Do you hear what I hear?
More than just a memorable holiday song, it’s a question that got the nation talking — talking about Yanny vs. Laurel.
Shortly after a viral audio recording left people wondering why some heard “Yanny” and others clearly heard “Laurel,” we learned that what you heard has less to do with your auditory system and more to do with the brain.
And the saga continues: A new Northwestern University study has found that bilingual and monolingual people listening to the same person speaking can hear two completely different sounds. The research shows that one’s language experience affects even the most basic cognitive processes, according to Viorica Marian, a professor of communication sciences and disorders and psychology at Northwestern University.
“With Yanny and Laurel, our brain interprets the sound differently depending on how the neurons fire in our brain and based on the history of our linguistic experiences,” Marian said. “We classify the sound waves that come into our ear into linguistic categories that we are familiar with, so we hear a very categorical sound — what happens is the brain interprets the input that comes to us from our senses and transforms it into our perceived reality.”
Your previous auditory and linguistic experience influences how you perceive the sound around you — the world around you — she said. Case in point: If you find accents easy to understand, you may have taken music lessons at some point in your life. Marian said learning the language of music can change the way your brain processes sound.
And if you thought Yanny and Laurel were perplexing, scope out the McGurk effect — wherein what you see affects what you hear. For example, when people hear a speech sound (e.g. “ba”) that conflicts with what they see (e.g. “ga”), they will often perceive a completely different sound (e.g. “da”).
The Northwestern study found that bilinguals are more likely to experience the McGurk effect than monolinguals, because their exposure to another language allows their brain to interpret auditory and visual modalities differently.
“I think that’s maybe why the Yanny and Laurel thing is so fascinating to people because it’s the same sound, but people hear it so differently, and it’s an illustration of what happens in every aspect of our lives without even realizing it,” Marian said.
The Yanny/Laurel uproar began after the release of Marian’s study, but she said it and the bilingual/McGurk effect cases are mutually informative.
“We don’t see with our eyes, we don’t hear with our ears — we perceive with our brain. Our brain interprets the reality of our own lives,” Marian said. “The brain takes the input from the ears, takes the input from the eyes and combines them in an interesting way. It’s fascinating.”