When your brain and your ears trick you

Hands over ears

Are your ears lying to you? Maybe.

Many people assume the sound that's made and the sound you hear is the same. But often, it's not.

We process sound using many tools—our ears hear a sound, but also our eyes tell us what sound to expect and our brains use experience and context to understand and predict certain sounds. 

Famous examples 

If you say "nice do meet you", the listener will still hear "nice to meet you". Try saying the "do" version into your smartphone. Even if the D in "do" is very clear, your phone will always hear "to". Our brains are the same.

Expectation can change many words, for instance this famous video either says "Laural" or "Yanny." You will hear one or the other depending on the on pitch. Your expectations will also change what you hear. For more info check out this explainer page.

Another powerful example of the brain's impact on sound is known as The McGurk Effect. Try watching one minute of this strange video:  



When you see the person making their mouth like "ba", then you hear "ba". However, if you see the person making their mouth like "fa", then you hear "fa", even though the audio doesn't change. 

So, the way our brain shapes sound is powerful. This should change the way you think about English. 

Japanese speakers

If you are a Japanese speaker and you tend to think or write in katakana, then L and R will be very hard to hear. La and ra are both ラ, and your brain may hear both sounds as such. Expecting English sounds means training your brain. 

You may also have trouble hearing,

  • si or shi
  • thi or di 
  • v or b 

It takes time and effort, and if you need help, just ask your next instructor. You can say something like, "I'm having trouble hearing L and R. Can you say LOCK a few times? Ok, and can you say ROCK a few times?"

All our brains can be tricked into hearing different sounds. When it comes to language learning, however, this can be a hurdle. You need to hear many sounds clearly! So, train your brain to hear English sounds.