The audio illusion "Laurel or Yanny?" first appeared on Instagram.
Taken from a 2007 audio clip of the word "Laurel" from Vocabulary.com, it sounds like computer-generated, but in fact, it was actually recorded by an opera singer in New York.
"It's an incredible story, it is a person, he is a member of the original cast of Cats on Broadway," said Marc Tinkler, the CTO and co-founder of Vocabulary.com. He said that when the site was first launched, the team wanted to find individuals who had strong pronunciation, and could read words written in the international phonetic alphabet (IPA), a standardized representation of sounds in any spoken language."
The choice for voicing "Laurel" was Jay Aubrey Jones. Opera singers know to read IPA because they have to sing in languages they don't speak.
"We hired a bunch of opera singers to record 200,000 words, basically," continued Tinkler.
However, the audio has an illusion that makes it sounds "Laurel" or "Yanny" depending on the person who is hearing it. The audio illusion gained sudden popularity when it was re-posted on Reddit on the next day after being posted on Instagram.
According to a professor of hearing sciences, Benjamin Munson, he suggested that most people can hear "Yanny" when the audio is played at higher frequencies. And "Laurel" can be better heard when played in lower frequencies. He concluded that older people who have degraded their higher frequency hearing ability, will be more likely to hear "Laurel".
In a test, typically people can head "Laurel", even if they previously heard "Yanny". Someone who has never heard the clip before, typically hears one of the two words.
The clip took a similar step as the blue/gold dress controversy in 2015. After becoming viral, Vocabulary.com added "Yanny" in a separate entry, which contained an audio clip identical to "Laurel".
Notable people who responded to the illusion included Ellen Degeneres, Stephen King, and Chrissy Teigen.
Kevin Franck, the director of audiology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear said that the illusion exists on a "perceptual boundary." Professor David Alais from the University of Sydney’s school of psychology compared the clip to the Necker Cube or the face/vase illusion, calling it a "perceptually ambiguous stimulus".
"They can be seen in two ways, and often the mind flips back and forth between the two interpretations. This happens because the brain can’t decide on a definitive interpretation," explained Alais.“If there is little ambiguity, the brain locks on to a single perceptual interpretation. Here, the Yanny/Laurel sound is meant to be ambiguous because each sound has a similar timing and energy content – so in principle it’s confusable."
“All of this goes to highlight just how much the brain is an active interpreter of sensory input, and thus that the external world is less objective than we like to believe.”
The phenomenon also attracted The White House, in which it also weighed into the “Laurel or Yanny” debate. In a video released by the White House on Twitter, President Donald Trump responded to the meme by jokingly saying "I hear covfefe", referring to his infamous tweet.
The video begins with the U.S. president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and a senior adviser, who said the word was "so clearly Laurel". Vice President appeared and asked: "Who’s Yanny?" The press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded: "Clearly you’re getting your information from CNN because that’s fake news. All I hear is Yanny."
Since then, social media users expressed that the administration has officially killed the meme.