Yanny vs. Laurel, You vs. Me

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Two young businessmen with boxing gloves having a fight isolated on white background

Last week, the Interwebs were thrown into a minor tizzy thanks to an audio clip that said “Laurel.” Or perhaps it said “Yanny.” People couldn’t quite seem to agree.

This made people flash back to a dress that is so famous it has come to be known simply as “the dress.” You know the one: the dress that some people saw as blue and black even thought it is obviously white and gold!

There are explanations for these phenomena. The New York Times explained the dress as follows:

Our eyes are able to assign fixed colors to objects under widely different lighting conditions. This ability is called color constancy. But the photograph doesn’t give many clues about the ambient light in the room. Is the background bright and the dress in shadow? Or is the whole room bright and all the colors are washed out? Different people may pick up on different visual cues in the image, which can change how they interpret and name the colors.

We’re used to optical illusions of various kinds but we’re less used to auditory illusions. That’s not to say that they should surprise us. You know how there are whistles that only dogs can hear? Well, there are also ranges of sound that only young people can hear. Some stores in malls play high-pitched tones that only the young can hear to keep teens from loitering without affecting the more mature clientele at all. Since “Laurel” and “Yanny” have similar spectrograms, if you filter out frequencies that some people can’t hear, you change the perception of the recording. (I also got different results on different computers based on the quality of the audio equipment.)

I had planned to write about this phenomenon for an article this week, and the following kept running through my head:

Shamor v’zachor b’dibbur echad hishmianu Keil hameyuchad.

This is a line from L’cha Dodi, which we recite on Friday nights, telling us that God recited a single word but He caused us to simultaneously hear both “shamor” (guard the Sabbath) and “zachor” (remember the Sabbath). This is the explanation of the Talmud (Shevuos 20b) for the difference between the two versions of the mitzvah of Shabbos in the “Ten Commandments,” Exodus 20:7 saying zachor and Deuteronomy 5:11 telling us shamor.

The problem with this approach was that we don’t actually hear two words simultaneously from this audio clip. Listeners hear either “Laurel” or “Yanny,” which are two equally valid interpretations. This led me to the Talmudic principle of “eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim” – two opposing opinions can both reflect God’s will (Eiruvin 13b). I was still working on this when I saw that Allison Josephs had posted an article on Laurel and Yanny.

Normally, if I’m working on an article and I see someone else has written on it, I will avoid it. There are two reasons for this. First, I don’t want other people’s interpretations to influence what I plan to say. Second, in the event of overlap, I want to be able to honestly say that I arrived at similar conclusions independently. I couldn’t do that in this case, however, because I am a regular contributor to Ms. Joseph’s site, Jew in the City, so people would assume that I had read her piece. So I read it and, sure enough, she hit many of the same points I would have (as well as a number that I wouldn’t have, so go read her article here).

Having been beaten to press by a colleague, I despaired of expounding upon the crucial matter of Laurel vs. Yanny. However, on my Facebook post addressing this phenomenon, another friend, Dr. Eli Shapiro, made an insightful observation. He said, “it certainly underscores the importance of perspective taking.”

This, for me, was quite the eye-opener.

There’s one photograph of the dress. It contains the visual information of both blue/black and white/gold. Our brains filter the information and choose one of these options. There’s one audio clip. It contains spectrographic information appropriate for both “Laurel” and “Yanny.” Our brains filter this as well, coming to an appropriate conclusion. You can’t really say that anyone is right or wrong. Everyone is exposed to the same data but our biology filters it, predisposing us to one outcome or the other, each equally valid.

Might this not be the same in other areas of disagreement? Maimonides and Nachmanides read the same Torah but they came to some very different conclusions. Rashi and Tosfos studied the same Talmud and also came to differing interpretations. Same input, different output. Can we really say that either party is “wrong?”

Yes, the dress in real life is only one color (blue and black, I’m told, though I literally don’t see it) and the person who recorded the audio clip only said one thing (“Laurel”) but we’re not evaluating the objective reality. We’re evaluating a reflection of reality in digital media. That small step removed is enough to affect our perceptions. Our interpretations of the reflection are equally valid even if only one resembles a reality to which we are not privy.

This is what happened in the Talmud, in tractate Baba Metzia 59b, where Rabbi Eliezer invoked all sorts of miracles to prove that his opinion on a certain matter reflected God’s Divine position. The bottom line was that all these proofs were irrelevant. We don’t rule in matters of law based on God’s point of view (to which we are not privy) but through the perspective of our human filters. To that end, the Sages cited Deuteronomy 30:12, lo baShamayim hi, the Torah is no longer in Heaven. We can’t evaluate the dress in the store window, so we evaluate the photo online. We can’t interpret the Torah as it is seen in Heaven, we can only evaluate it as we understand it here on Earth.

(This is also true in politics. We are all given the same information about gun control, the Middle East, the economy, immigration, etc. We can legitimately filter the information and come to different conclusions.)

Someone who sees the dress differently, or who hears “Yanny” where you hear “Laurel,” doesn’t disagree with you because they’re stupid, greedy, megalomaniacal, disingenuous or evil. They filter the data, just as you and I do, and they legitimately perceive things differently. Similarly, someone who evaluates religious or political data and reaches a different conclusion need not be a liar, a fool, a zealot or a heretic. They just might see things differently. Or, as Dr. Shapiro put it in a subsequent comment, “I think the lesson here is that by trying to hear a different perspective you can actually overcome your biological predisposition and understand and value multiple truths.”

We can learn a lot about ourselves – and one another – from a two-syllable audio clip.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.