake of #yannyorlaurel, some Twitter user noted that it also sounds like “green needle.”
We actually like this more than #yannyorlaurel, since you can easily hear whichever you’d like, depending on which words you’re thinking about when listening. Again, the explanation is simple; the higher register contains the acoustic patterns for “green needle.”
The correct answer, of course, is “brainstorm.” Green needles aren’t really a thing. A “yanny,” however…
5. Thanks to Yanny vs. Laurel, there’s now a new word for viral distractions.
“A yanny is a word or phrase that is capable of distracting the entire internet for at least 24 hours,” reads the new entry on Vocabulary.com (the site where the original yanny/laurel audio appeared). “When you ‘drop a yanny,’ you start a contentious debate on some type of public forum.”
We’ll just say it: Vocabulary.com is trying to stretch their viral moment for as long as they can. There’s nothing wrong with that.
“Yannies usually cause an extremely intense but brief disagreement between opposing groups,” the tongue-in-cheek entry continues. “This dispute might include the sense that adversaries are living on a completely alien planet, one where colors appear different and words, even when spoken in the same language, sound utterly unfamiliar.”
ANNOUNCER: “Your word is… LAUREL”
Me: “Y-A-N-N-Y” pic.twitter.com/AE8j6p9Qdc
— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) May 17, 2018
“Yanny is derived from the Latin word yanerious meaning both ‘frenzy’ and ‘word with many sounds.’ It shares a Greek root, daphne, with words including laurel.”
Surprisingly, our Latin dictionary doesn’t have an entry for “yanerious.” The kicker: The new word’s pronunciation audio clearly (and predictably) says “laurel.”
We wouldn’t be surprised if this catches on.
6. This wasn’t the first time that the internet became obsessed with an illusion.
You think that we’re talking about #TheDress, don’t you?
Well, it’s easy to note the similarities. In 2015, Twitter basically had a meltdown over this image, which either shows a white-and-gold dress or a blue-and-black dress, depending on your perspective.
The dress in question, by the way, was blue and black. But if you saw white and gold, don’t worry—you’re not going crazy.
Here’s what’s happening: Our visual perception depends on our ability to identify light sources. If we view an object in the moonlight, our brains know that some of the colors have changed, since moonlight isn’t as bright as daylight. We constantly make little adjustments to accurately determine color.
However, when we can’t easily determine the source of the light, we have trouble making those little adaptations. The poor lighting in the photo of the dress is confusing, so we make assumptions about the source of that light. Therefore, some people see white and gold (and, just to be clear, they’re wrong).
Some people just see an incredibly stylish article of clothing. According to retailer Roman Originals, the dress sold incredibly well in the days following the viral moment.
That’s all great, but it wasn’t the first optical illusion to go viral. In 2008, a video called “Test Your Awareness” hit YouTube. If you haven’t seen it, we won’t ruin the surprise.
Various versions of this test have made the rounds on different video sites since the dawn of the internet. The first one was probably The Invisible Gorilla, which came from a 1999 study from Harvard University.
According to researchers Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, participants were asked to watch six people (three in white shirts and three in black shirts) pass basketballs around while silently counting the number of passes. At the end of the video, they’d ask: Did you see the gorilla?
Roughly half of the participants hadn’t seen the ape—unlike you, they didn’t know it was coming. This can be explained by something called inattentional blindness, which allows humans to ignore distractions to focus on something with perceived importance. The experiment teaches an important lesson: We trust our senses to give us the whole story, but in some cases, that trust is misplaced.
7. None of these “viral moments” really matter, and that’s why they’re awesome.
We know what you’re saying: This is all really dumb, and it’s merely a distraction from the real problems facing our world. We completely agree.
Even Jones, who birthed this whole non-issue out of his operatic lungs, told TIME, “I’m intrigued and I wish I could sit people down and ask: ‘Why, with all the things that are going on in the world right now?’”
In a decade, we’ll likely look back on the carefree days of Yanny vs. Laurel with a mix of nostalgia and embarrassment. “Why did we really care about this?” we’ll ask ourselves while ordering space milkshakes from our robot butlers.
It’s a silly, spontaneous moment, and that’s sort of the point. Optical illusions go viral precisely because they’re inconsequential.
A compassionate, conscious person can care about:#SantaFe#Syria#RoyalWedding#Racism#PoorPeoplesCampaign#Congo#PuertoRico #ChikesiaClemons #Dreamers#NoMuslimBan#Laurel#Yanny #Flint
On the same day, and with attention to how to help eradicate injustice.
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) May 19, 2018
The Yanny vs. Laurel debate isn’t political, it’s not loaded with problematic gender issues, and you don’t need to know anything special before you weigh in. Everyone’s opinion is equally valid (unless you hear “doughnut,” of course), and the science behind the phenomenon is pretty fascinating.
In other words: If you’re having trouble seeing what the fuss is about, relax. The next big viral illusion is probably just around the corner.