Taking a vague, obscure glance at ambiguity

Subtitled: Yanny and Laurel Redux

Did you get caught up in the Yanny or Laurel frenzy? It seemed to be the top feature story across the nation.  Yes, that link will let you listen in on what half the world heard last week.

Yes, I listened too.  The first time the word was OBVIOUSLY Yanny.  But in preparing for this post, I listened again and it was now OBVIOUSLY Laurel.  Wow.

Through it all though, what kept nagging at me was the question, why are we so SURE, so CERTAIN that we hear what we hear, when someone else hears something else? It happens with vision too.

Take a look at the classic image below.  What do you see? (Perhaps you’ve seen this one before?)



(I’ll fill you in below on what it is.)

This NPR story gives insight on how we perceive auditory differences and why —  we fill in the gaps as needed to help us make sense.

Which is exactly what visual images (ones I’m more familiar with) have us do — we fill in the gaps to help us make sense.




You know these shapes. In a jiffy, no questions asked.  A circle and a square.  Easy peasy.


But what about this one?

Old lady or young lady?


Did the old lady pop out at you or the young one?  No analysis needed, you know. It doesn’t matter WHICH one you saw, just that you saw one.  Ask someone else; they’ll probably see the other.

Actually, this image is a terrible example of the point I’m trying to make.  Oh well. Moving on.  That one was just for fun.

We want to make sense of the world around us.

Of course we do. Who wouldn’t.

We want to know the Why, the What, the How, and all the rest. 

And if that information is not forthcoming, we come up with something that, to us at least, makes sense. We find something that keeps us believing life is predictable, sensible, … safe.  We fill in the gaps. Even the unconscious gaps, the ones we are unaware of.

Often, we fill those gaps with what we’re hoping for or expecting.  Keeps life simpler, yes?

I thank the Yanny and Laurel phenomenon for reminding me that we often see (and hear) things differently. There’s not necessarily a right or a wrong, nor a good or an evil, just a different perspective, a different way of seeing (and hearing).  And that — to me — helps keep the world a bit more interesting.  And fun.

What is in the first image?
Some people see a black vase, others see two white profiles staring at one another.
What did you see?

How about you? How much fun did you have with Yanni — or was it Laurel?  


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19 Responses

  1. Carol Taylor
    | Reply

    It’s the same as the Chinese Whispers isn’t it ? Human nature and what makes the world go round… but also which sometimes could or does start a war…
    Yanny( i) and Laurel…I didn’t the same as I didn’t read Shades of Gray or watch one single episode of Dallas… I have this inbuilt little button … I suppose I don’t want to conform completely ..I always will be a bit of a rebel at heart…lol

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Carol. I’d never heard of Chinese Whisperers and looked it up. (tee hee). It’s the old game of Telephone, where the initial message is quite removed from the final one. Hmmmm. I too stayed away from 50 shades (too many great books still to read), but I will admit to watching Dallas (just once; that’s all it took). I’m thinking now, it’s the amount of time I must commit to in order to indulge myself. Yanni-Laurel took less than a minute. Curiosity can be a double edged sword, yes? Thanks for adding your voice and starting us off.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Taking a vague, obscure glance at ambiguityMy Profile

  2. susan scott
    | Reply

    A very interesting analogy to show how our senses are unique to us – some with similarities, others with stark differences. Re the profiles and vase … I see/saw both. It’s true, we fill in the gaps according to what we think we know … Thanks Janet. Definitely a Laurel gal …
    susan scott recently posted…#WATWBMy Profile

  3. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    I definitely heard Laurel every time (and apparently that was the real word), but I read that it could sound different on different devices. For most of the images, one pops out first, but then I can see the other.

