Whether you heard ‘Yanny’ and ‘Laurel’, our senses are pretty screwed

Photo credit: Rashomon movie poster

In the classic Japanese film ‘Rashomon’ by auteur, Akira Kurosawa, four witnesses to a rape and murder gave four differing accounts of the same incident. While such a film plot device has become often emulated since then, it bears a simple truth that human perspective is prone to errors.

The recent Internet firestorm debate over the gold/white or blue/black dress is evident of this. I saw nothing but gold and white, but there were many who saw black and blue. Now, we all know what the real colour of the dress is (black/blue), and I definitely can see that under certain lighting, blue and black could appear gold and white. My guess is that people who clearly saw blue/black from the get-go have perhaps better visual cognitive abilities. They were able to make sense of the few visual clues, to interpret that the gold/white dress was the overexposure of the original black/blue.

Onto the ongoing viral debate over the sound clip of the word ‘Laurel’ on vocabulary.com. This one really intrigued me. With fresh ears, I could only hear ‘Yanny’, but when the clip is adjusted for pitch, the word ‘Laurel’ becomes clear and when it is subsequently readjusted to the original pitch, all I can hear is ‘Laurel’! My wife, on the other hand, only hears ‘Yanny’ in the original clip.

My deduction is this: there is actually 2 sounds/pitches in that clip. My first instinct is hearing ‘Yanny’, but on closer hearing, I can also vaguely hear ‘Laurel’. What baffles me is how I can lose hearing ‘Yanny’ after multiple playbacks. It’s like my brain intervenes to pick up the ‘correct’ sound later on, given that I know that the sound is the pronunciation ¬†for ‘Laurel’.

What all this says to me is that our neurological senses are skewed and that humankind, in general, is easily susceptible to manipulation.

In the practice of Public Relations, one of the founding fathers, Edward Bernays, employed the mass media to break taboos and open minds about what is socially acceptable. He famously made it acceptable for American women to smoke in the 1920s-30s, as part of his campaign to increase sales for Tobacco companies. He did this by organising publicity stunts, such as women’s rights march where participants lit up ‘freedom torches’. His message: Smoking is a symbol of women’s rights. It worked.

In gist, our world of confirmation bias starts from young. Growing up, we adopt many of our parents biases and fall on institutional truths and philosophies. As we enter the education system, the teachers mostly work on socialising us for the corporate world.

On a broader level, politics and religion divides us by informing us how we should think and live. Companies massage numbers and scientific data to fool us. Politicians use religion and race, to influence the vote. Even magicians use simple sleight-of-hands to make it seem as if they are bending reality.

How then do we make sense of a world full of illusions?

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