Yanny, Laurel or a thought experiment in empathy

The internet was divided recently when a short audio clip repeating a two-syllable word caused an outpouring of confusion. ‘Do you hear Yanny or Laurel?’ everyone asked. Within hours it became team Yanny versus team Laurel, both groups lambasting one another over Twitter and Facebook.

It caused such a furore that most major media outlets pulled in an audiologist, neurologist or behavioural psychologist for comment. First, to confirm that this was not an elaborate auditory hoax and second, to explain how it’s possible that people can hear two different things.

Professor David Alais of the University of Sydney told Fairfax media, ‘There is no correct answer and that is the whole point. And that is what the brain is grappling with.’

Alais provides more context by explaining, ‘Older people don’t have high frequency content, they aren’t sensitive to higher frequencies. So older people are more likely to hear Laurel and younger people are more likely to hear it as Yanny.’

I hear Laurel. I am a thirty-year-old deaf woman.

Deafness is often talked about as something only older people experience. I’ve been told by incredulous strangers that I am ‘too young to be deaf.’

You may be wondering how I can hear the clip if I am deaf. There are vastly different degrees of deafness, it can range from partial to complete hearing loss. As the Yanny/Laurel audio proves, hearing is evidently more complex than just volume. Sound also involves pitch, direction and tone.

I am completely deaf in my left ear. The brain requires two ears to locate source of sound. This gives the brain the ability to home in on one voice in a crowded room, which is known as the ‘cocktail party effect’.

For people with Single Sided Deafness there is no such thing as ‘background noise’. Everything appears to be at the same volume. To decipher words requires a combination of hypervigilance and guesswork. I use body language, lip reading, social cues and conversational context to gather the gist of conversations.

Neurologist Professor Oliver Sacks wrote about his increasing deafness for The New York Times: ‘speech must be decoded by other systems in the brain as well, including systems for semantic memory and syntax. Speech is open, inventive, improvised; it is rich in ambiguity and meaning. There is a huge freedom in this, making spoken language almost infinitely flexible and adaptable – but also vulnerable to mishearing.’

It should not be overlooked that Sacks chose the phrase ‘vulnerable to mishearing’. The Yanny/Laurel debate may give you some insight into the unsettling sensation of your brain ‘grappling’ to comprehend a sound. Knowing that you cannot fully trust your interpretation can be both bewildering and undermining. I have dozens of Yanny/Laurel moments each day. I typically find out when I make a faux pas.

I experience Deaf Anxiety. The mental health of deaf or hard of hearing (HOH) is seldom discussed in public arena or even in private consulting rooms. I have never had an audiologist or specialist broach the topic of mental health. And yet deaf and HOH people ‘are twice as likely to experience mental health issues such as depression or anxiety than hearing people’.

To mishear something is often equated to not putting in enough effort to paying attention. Having worked in the Health Care industry for over a decade, I’ve seen countless situations of families becoming vexed whilst talking to a relative, often elderly, who is hard of hearing. The person is often hectored to just ‘try harder’. Or worst still, completely left out of a conversation.

Auditory processing takes a tremendous amount of physical effort. My ability to comprehend speech diminishes as I fatigue. Headaches are par the course when my brain can no longer gather the energy to grapple with sounds. In these instances, I am hearing everything and understanding nothing at all.

We live in a world that prioritises oral communication. The internet is shifting towards video content, and the quality of auto-captioning is horrendous. Jennifer Down has written about the skill and effort required to provide quality captions: ‘Meeting basic standards – i.e. merely having captions – doesn’t cut it. Networks must be prepared to invest in providing a high-quality service; to show that they value deaf and hearing-impaired viewers. Lip service is not enough.’

While television is required to meet basic standards, these standards aren’t in place in train stations and airports, where announcements crackle through the PA system every few minutes. Screens helpfully project the message, ‘Announcement in progress’. With one in six Australians experiencing a hearing health issue, and this number set to rise to one in four by 2050, this is not good enough. We need to start considering how information is presented.

While the Yanny/Laurel audio will inevitably be forgotten, you probably won’t forget your experience listening to it. The brain puts in exquisite effort to process sound. Perhaps Yanny/Laurel can be a thought experiment in empathy and a catalyst for improving accessibility.


Fiona Murphy

Fiona Murphy is a poet and essayist. Her work has been published in The Age, The Big Issue, Meanjin and Kill Your Darlings, among others. She recently performed Sign poetry at the 2018 Jakarta Writers' Series. During her Hot Desk Fellowship she will be working on a manuscript about being deaf.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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