I heard “yanny.”
This is, I know now, objectively wrong. In 2007, actor Jay Aubrey Jones was recorded pronouncing the word “laurel” for vocabulary.com. Earlier this month, a high school student in Georgia named Katie Hetzel played that audio clip, but like me, she heard “yanny.” So she posted it to social media to find out how it sounded to others. By last week, yanny vs. laurel had spread across the internet, another low-stakes demonstration of how human perceptions vary.
“I’m intrigued,” Jones said when Time magazine asked him about his moment of viral fame, “and I wish I could sit people down and ask: ‘Why, with all the things that are going on in the world right now?’ ”
I think he answered his own question. All the things that are going on in the world make such memes even more compelling. We are living in an age of siloed experiences, disputed data and binary politics. The yanny/laurel divide is a depoliticized version of so many other seemingly unbridgeable gaps in how we see the world.
If you’ve read this far, you likely also remember 2015’s notorious photo of the striped dress, which appeared white and gold to some people, blue and black to others. Since then, there have been a jacket, a shoe and a tennis ball of disputed hue. “Viral illusions,” as the Atlantic has called them, play to the modern tendency to turn every dilemma into a binary — yes-or-no, good-or-bad — debate. Most of our problems are far more complex than that, though. They defy objectively “correct” answers.
‘How do you not hear ‘yanny’?’ is another way of asking: How can anyone believe that criminalizing abortion will make it go away?
Most of us know this to be true, yet we’re burrowed so deeply in our own beliefs it can be hard to conceptualize that there is another way of seeing the world. Confronted with the opinions of people on the opposite side of many political issues, often I fail to even begin to understand how they could believe what they do. I know I am not alone in this. “How do you not hear ‘yanny’?” is another way of asking: How can anyone believe that criminalizing abortion will make it go away? How could anyone not believe stricter gun laws would reduce school shootings? How could anyone think that separating refugee children from their parents and holding them indefinitely in immigration detention centers is morally defensible?
We’re not often pushed to question the very basis of our gut reactions back to their source. Maybe I heard “yanny” — the option that suggests my brain emphasizes higher frequencies — because, like the student who initially posted the clip, I’m a woman. Or because I’m accustomed to listening to women’s voices. Or, to go even deeper, because I identify as a feminist for whom “listen to women” is a political mantra. Perhaps it’s less about what I believe than how I was raised, and my ear is simply more sensitive to certain “a” sounds because I grew up surrounded by nasal Midwest accents. Then again, I know plenty of feminist Midwestern women in the “laurel” camp.
Yanny/laurel remains a quick proof point of how everyone perceives and processes things differently. The meme and its ilk should be an invitation to note the swiftness with which our brains fill in unknown spaces. We replace ambiguities with assumptions. It probably won’t save our democracy or even de-escalate our political discourse, but pausing to take stock of our individual biases before firing off a tweet or 911 call would be a welcome change. Just look at the barrage of recent incidents in which white people were quick to identify black people as threats when they were waiting for a friend at Starbucks or napping in a common area of their dorm.
What if, instead of doing the equivalent of tweeting “IT’S OBVIOUSLY YANNY,” we all listened more closely? I replayed the clip over and over, straining to hear even the faintest “laurel.” I was compelled by the idea that I might be able to close the gap between my perception and others’ — if not in politics, at least in this meme. I wanted to hear what all those other people heard. After finding a New York Times tool that allows users to adjust the audio mix, finally I could hear the “laurel” in there, too. If only we had such a tool for our real lives.
Now that yanny/laurel has opened the door to aural illusion memes, already others have emerged. One is a video clip of a toy that sounds like it’s saying either “brainstorm” or “green needle.” Rather than ask people which phrase they hear, though, the accompanying text includes a set of instructions: Think about one of those phrases when you press “play,” and that will be the one you hear. In other words, you might not have much power over your initial perceptions. But you can always pause, gain some more information and listen again.
Ann Friedman is a contributing writer to Opinion.