“Laurel” versus “Yanny” is a timely reminder that all human experience is subjective, my dudes

It’s all an illusion, people.
It’s all an illusion, people.
Image: AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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Normally, people on the internet fight about a lot of different stuff. But once in a while, on very special days, we all fight about the same thing.

Today is one such day, as Twitter, Reddit, and other social media sites were subsumed by a debate over whether the voice in the audio clip below is saying “Laurel” or “Yanny.”

Whether you hear “Laurel” or “Yanny” appears to depend on a few different factors, including the speakers you’re using and the cues that influence what you’re prepared to hear. The Yanny/Laurel fracas has already drawn comparisons to The Dress, a 2015 incident in which friends and neighbors joyfully debated whether a photographed dress was blue and black or white and gold.

It’s all in good fun, of course. But there’s also a subtle socio-political dimension to these debates. The Dress and Yanny/Laurel blow our collective minds because we’re surprised when other people perceive the world differently than we do. And that suggests we’re still attached to the idea that our version of reality is the correct and only one.

Nothing could be further from the truth. “It is a fact of neuroscience that everything we experience is a figment of our imagination,” Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik, professors of neurology, ophthalmology, neurology, and physiology and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, write in Scientific American. “Although our sensations feel accurate and truthful, they do not necessarily reproduce the physical reality of the outside world.”

Consider, for example, that humans only just discovered puffins have glow-in-the-dark beaks—a fact their feathered friends have known all along, since birds have tetrachromatic vision that allows them to see a wide range of colors beyond the perception of the human eye. Likewise, dogs can hear frequencies at higher pitches than humans. Clearly, just because we can’t perceive something doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

There are plenty of discrepancies in the ways that different people perceive the world, too—as anyone who’s fought with a friend about whether a shirt is red or orange can attest. So-called “super-tasters” are more sensitive to the bitter flavor in foods, and avoid them accordingly. One striking experiment found that people with healthy brains perceive time as passing more slowly than people with brain damage. There are even some rare people who have tetrachromic vision, just like birds.

Most people understand this, at least in theory. But in practice, it’s hard for us to admit to ourselves that our perception of the world is one of many—or even flat-out wrong.

That’s not such a big deal if the issue at hand is “Yanny” versus “Laurel,” or the color of a dress. But it’s a very big deal if our attachment to our own worldview makes us disinclined to hear another perspective, or blinds us to the facts—leading us to vastly overestimate the number of immigrants in our country (paywall), for example, or to blame the wrong culprit for job losses in manufacturing.

We would all go crazy if we tried to look at the world from every possible perspective all the time. But it’s useful to have a Yanny/Laurel moment every once in awhile—to remember that there are multiple versions of reality, which exist outside the boundaries of the self.