Priming

Everybody has heard about the Yanny vs. Laurel thing. Ad nauseum. Some high school student was doing her homework and looked up the word “Laurel” on vocabulary.com. She played the pronunciation recording and heard “Yanny”. She said “wait, what word do you hear?” and shared it on instagram and, next thing you know, it’s viral.

The ensuing arguments over Yanni vs. Laurel were a replay of the arguments about “The Dress“.

Well, AsapSCIENCE did the favor of breaking down why some people hear one and other people hear the other. If you don’t want to watch the video, part of the issue is one of “priming”. By asking “yanny” vs. “laurel” in the first place, you were primed to hear one or the other. If the question were merely “what word do you hear?”, there might be 4 or 5 different words that people heard.

Do You Hear "Yanny" or "Laurel"? (SOLVED with SCIENCE)

The priming narrowed the listeners down to 2 options. The science shows why some people hear one and can’t hear the other (specifically: people who have done some damage to their hearing will hear Laurel. People who haven’t can hear the frequencies that allow Yanny to happen. It’s sort of like that sound that only young people can hear.) So some people’s ears pretty much could not hear anything but “laurel”. Others couldn’t hear anything but “yanny”. The input device (the ear, in this case) heard, or failed to hear, certain frequencies and hearing them, or not hearing them, completely changed the experience of the word.

Shortly after the Yanny/Laurel thing, the internet found yet another wacky word thing but this was somewhat more interesting in that many listeners claim to be able to hear different words when they prime themselves.

BRAINSTORM -OR- GREEN NEEDLE (U HEAR WHAT YOU THINK!)

My experience of this word was weird because I heard only “Brainstorm” and couldn’t hear “Green Needle” to save my life but when I was writing something in another window, the video was playing in the background and I found myself hearing “Green Needle”. When I switched focus back to the video, the word changed to “brainstorm” immediately. When my brain is idle and doing something else, it hears one thing. When it’s focusing on the video, it hears the other.

This is one of the things that “priming” does to my brain. By pre-loading it with expectations, it changes the experience of the information its getting.

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In 2003, Eason Jordan wrote an op-ed called “The News We Kept To Ourselves” about stories that the writers at the NYT didn’t report. Horrible stories about people in Iraq being tortured or killed or both. Stories that had to be kept quiet lest more people be tortured or killed or both. It was only after the war started that some of these stories were able to come out. Finally, Eason Jordan was able to break his silence.

On May 16th, just the other day, the New York Times had another op-ed talking about stories that the journalists had to keep to themselves. The two paragraphs that caught my eye:

Early in that war, I complied with Hamas censorship in the form of a threat to one of our Gaza reporters and cut a key detail from an article: that Hamas fighters were disguised as civilians and were being counted as civilians in the death toll. The bureau chief later wrote that printing the truth after the threat to the reporter would have meant “jeopardizing his life.” Nonetheless, we used that same casualty toll throughout the conflict and never mentioned the manipulation.

Hamas understood that Western news outlets wanted a simple story about villains and victims and would stick to that script, whether because of ideological sympathy, coercion or ignorance. The press could be trusted to present dead human beings not as victims of the terrorist group that controls their lives, or of a tragic confluence of events, but of an unwarranted Israeli slaughter. The willingness of reporters to cooperate with that script gave Hamas the incentive to keep using it.

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The McGurk Effect is another fascinating thing that the brain does. You hear either “bah bah bah” or “fah fah fah” depending on the visual information you get. The exact same sound changes from a voiced bilabial stop to a voiceless labiodental fricative based on what you see the guy’s mouth doing. The same sound… but what you see completely changes the information you’re getting by the time it gets to your brain.

Try The McGurk Effect! – Horizon: Is Seeing Believing? – BBC Two


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Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to AskJaybird-at-gmail.com

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11 thoughts on “Priming

  1. I listened to the Fah/Bah clip without watching and without the visual, I hear bah.
    I’m also team Laurel, and my hubs is Yanny. Funny to me, because he blares his music through his headphones or in his car and has been to a lot of really loud, hard metal concerts, yet I am the one with hearing damage. Go figure.

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  2. Team Yanny, inexplicably, since I’m an old guy with some hearing loss. Also, I could flip back and forth between Brainstorm and Green Needle at will, and it wasn’t really ambiguous either way. Weird.

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      • Same here. Whatever I thought of before the sound, was the sound I heard.

        I’m still almost always a Laurel person unless the clip is extremely filtered to the right (highpass? lowpass?)

        The bah/fah thing definitely changes based on what I am seeing (and bah’s up if I look away in the middle fah)

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  3. On yanny/laurel, clearly laurel for me, except for the frequency up-shifted version, which was clearly yanny. There’s so much noise in the brainstorm/green needle thing that I can hear pretty much whatever I want. As I have gotten old, picking a voice out of lots of background noise — or more accurately, failing to pick a voice out of the background noise — is the thing I notice most.

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  4. FWIW, I hear Laurel and Yanny both at the same time, clearly, and have since the first time I listened (granted I was already primed).

    The relationship this double-hearing has to my ambiguity and heartbreak about Israel and Palestine is probably coincidental.

    Honestly I’m not sure how anyone who isn’t directly involved feels anything other than 24/7 ambiguity and generalized heartbreak, though I have a stack of books to read in the next month or so to see if I can get any clearer about things.

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