Beyond Yanny or Laurel: 6 Other Aural Illusions and How They Work

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iStock

You know can't always believe your eyes, as optical illusions—or "brain failures," as Neil deGrasse Tyson calls them—make clear. It turns you can't always believe your ears either. Recently the internet went nuts over a four-second audio clip that sounded like "Yanny," "Laurel," or both. Audiologists contend that the clip has two distinct tracks laid on top of each other at different frequencies. Scientists call this an aural illusion—and it's not the only one. Here are six others that will make you doubt what you hear.

1. BRAINSTORM OR GREEN NEEDLE

The Illusion: Twitter users bored with the Yanny/Laurel question have been sharing this equally divisive clip. Some people think the garbled recording says "brainstorm," while others hear "green needle." Many have discovered that their thoughts can change the outcome. If you repeat the phrase "green needle" in your head, that's exactly what you'll hear when you listen to the clip. But if you've got "brainstorm" on your mind, then "brainstorm" is the term your ears are going to pick up.

How It Works: The video is a clip from a 2014 YouTube toy review. Uploaded by critic DosmRider, it's about a plastic space station from the Ben 10 collectibles line. The playset comes with a loading dock for action figures that trigger different sounds when they get plugged in. A crab-like character called Brainstorm is represented by one of these models. Put him on the station, and his name blares from the speakers. While listening to the soundbite, many people thought the toy was saying "green needle."

The clip contains a variety of different acoustic patterns—some of which are consistent with the term "green needle" while others match "brainstorm." Your expectations of which words you'll hear—coupled with the low-quality audio—do the rest. "When faced with an acoustic signal which is somewhat ambiguous because it is low-quality or noisy, your brain attempts a 'best fit' between what is heard and the expected word," Valerie Hazan, a professor of speech sciences at University College London, told The Telegraph.

2. SHEPARD TONES

The Illusion: In the above video, you hear what sounds like a single, perpetually swelling tone. A common fixture in the movie scores of composer Hans Zimmer, whose work you've heard in films like Dunkirk and Interstellar, this effect makes us believe that we're hearing the impossible: sounds whose pitch seems to rise endlessly without ever peaking or actually getting louder.

How It Works: The clip is in fact three separate sounds being played together—what are called Shepard tones. Each of these is an octave higher than the one beneath it. When separated into individual tones, as this Vox video explains, you can hear that the highest tone fades in volume, the middle one remains constant, and the lowest one increases. Because we're constantly hearing two upward-moving waves, we convince ourselves that the three-layered sound (taken as a whole) is growing higher and higher at a steady pace. It works for tones moving down in octaves as well.

3. CIRCLES, BEEPS, AND SENSORY CONFUSION

The Illusion: The opening 15 seconds of this video contain two multisensory displays. In the first, a lone black circle flashes onto the screen. This is accompanied by one high-pitched beep. You will then see the exact same thing happen again, with another solitary black circle popping into view. But this time, there will be two beeping sounds instead of one. Even though the animation is identical in both runthroughs, some viewers think they can see two flashing circles in that second display.

How It Works: Dubbed the sound-induced flash illusion by its discoverers, the trick plays on the fact that your brain sometimes consults other senses to figure out what your eyes are seeing. That's how the back-to-back beeps can fool you into mistaking a single flash for two separate ones. Some people might be especially vulnerable to the illusion. A 2012 study found that in a pool of 29 volunteers, nearly everyone reported seeing the second flash in at least a few trial runs. However, participants with small visual cortexes—a region of the brain which deciphers optical signals—saw it way more often than their peers did.

4. THE MCGURK EFFECT

The Illusion: In the previous entry, sound may have changed what you saw. In this one, seeing might change what you hear. A man says "bah" over and over. Or does he? Turn off the sound and see the shape his mouth makes as he speaks. He's actually saying "fah."

How It Works: First documented in the 1970s by researcher Harry McGurk [PDF], the McGurk Effect involves an incongruence between audio information and visual information. The brain's desire to reconcile these incongruent inputs is so strong, it can change what you hear to align with what you see.

