Do You Hear What I Hear?

When my son, Ben, was 11 years old, we were visiting EPCOT in Disney World, walking toward the Canadian pavilion. My son mentioned the word "Canada," and in that split second, I decided to have a little fun.

"What did you say?" I asked him.

"Canada," he said.

"You're not saying it right," I said.

"What, Canada?"

"Yeah, that's not right."

"How do you say it?" he asked.

"Canada," I said, just like he had been saying it.

"That doesn't sound any different."

"Yeah, but you're not saying it right." Ben tried it a couple more times, and I would say it the same way, but tell him he wasn't doing it right.

"Are you messing with me?" he asked.

"Why would I do that?" I said, not actually answering the question. "Let's ask that guy." I pointed at a Disney employee working at the Canadian souvenir cart. His name tag said he was actually from Canada, which was even better.

"My son is not saying the name of your country correctly," I said, winking over Ben's head. "Can you help him out?"

"Sure," said the guy, catching my wink. "Canada."

"Canada," said Ben.

"No, like this: Canada,"said the guy.

"Canada," said Ben.

"Here, listen," said the guy, really getting into it. "Ca-na-da." They went back and forth several times, including making Ben repeat each syllable with him.

Finally, when he looked thoroughly confused, I said, "Ben, we were just messing with you. You were saying it right the whole time."

Ben looked relieved. "Oh good. I was worried something was wrong with my brain and that I wasn't actually hearing what I was doing wrong."

I remembered this story after the Internet erupted over the whole Laurel/Yanny argument.

The argument is based on an audio file of a voice that repeats a word a few times, and you had to post which word you heard, #Yanny or #Laurel. If you didn't, that dead girl from The Ring would crawl out of your laptop and try to kill you.

Of course, different people heard different things, and they would swear up and down that they heard the right word, and everyone else was just wrong.

It was like The Dress controversy from 2015, when people were yelling and screaming about whether a photo of a particular dress was blue and black or white and gold. (White and gold! It was clearly white and gold!)

With the Laurel/Yanny test, everyone started posting what they had heard, and people accused each other of being argumentative, mentally deficient, or deliberately obtuse. It was the 2016 presidential campaign all over again, complete with chants of #LaurelUp and accusations of #FakeNoise.

Even New Age musician Yanni weighed in: "I don't hear anything except Yanni," he tweeted, which was a good joke, except no one under 30 has ever heard Yanni.

The survey was originally sent out by a Georgia high school student over Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, and other sites, asking people which word they heard. The original word actually was "Laurel," and it was something she had looked up on, but based on her own audio equipment, she said she could only hear "Yanny." So she recorded the sound, asked her friends what they heard, and that's when everything exploded.

Several theories were offered — the #Laurel people were addle-minded; the #Yanni people had been kicked in the head — but no one could figure out the right answer to the test.

It didn't help that the student had recorded the audio to her phone, so it was a recording of a recording, and a low-quality one at that. That factored into what people heard.

The New York Times published an article that explained the back story of the sonic squabble, and even created a tool that would let you adjust the frequency of the recording, which would change which word you actually heard.

There are a number of different factors that determine which word you actually hear, based on the quality of your computer or phone speakers, your headphones or earbuds, and even your age and your ability to hear higher frequencies.

Laurel is stronger when played in lower frequencies, while Yanny is stronger in the higher frequencies. That means, if you have a decent set of headphones or speakers with subwoofers, you'll hear the word Laurel every time. But if you have a small set of speakers that don't carry a lot of bass, you're going to hear Yanny.

Similarly, if you're older, you can't hear higher frequencies, which means you're more likely to hear Laurel; younger people who can still hear higher frequencies are more likely to hear Yanny. They also have more hair, their knees don't hurt, and they don't grunt when they sit down, so we hate them.

There are plenty of optical and sonic illusions out there to vex everyone, no matter how well your eyes, ears, and brain work. It's important to remember that these are only for fun and entertainment, and shouldn't divide us as a nation. We've already got enough to be divided over, and we don't need something as silly as the Laurel/Yanny controversy.

But I'll tell you now, if anyone gets a hat that says "Make Yanny Great Again," I'm setting fire to it.

Photo credit: Michael Gray (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

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