Why do some people hear this silent GIF bouncing?
City research suggests that synaesthesia may be behind the
‘bouncing pylon’ phenomenon and it may be more common that we
Researchers from City, University of London believe that
synaesthesia may be behind the recent phenomenon where people
hear a ‘thudding’ noise when viewing a silent GIF of electricity
pylons bouncing. According to Dr Elliot Freeman and Chris
Fassnidge, a PhD researcher in Dr Freeman’s lab in the
Department of Psychology at City, the effect seen is due to how
our senses work, as this illusion is an example of a type of
‘hearing-motion’ synaesthesia. Such effects occur when the
senses, such as hearing and sight, are crossed in the brain.
Currently the only lab in the world to be actively researching
this phenomenon, Dr Freeman and colleagues call this effect
visually-evoked auditory response, or vEAR for short. It is
thought that the effect may arise as humans are better at
recording sound than images, therefore the ability to recode
visual signals as sounds would take advantage of such abilities.
In a recent study, they also found that such ‘hearing-motion’
synaesthesia occurred in 22 per cent of people when tested and
it is thought that they may occur subliminally, disrupting
detection of real auditory signals.
This makes the effect more common than other types of
synaesthesia – for example colour and sound – as these types
only occur in around 4 percent of the population.
Speaking about the phenomenon to The Telegraph, Chris Fassnidge
said: "I suspect the noisy gif phenomenon is closely related to
what we call the Visually-Evoked Auditory Response, or vEAR for
short. This is the ability of some people to hear moving objects
even though they don't make a sound, which may be a subtle form
of synaesthesia - the triggering of one sense by another.
"We are constantly surrounded by movements that make a sound,
whether they are footsteps as people walk, lip movements while
they talk, a ball bouncing in the playground, or the crash as we
drop a glass. There is some evidence to suggest that
synaesthetic pairings are, to some extent, learnt during infancy.
I might assume I am hearing the footsteps of a person walking on
the other side of the street, when really the sound exists only
in my mind.
"So this may be a common phenomenon because the sound makes
sense, but for that exact reason we may not even know we have
this unusual ability until the noisy gif suddenly came along in
the last few years. What determines who experiences vEAR and how
intensely is probably individual differences in how our brain is
Dr Elliot Freeman, a senior lecturer in the Department at
Psychology at City, University of London, said to Press
Association: “I believe the phenomenon is correlated to a form
of synaesthesia where the sense of sight triggers a sense of
hearing. Synaesthesia is actually quite rare, as around 4% of
the population possesses some form of the condition, but the
strong motion energy in the shaking pylon GIF, paired with the
expectation of something falling, triggers the auditory cortex –
the region in the brain that processes sound – explaining why so
many people are able to hear the ‘thud’.”