Science is shaking faith in our senses—and that’s a good thing

“Seeing is believing,” except when it comes to the colour of a dress, so it seems. Modern research into the human senses has proven that we can’t always trust our eyes, a fact well known to defence lawyers and the legal system when it comes to eye witness accounts, but brought home to many of the rest of us with the dress colour illusion that was making the online rounds back in 2015. Now, the information coming in through our ears is being challenged by the “yanni/laurel” controversy.

For those not “connected” to the great hive mind, the dress controversy centred on the colour of a dress in a washed out photograph which some viewers saw as “gold” and others as “blue” (everybody saw the black horizontal stripes). The dress colour was eventually established as being “blue” but not before the photograph had been shared tens of millions of times and ignited a furious debate around the globe. It seems that people have a remarkable amount of free time and a boundless capacity to absorb controversy over trivial matters.

The latest assault on our senses currently going viral is a sound bite in which some listeners hear the sound word yanni (yes, that’s now a new word in our Internet expanded lexicon), while others hear the word laurel. So startling is this aural dichotomy that many doubt the veracity of the loop (of course it doesn’t help the credibility of the loop that some people claim to hear different words depending on when they access the site).

But apparently the underlying reason for the different interpretation of the sounds is due to the inclusion of high frequencies in the sound. People who can hear more of the higher frequencies hear the word yanni, while those who are somewhat more high note-challenged hear the word laurel. In an odd sidebar, the actual word being spoken is reportedly laurel—as spoken by a performer from the Broadway stage musical ‘Cats.’

So what to make of these assaults on our senses? When you can’t trust your eyes or your ears to steer you straight, how do you plot a course? It is a great lesson for our times and possibly, if we pay attention to the underlying message contained in these controversies over what are, at their core, trivial matters and apply that message to those things that really matter in our lives perhaps we will become less susceptible to the barrage of Internet “fake news” that daily swamps those very senses.

When something matters, when we are faced with a decision that has the potential to massively impact our lives and the lives of those around us, we need to stop and carefully examine why we are making those decisions. What are we basing that decision on? Are a lot of people yelling yanni or laurel at us, or are the colours being presented to us true?

Savvy consumers have long realized that they should balance the advertising claims made by the manufacturers of large ticket items with independent and credible consumer reviews.

A blue, orange, red or green car could still prove to be a lemon, even if it is our favourite colour or we much like the sound its engine makes as it purrs on the dealer’s lot.