Are You a Laurel or a Yanni?

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A few days before it went viral, Peter asked Betsy and me to listen to something and tell him what we heard. This was the now famous “Laurel/Yanni” audio illusion.

An audio illusion is like an optical illusion. You use your eyes with optical illusions and your ears with audio illusions. With optical illusions, the same drawing reveals two completely different pictures. What you see depends entirely on what you’re looking for. In an identical way, an audio illusion contains one string of sounds. You hear what you want (or expect) to hear.

In the case of the Laurel/Yanni audio illusion, listeners convince themselves the string of sounds says “Laurel” or “Yanni.” Although the sound is the same, different people hear different things. Some people (like Peter) can hear either one, depending on what they’re listening for.

And therein lies the critical lesson of this latest internet sensation, the audio version of the visual “white/gold vs. blue/black dress” debate from 2015.

First, the science behind Laurel/Yanni. At the surface level, different devices (recorders, speakers, amplifiers) can alter the original sound. Think of this as the difference between listening to the same song on AM radio vs. FM radio vs your home stereo. This explains part of Laurel/Yanni.

At a deeper level, though, we have the fascinating world of fine tuning frequencies. It turns out, we have the ability to focus our hearing on different frequency ranges. Sometimes we can do this on purpose, sometimes this is a function of age. Just as the hardware can modify sounds at the surface level, our own “bioware” can change the sounds within us.

This personalized bioware phenomenon leads to the fascinating tidbit revealed by Laurel/Yanni. That is, whether you hear “Laurel” or “Yanni” depends on what you mentally prepare yourself to hear. Before playing the sound for Betsy and me, Peter was careful to avoid asking us which one we would hear. He didn’t say, “Listen to this and tell me whether you hear “Laurel” or “Yanni.” He specifically said he wouldn’t tell us what the options were because that could influence what we believe we heard.

This isn’t hocus-pocus. This happens in real science. A century ago a major debate mired the field of quantum physics. One side argued light consisted of particles, the other side maintained light was made up of waves. Scientists designed experiments to prove (or disprove) the competing hypothesis. One experiment proved light acted like particles. Another experiment proved light behaved like waves. They both couldn’t be right… or could they? (Spoiler alert: they were both right.)

If this duality of competing realities can co-exist in the hard sciences, imagine the conflict that can be conjured up in the land of make believe (otherwise known as the human brain). Let’s make it more interesting. Let’s refer to the human’s brains – that awful place where all people’s brains exist at the same time. We’ll call this place “the real world.”

How could divergent views simultaneously exist despite there being only one common set of data points? One might accept this “duality” in the sub-atomic world. That’s a strange land where we freely admit we don’t know all the rules. In the real world, though, it’s much easier to measure things. Yet, it’s as though one group measures in feet and gallons while another measures meters and liters. But it goes well beyond physical descriptions.

In the field of behavioral psychology, the phenomenon known as “confirmation bias” tells us people see what they want to see. This is the basis behind all successful persuasion, from convincing you to brush your teeth twice a day to ideological propaganda. Allow me to demonstrate this through two schools I know of (I’ll remove the names to protect the innocent):

School #1: There’s a school I know of that consistently produces smart students. It’s amazing, isn’t it? This school has attracted the attention of education researchers all over the world. These scientists designed a special assessment tool for this school. Every year the school has their students complete this test. Every year, out of the entire student body, half of the students achieve scores of above average! It may not be Lake Wobegon, but, you must admit, that’s a lot of smart kids.

School #2: There’s a school I know of that consistently produces underperforming students. It’s unfortunate, isn’t it? This school has attracted the attention of education researchers all over the world. These scientists designed a special assessment tool for this school. Every year the school has their students complete this test. Every year, half of the entire student body fails to even reach an average score. What can be done to end this tragedy?

You agree, don’t you, that we can use the methods of School #1 as a model to help all schools get their students to perform better. Therefore, the methods of School #1 can help School #2. There’s only one problem. School #2 is School #1.

If you don’t see this, carefully reread both paragraphs again. You’ll see both paragraphs can be true at the same time for the same school. It all depends on what you’re mentally prepared to believe. The subtle changes in wording of each paragraph frames what you see – and what you feel – about each school. That’s the power of confirmation bias.

More important, that’s the power of your brain at work. Your brain determines the world you live in. Is your world half empty or half full? It’s up to you. But remember this, the same world that is half empty to you is half full to another – and vice versa. Both worlds exist simultaneously. Don’t let your world convince you that another person can’t live in his world – and don’t let another person convince you that you can’t live in your world.

It’s not a matter of compromise, it’s a matter of cohabitation. It’s like different religions existing side-by-side. In secular nations like the United States, you’re taught to ignore the other person’s religion. If you don’t, society shames you. As a result, we’ve learned to accept that our neighbor may pray in a different manner, and that doesn’t matter to us.

Perhaps this might represent a good model we can apply to other facets of life. Imagine a world where Never-Trumpers and MAGA-fans, arm in arm, walk together, talking about something less controversial – like religion.

So, do you hear “Laurel” or do you hear “Yanni”?

For me (and Betsy), we don’t hear either. We hear “Jerry.”

And I have no idea that that means.

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