Perception – Beyond Yanny and Laurel


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Unless you have been foraging deep in the jungle with no Wi-Fi, you have likely had a listen to the now famous Yanny–Laurel recording. If you haven’t, it is an audio file in which has people divided on whether they are #TeamLaurel or #TeamYanny. Some people hear a lower range masculine voice saying “Laurel”, others hear a higher pitched digitized voice saying “Yanny”. Certain lucky souls are able to hear both. It brings up the question, why as human beings can we hear/see/feel the same things and have completely different experiences?

Visual Perception – The Dress and The Moon

Back in February of 2015, the internet was divided on a seemingly ordinary mother-of-the-bride’s dress. Some saw the dress as black and blue and others saw it as white and gold. Those who saw it one way could not fathom how their friends and family could see it any different. This intersection of science and pop culture had Twitter and Facebook a buzz with #whiteandgold and #blueandblack teams. The dress was in fact blue and black, though scientists have yet to determine with complete confidence the reasons for the differences in perception. Theories include nighthawks seeing it differently than early risers because they spend less time in daylight, as well as photoreceptors in people’s eyes interpreting data differently.

We shouldn’t really be that surprised about differences in visual perceptions. Since the beginning of time people have misinterpreted what they see. The moon for example; the lunar mystery that we idolize in fable, tale and moon jewelry.  We are awed by the size of a full moon on the horizon, it is so large and beautiful, but did you know this is only an illusion? It is mainly due to the Ebbinghaus effect which alters our perception. When the moon is on the horizon, we judge it by the buildings, trees and people that are cluttered in front of it. When it rises higher in the sky, we have only stars and space as comparison, so it seems much smaller.  You can test this theory by looking at the moon through a paper-towel roll. You will find it is the same (or almost the same) size on the horizon as high in the sky. There are also other illusions in effect here but Ebbinghaus is the main one.  Interestingly, the degree of these effects can vary from person to person. What you may think is an outrageously gorgeous Moonglow may leave your significant other feeling totally indifferent. It’s not they are not romantic, they simply may not experience the illusion as deeply as you might.

Auditory Perception – More than Just Yanny

Although science is still trying to figure out the whys and how-comes of Yanny-Laurel, there are some strange audio perceptions that also mess with us. Try this.  Look at a friend and repeat the word “bar” a dozen times or so.  Now look at your friend, say the word “bar” but shape your mouth as if you were saying “far”.  There is a pretty good chance your friend will hear “far” now.  It’s called the McGurk effect––pretty cool. It also may explain why your mom always wanted you to look at her while she was talking. There is also the tritone paradox, an auditory perception where a note ascending or descending is heard differently for different people. Age, language and geography all play a part in how you perceive what you hear.  It becomes increasingly easy to see how unique and individual our auditory perceptions are.

Tactile Perception – Sometimes When We Touch

So, if you can’t trust your eyes or your ears, at least you’ve got your sense of touch. There is no way to steer you wrong here, right? Eh, not quite. Tactile illusions form some of our most common perception illusions. Put one hand in hot water and one in ice and then put them both in lukewarm water. The hand originally in hot water will feel cold now and the one that was on ice will feel hot.  This is also a great tactile illusion: grab a friend and join opposite hands. Then take your index finger and thumb and slide them over your friends joined fingers. It may feel as if one of their fingers is yours. It does not seem to work on everyone, thus once showing that perception is completely unique across individuals.

We have a tendency to assume that all human beings experience the world in basically the same manner. When exceptions come along like the Yanny-Laurel recording or the dress phenomenon, it fascinates us. It also should make us wonder. If people in the same cultures with similar lives can perceive a thing so differently, then how truly successful is our communication with those from more diverse cultures. We may be missing nuances and concepts that fall beyond our scope. Perhaps both science and society need take a new look at perceptions and integrate our very real differences with a deeper global understanding.