    It’s fun, interesting, and wonderful that we see or hear things differently. It’s what fuels art and innovation. But then–I wonder about the way perceive people or ideas that are different, and how we rush to make sense of them–filling in gaps with our own prejudices.
    Merril Smith recently posted…Echoes of Sounds and Silence, HaibunMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Good point, Merril — these differences do fuel artistic and innovative creation. So often (lately) I hear people demonize or (at least) belittle those who see things differently. And there are certainly many examples of that from the world of art. Thanks for stopping by.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Taking a vague, obscure glance at ambiguityMy Profile

  4. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    An interesting post, Janet. I suppose we all want to form a complete (or at least somewhat coherent) picture in our minds — of the world we live in, our lives, reality, purpose, meaning, etc. Yet, we are all limited in the information we receive, by our perspectives, biases, and experiences, by the great unknowns, themselves — to completely and accurately do so. Thus, we take the data points we have, along with our frames of reference, and draw constellations in the sky. Sometimes, we can all agree it looks like a big dipper. Other times, not so much.
    (BTW, I heard “yanny.” I couldn’t hear “laurel” no matter how many times I listened. At least with the blue/black dress, I could see both)!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Absolutely, Tim. Whether it’s a hardwire thing, a Darwinian survival tool, or just what, we all want to make sense of the whole, and in order to do that we sometimes have to make the “whole.”

      I think the trick is to simply know that we humans are prone to such “fill in the blank” moments. Just as it’s important to understand that we all have our own unique filters, which (as Laurie reminds us below) is colored by our experiences. It’s the judgment of these differences that get us into trouble.

      Wear your Yannism with pride! I was once one myself. 🙂
      Janet Givens recently posted…Taking a vague, obscure glance at ambiguityMy Profile

      • Tim Fearnside
        | Reply

        Strangest thing . . . on the link that appears in your article, all I can now hear is “Laurel” . . .

  5. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — This post just goes to prove that I do, in fact, live under a rock. The reading of “Laurel and Yanny” in your opening sentence was the first time I’d heard anything about it. When I clicked on the link and listened, I heard “Laurel.”

    In my experience, we filter life through the lenses we wear; their “prescription” is comprised of our experiences thus far—good, bad, and indifferent. In Note to Self, I said it a bit differently; I wrote: “Each of us views life through a different lens. What we think is colored by the baggage we carry, and what we perceive is how we live.”
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…Riding the RailsMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Laurie. Welcome back from your grand Elysian Island adventure. There have been many times when I’ve been quite grateful for my proverbial rock. But I heard this one on NPR in the car one day and thought it’d make a good post on differences. Yay, me. Thanks for reminding us too of those filters we all wear. I think the more folks can be reminded, the better for us all. I ran into someone a few months ago who criticized people who “wear a filter against the world” and swore she did not; she had “perfect vision” more or less. Interesting moment.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Taking a vague, obscure glance at ambiguityMy Profile

  6. Carolyn
    | Reply

    I confess I heard a different word altogether but thought nothing of it as I am the queen of misheard lyrics (or mondregreens as they are known). I am perfectly comfortable with living in my own little world – it’s safer that way (she smiled).

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Carolyn
      I’d love to know what the word was that you heard. Just think, you could start a whole new fad. Course, then your own little world would get rather crowded. Guess we’ll just never know what that mystery word was. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂
      Janet Givens recently posted…Taking a vague, obscure glance at ambiguityMy Profile

  7. Stevie Turner
    | Reply

    I could see both the vase and the 2 profiles. I also only heard ‘Yanny’, but my husband only heard ‘Laurel’. Strange!

  8. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Janet, I heard “Laurel” but this whole post is very intriguing. I guess that’s what makes the world go round. We all have our own perspective for our own reasons. It makes life interesting!

  9. Pamela
    | Reply

    I see the vase right away, and then not even a half second later, I see two faces. This is the way I HOPE I see things – both points of view – but I know that’s not the case. It’s probably impossible to be totally objective. We see what we’re taught, what our values are, what we need or want to see also I suppose.
    I didn’t play the Yanny or Laurel game. I kind of laughed that so many played this “game” with all the other atrocious things going on in social media. My bad, because we need to laugh at ourselves, and to realize that we all see/hear things differently. Thought-provoking post, Janet.
    Pamela recently posted…The FinalistMy Profile

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