Yanny vs Laurel: Meaningless meme or a spiritual parable?

Yanny vs Laurel. A new internet debate-turned-meme has taken over social media this week, with online users apparently locked in conflict over whether a brief audio clip declares the name 'Yanny' or 'Laurel'. Somehow, some listen to the recording and hear one name, others listen to exactly the same one and hear something else. It's of course reminiscent of the great gold/blue dress controversy of 2015.

Obviously sound experts have weighed in and apparently it's something to do with treble, bass, and the degree to which the listener is tuned to a higher or lower frequency. Presented with a 'perceptually ambiguous stimulus', the human brain picks one interpretation of what it receives. 'We detect with our ears but we hear with our brain,' Dr Shahrzad Cohen told BBC News. The audio equipment we use, as well as the size and shape of our ears, influences our interpretations in different directions.

PixabayLaurel vs Yanny: One sound has provoked fierce debate.

For the record, it's a low-quality recording of the word 'Laurel', even if you're hearing Yanny. It might all seem like another pointless meme that we'll use to briefly forget the horrors of real life, until the next distraction comes along. For others it may be genuinely troubling: a plain revelation of the truth that we share one world, but can see and hear it so differently from one another.

Evidence of the neurological reality that we can all hear one thing differently reminds us of what we already know about the complexity of modern culture: we're all wired differently, geared to perceive the world in contrasting ways. It's not just words, but concepts, places and people groups that we see differently. That should be interesting to a community (the church) that's invested in the preaching of words, particularly words that point to an ultimate, uniting truth. Is that unity possible, or are we destined to always, to some degree, hear different things?

This kind of aural dissonance is also not unfamiliar to the story of Scripture. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is speaking of his death to come, when he says to heaven: 'Father, glorify your name!' Then, we are told: 'a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and will glorify it again."The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. Jesus said, "This voice was for your benefit, not mine"'(John 12:28-30). God speaks, but only some hear a voice. Or was he speaking through an angel? Others hear thunder.

Somewhat confusingly, Jesus says that the voice was for the benefit of the listeners, which is made perplexing by the fact that the audience don't all hear the same thing, which raises the question, 'Why not'? Have they been predestined to hear or not hear, granted their perception or lack of it by God? Have they failed to 'tune in' to the frequency of heaven? Does holiness help hearing, were they distracted by other sounds? The text functions powerfully here though, as it offers an authority on the matter – some heard merely thunder, but the writer John is giving his audience, decades after the event, an insight into the voice that came from heaven. The Greek word used for 'voice' (in verse 28) is phóné, which can mean 'sound' or 'voice' – it acts as a smart double entendre by the Gospel writer. Is it Laurel or Yanny?

The move reminds the audience of their place before the good news: they are privileged through John to hear the voice in the thunder, but will they recognise it in life? Will they be attuned, or tuned out? In various circumstances in life, people may not be prepared to hear what you have to say – perhaps biased against it, only ready to hear what they want to hear, even if you're saying Laurel not Yanny. The response to that might be to throw up hands and say 'they'll never get it' – but it could also be a chance to adjust our own frequencies, to retune the message so it can be heard for what it is, and not what it's not.

Intentional misunderstanding seems prevalent in modern debate, particularly in the fractious realm of social media, but the Laurel/Yanny debate shows that confusion can also be unintentional yet still pervasive, simply a function of our different contexts and make-ups.

No doubt another 'perceptually ambiguous stimulus' will come along in time and confound us once again. Like with any disagreement, it'll be worth asking why we hear or see the same world differently, and wonder what needs to change – or if someone needs to change us.

You can follow @JosephHartropp on Twitter

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