Laurel, Yanny, and the Art of Listening.

The Laurel/Yanny thing that took over the internet was absolutely fascinating to me.  It happened to come at a time when I was already challenging myself with focusing on specific sounds, hearing dominance, and sound balance.  The number of people saying how weird it is kind of astounded me because it’s what people with hearing loss deal with every day – and then I remembered that “normal” hearing people don’t have any reason to know about or understand the mental aspect of hearing.

Many articles on the internet exist now that explain the Laurel/Yanny phenomenon, so I won’t regurgitate those here, other than point to my favorite one here.  The point it makes is that the whole thing is an “auditory illusion” and what your brain interprets the sound to be depends on a multitude of things, only a small factor of which is how well you physically hear.  I have the luxury of all frequency hearing through my cochlear implant, and my brain has not quite learned how to automatically focus on any one frequency set over the others (or tune anything out).  So via my bionic hearing, I heard everything and quickly realized that it was neither word.  Via my natural hearing, I also heard neither, but because I was only hearing the very low frequencies – not even high enough to make it sound like “Laurel”.  When I used my hearing aid, I could get what people were hearing when they were hearing “Laurel”.

A person with a hearing loss spends an immense amount of effort taking the sounds we are physically able to hear and translating them into words that make sense mentally.  “Normal” hearing people’s brains aren’t used to doing that, as there is no need to, so the result is often mixed when they hear something that doesn’t automatically make sense, like the Laurel/Yanny recording.  The very suggestion that it is either one of those words is enough for a hearing person to hear one of those words.  What would be heard if those two choices weren’t known in advance?  Several people I know tried that with their kids, and the results were never one of the two choices – their brains weren’t limiting the interpretation of the sound.  For people who have gone through speech recognition tests to qualify for a cochlear implant, this is one of the biggest struggles – NOT interpreting the words based on context and guessing.  Like if you hear a sentence and you understand the following pieces:  “It was —- today, so I — some — cream”.  Your brain is going to say something like “It was hot today so I ate some ice cream” regardless of what sounds you are actually hearing in place of those words.  It is really hard to leave out the words you aren’t “hearing” when you are repeating back the sentence.  This is one of the biggest reasons why I did not qualify for an implant for the longest time.

I have noticed over the last couple of weeks that I am able to very purposely focus on a specific sound over others, and force the sound from one side to be dominant over the other.  Listening to music streaming to both ears is my primary example of this, and likely why everything still sounds so fresh and new to me.  My brain is literally hearing something different every single time depending on if I’m focusing purposely or just hearing in the background when I’m concentrating on something else.  I suspect this is also true of normal hearing, although I don’t remember that, and I’m just more in tune with the capability the human brain has for this because I spend so much time interpreting and analyzing what I hear.

Using my go-to example of “Take On Me”, I can find myself focusing on the keyboard part with my CI and then the vocals with my hearing aid on the next listen.  Then I can step back and listen to the whole and the blend of sounds from both sides.  I’ve been experimenting with changing my focus during the same listen, and I’m 90% certain that I am finally hearing everything the song offers.  It only took 30+ years, because I’m fairly certain I wasn’t truly listening to it in the 80s as a kid.

Most of the time, I am actively picking what to listen to, but I am noticing more and more lately that my dominant hearing is now coming from the CI.  For so many years, my only option was to hear from the left side – either aided or not – that it’s kind of freaking me out.  The idea with being bimodal is that you get a perfect blend of sound between devices where the sound feels like it’s coming from the center of your head.  75% of the time, that’s where I’m at.  The other 25% is either on purpose focusing or is that my brain is tired.  I suspect that’s probably also true for people with normal hearing. Just like with sight, where you have a dominant eye, you probably also have a dominant ear.

Active listening is an art that combines the ears, the brain, and interpretation into something meaningful. Given all of that, I stand with my original answer that it’s not “Laurel” or “Yanny”.  It’s both, neither, and everything in between.

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