5. SPEECH TO SONG

The Illusion: Diana Deutsch, who teaches at the University of California, San Diego, is an authority on the psychology of music. One day in 1995, Deutsch was editing an audio lecture she'd recorded. The sentence fragment "sometimes behave so strangely" was playing on a loop in her office. As she heard repeated over and over again, the phrase began to sound less like talking (which it was) and more like singing. It's had the same effect on other people. In the above video, notice how, after a certain point, this spoken-word recording picks up a musical quality, even though the speaker never actually sings.

How It Works: It's a phenomenon Deutsch has named the speech-to-song illusion. Repetition is a core component of all music, and it seems our brains try to create little melodies out of statements or sounds repeated to excess. How or why this occurs isn't completely understood. As future experiments dissect the illusion, psychologists may learn new things about how the mind organizes and processes the things it perceives [PDF].

6. PHANTOM WORDS

The Illusion: Once you click play on the video above, some bombastic, repeating syllables are going to hit your eardrums. For best results, place yourself between two speakers, but a decent set of headphones should also do the trick. Amidst this aural onslaught, your mind will probably identify some recognizable words or phrases. Test subjects who've listened to this have reported hearing words such as "no brain," "window," "raincoat," "mango," and "Broadway."

How It Works: Have you ever looked at a bowling ball and thought the three holes on its side resembled a human face? That's called pareidolia. Something like that is going on here. We're hard-wired to seek out patterns, both visually and aurally. There are two tracks in this audio clip, with each containing an ambiguous word or two. These sounds mix together in the air and then reach your ears as an unrecognizable racket. Listen long enough, and sooner or later you'll begin to hear "phantom words"—words or statements that aren't really being said. Since humans crave patterns, we force ourselves to hear them.

This experiment was another brainchild of Diana Deutsch's. She's found that the phantom words a person hears are liable to reflect their current mood. For example, weight-conscious test subjects might hear food-related terms.

Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the Moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the Moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the Moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the Moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception—in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full Moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

This story was updated in 2019.

NASA Reveals How Living in Space for a Year Affected Scott Kelly’s Poop

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

When you agree to be part of a yearlong space study, you forfeit some right to privacy. In astronaut Scott Kelly’s case, the changes his body endured while spending a year at the International Space Station (ISS) were carefully analyzed by NASA, then published in a scientific journal for all to see. Kelly submitted blood samples, saliva samples, and cheek swabs. Even his poop was subjected to scrutiny.

As PBS reports, Scott Kelly’s fecal samples revealed that his gut microbiome underwent significant but reversible changes during his time in orbit. In what was surely good news for both Kelly and NASA, his gut bacteria didn’t contain anything “alarming or scary,” according to geneticist Martha Hotz Vitaterna, and it returned to normal within six months of landing on Earth.

Even after being subjected to the challenging conditions of space, “Scott’s microbiome still looked like Scott’s microbiome, just with a space twist on it,” said Vitaterna, who was one of the study’s authors.

The fecal probe was one small part of a sweeping NASA study that was just published in the journal Science, more than three years after Kelly’s return. Dubbed the Twins Study, it hinged on the results of Kelly’s tests being compared with those of his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth as the control subject.

NASA’s goal was to gain insight into the hazards that astronauts could face on proposed long-term missions to the Moon and Mars. The agency has gone to great lengths to get this information, including offering to pay people $18,500 to stay in bed for two months in order to replicate the conditions of anti-gravity.

It also explains why NASA was willing to launch unmanned rockets into space to collect samples of Kelly’s poop. On four different occasions at the ISS, Kelly used cotton swabs to pick up poo particles. When the rockets arrived to drop off lab supplies, they returned to Earth with little tubes containing the swabs, which had to be frozen until all of the samples were collected. The process was tedious, and on one occasion, one of the SpaceX rockets exploded shortly after it launched in 2015.

The study also found that his telomeres, the caps at the ends of chromosomes, had lengthened in space, likely due to regular exercise and a proper diet, according to NASA. But when Kelly returned to Earth, they began to shorten and return to their pre-spaceflight length. Shorter telomeres have a correlation with aging and age-related diseases. “Although average telomere length, global gene expression, and microbiome changes returned to near preflight levels within six months after return to Earth, increased numbers of short telomeres were observed and expression of some genes was still disrupted,” researchers wrote.

Researchers say more studies will be needed before they send the first human to Mars. Check out NASA's video below to learn more about what they discovered.

[h/t PBS]

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