CNN | 12/19/2018 | Listen

What the $%#@ is wrong with you? Of course it's Yanny! (or Laurel)

Updated 1:26 PM ET, Wed May 16, 2018

Editor's Note: Ford Vox is a physician specializing in rehabilitation medicine and a journalist. He is a medical analyst for NPR station WABE-FM 90.1 in Atlanta. He writes frequently for CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @FordVox. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN) - What are we to make of the latest perceptual debate taking over the internet, separating loved ones from each other, causing chaos, sobbing, grief?

We jest, here. But only a little, as we speak of Yanny vs. Laurel.

Chances are you'll be entranced and/or made crazy by this viral phenomenon—if you haven't been already. It is the aural equivalent of the "white and gold or blue and black dress" debate from a few years ago.

Should you trust your senses?

Click here to try it out - do you hear "Yanny" or "Laurel"?

Those of us who hear "Yanny" precisely and clearly can't fathom what the heck is going on in the minds of those who claim to hear Laurel, and vice versa. Auditory illusions are perhaps even more striking to us than the visual kind, but we should understand that there's in fact an array of illusions for your every sense, each exploiting the edges of human perception, where any of us can end up seeing or hearing differing things in the static.

Such perceptual illusions occupy the time of enough experimental psychologists and neuroscientists to populate a scientific journal titled Perception, which has been in monthly publication since 1972. The peer-reviewed journal will no doubt deal with Yanny vs. Laurel in due course, but in the meantime its pages offer insight into the mental mismatches between us and our world.

In one recent study, researchers showed that people can be fooled about how many tones we think we hear, based on how they are arranged, using piano and drum sounds, where the piano sounds change in pitch but the drums stay the same.

There are visual versions of the same illusion where we can't correctly estimate how many black and white marbles there are, based on how they're arranged. These illusions and many others demonstrate that the human brain has evolved to pick out patterns in the noise first, likely because that's the fastest and most efficient way to generally get things right. And once we perceive a pattern, it dominates our subsequent capacity to reason.

But our natural bias towards pattern recognition can go too far, and that can be a sign of mental illness. Psychotic hallucinations are sensory perceptions gone haywire, an extreme form of illusion where the brain exerts its own view of the world such that it becomes severely distorted.

Scientists have explored the tendency to hear voices within white noise among people with and without schizophrenia, and there's clearly a spectrum for this tendency: 9% of healthy people hear a voice where there is none (tricked into doing so by exposure to a variety of sound clips, some of which did contain faint voices), but that number triples to 30% in people with psychosis. If your brother or sister has psychosis, you're more likely to hear a voice as well - 14% in the study.

Now, Yanny vs. Laurel certainly isn't going to cause anyone to be diagnosed with schizophrenia, despite how heated the standoff is getting between the aural Sharks and Jets. The audio file is a one-off, a unique low-quality audio test that doesn't have a clear winner or loser.

Unlike the number of marbles on a table -- or whether scientists hid a whispering voice in some TV "snow" (tests which have an objective answer) -- in Yanny vs. Laurel it doesn't actually matter what the speaker said at the time of the audio recording. It doesn't even matter what color "the dress" was hanging in the store on the day it was photographed (black and blue, in person). The dress was a similarly "low-fidelity" photo.

Both of these phenomena are alterations of reality in and of themselves. These types of visual and auditory memes are tough for scientists to recreate and test. But they succeed wonderfully in putting our wiring differences into high relief.

So, why the standoff between the Yannys and Laurels all over social media, with people vociferously insisting on their sensorial superiority? Part of this bombast is simply the accepted style of social media, and in a world where many are at each other's throats over grave matters of domestic and international policy, everyone knows this is a safe space to channel a little emotion, like rooting for the home team with a war chant.

But if you're shocked by the Yanny and Laurel differences in your own household and social networks, by all means use this as a moment to reflect on what else you might perceive differently, in the political messaging swirling around us.

Illusions like this fascinate us because they reveal there is a gap between what we perceive to be true and what actually exists. It's baked into our biology; we're equipped with brains that spend far more of their energy and devote far more network activity to processing and changing what we sense. Nothing gets in that isn't dramatically altered before it reaches our conscious awareness.

All knowledge is a feat of human interpretation. These periodic revelations that we see things differently are one of the all-too-fleeting healthy forces of social media, reminding us that we have to work together if we're going to get things right.


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