Gifs are animations that are short and quiet. They do not hold any sound files inside them, unlike videos That’s why it’s really unusual that many people claim to be able to hear one online. This is a gif you’ve probably seen already, as it reappears every couple of months, always with a similar caption: someone asking, “Why can I hear this,” usually followed by a few sobbing faces to prove how distressing they find the experience.
The gif, produced by Twitter user Happy Toast, has reappeared after a scientist called for help in understanding why people hear a noise.
WHY THE HELL CAN I HEAR THIS GIF 😭😭😭😭😭😭 pic.twitter.com/ZlLe7wmuwh
— sabrina🌸 (@Sabrina_Arsenal) April 15, 2017
Can you hear that? You ain’t alone. Dr. Lisa Debruine, a researcher at the University of Glasgow, also included a survey to see how many people can hear the gif. So far, 75% said they could hear a thudding noise.
Does anyone in visual perception know why you can hear this gif? pic.twitter.com/mcT22Lzfkp
— Lisa DeBruine 🏳️🌈 (@LisaDeBruine) December 2, 2017
I started out with thudding, but now alternate with a comical “sproing”. pic.twitter.com/Hjr23NZdO6
— Kevin Boyd (@Beryllium9) December 3, 2017
So, what’s going on? Well, firstly, it’s certainly not just this gif. Other gifs have been uploaded all over the Internet that people have said they can hear, such as this one where you can hear elephants on a see-saw.
And this gif you can’t even look at without hearing the classic We Will Rock You.
We also know that our perception of sound can be shaped by visual data in other ways, not restricted to soundless gifs. The McGurk effect, seen in this BBC Horizon video, shows how your brain can be deceived into hearing different things on the basis of visual information you see at the time.
But is it possible for visual stimulus alone to make people hear the sound? Short answer: Um, um. A test earlier this year showed that 22 percent of participants were able to “hear” subtle noises when a burst of light was shown, even though no sound existed.
We also knew that certain people in the population (about 5%) have synesthesia, a phenomenon where information received from one sense (e.g. sound) is perceived automatically and unintentionally by another (e.g. taste). Nevertheless, this study showed how much more of the population is heard in motion-detecting noises in reaction to a visual stimulus–than previously thought. It’s not limited to synesthetes.
What do you experience when you watch this gif?
— Lisa DeBruine 🏳️🌈 (@LisaDeBruine) December 3, 2017
So if an auditory response can be triggered by a simple flash of light, this gif of power pylons can only be a particularly good example of how a stimulus can cause this effect, and therefore so many people seem to “hear” it.
When the stimuli shown to you impose a mental load larger than what your mind can bear, your brain tends to stop interpreting it critically and replaces it with stereotyping / previous experience. This image causes the mind to associate it with a 1/2 stereo image.
—December 3, 2017, Ministry of Public Enlightenment (@Atimaharathi) skipping rope. The brain associates the photo with the “skipping rope” steel lattice towers with the electrical lines being “the rope.” This also makes your brain link the image to other stereo-related effects. You can, therefore “hear” the “jumps.” 2/2 A.