Green needle vs. brainstorm

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Remember "Yanny vs. Laurel", the viral acoustic sensation (28.2M views) of mid-May, 2018?  It was covered extensively on Language Log (see the items under "Selected readings" below).  Now we have another supposedly ambiguous recording that has gone viral (5.3M views [posted 7/3/21]):

It’s more auditory than linguistic, but what you hear arguably depends on the word you’re looking at.  I'm suspicious.  One iteration has three syllables and the other is just two. And the pitches are different. Hmmm….

Delving further into the matter of "green needle" vs. "brainstorm", I find that — beginning at least three years ago — it has already been examined in depth from a variety of angles on YouTube, for which see here.


Selected readings


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    October 2, 2021 @ 7:41 am

    I hear only "green needle", not matter at which speech bubble I am looking.

  2. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    October 2, 2021 @ 8:04 am


    Surely you meant ? "no matter"

  3. David Y said,

    October 2, 2021 @ 8:39 am

    Yeah, count me skeptical, too. There's pretty clearly a stray "storm" or something like it right at the end of the video, but I only hear "green needle" before that.

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    October 2, 2021 @ 9:42 am

    I did indeed, Antonio, but my fingers were faster than my brain, and by the time I had realised my error it was no longer possible to correct it …

  5. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 2, 2021 @ 10:35 am

    This audio illusion dates back to the Yanny vs. Laurel days of May 2018. There was some discussion of it in the comments on Benjamin Munson's guest post, linking to this popular tweet.

  6. Scott P. said,

    October 2, 2021 @ 10:50 am

    I hear both words, as described.

  7. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    October 2, 2021 @ 10:58 am

    @Ben Zimmer
    It also works for "Brain Needle" and "Green Storm"

  8. Terry K. said,

    October 2, 2021 @ 11:03 am

    I can hear either, depending what I'm reading as it says. Paying close attention when hearing "brainstorm", it actually sounds more like brainstorle. I don't actually hear the M, and do hear something like a syllabic L.

    Seems to be a case of our brains filling in from imperfect input, and priming affecting what we perceive, just as context does in conversational speech.

  9. Y said,

    October 2, 2021 @ 1:55 pm

    I'm suspicious. One iteration has three syllables and the other is just two. And the pitches are different.

    That is all part of the illusion. You can open the sound in a sound editor and play all or part of it to your heart's content.
    It's easy to see how 'brain' and 'green' would be acoustically similar. The crux of the illusion is that [s] and forcefully whispered [i] are acoustically similar (noise above 2500 Hz), but are very distinct within English phonotactics.
    There's some more to it, like the perceived pitch rise in the middle of the "[i]" in "needle".

  10. Robot Therapist said,

    October 2, 2021 @ 2:21 pm

    I can hear either, at will.

  11. Robot Therapist said,

    October 2, 2021 @ 2:23 pm

    … and also brain needle and greenstorm, as Antonio said.

  12. Duncan said,

    October 2, 2021 @ 4:02 pm

    No "storm" at all here, and I've listened-to/watched several videos of it. I normally hear "green" and thus "green needle", but if I try hard enough I can hear it as "breen needle" (bree needle?). But I can't hear "storm" no matter how hard I try, or reversing to "try" to hear "green needle" (which I actually do regardless), either.

    That said, while I had no prior reason to know it, one video claimed that the toy is based on a TV show that had a "Brain Storm" character, which the toy is supposed to be, so that's surely the originally intended/recorded/generated word-pair. Had I been familiar with the show I imagine that would have biased me into hearing "brain storm", tho even knowing that now, I *still* can't convince myself it actually says "brain storm". All I hear is "green needle", or /possibly/ "bree(n) needle" if I try hard enough to convince myself of a leading bree, even now.

  13. Andrew Usher said,

    October 2, 2021 @ 7:34 pm

    I also concur – 'storm' is impossible. No matter how badly scrambled it is, the second word is certainly CVC.x – matching everyone's pronunciation of 'needle' but no one's of 'storm'.

  14. Jonathan Smith said,

    October 2, 2021 @ 10:42 pm

    Since the recording is of the word 'brainstorm', the idea that this interpretation is "impossible" presents ontological challenges :D
    Another recording of the toy, arguably slightly clearer (?)
    Ultimate Omnitrix

  15. Andrew Usher said,

    October 3, 2021 @ 12:02 am

    In that clearer version, which I repeated several times, I can possibly hear 'brain needle'. No sign of 'storm', and the second word sounds effectively the same.

    I have to reckon this is a synthesiser bug or a big mistake in processing.

  16. Jay Sekora said,

    October 3, 2021 @ 8:03 pm

    In the first “green needle brainstorm” clip, I can hear either at will. In the clearer (?) “Ultimate Omnitrix” clip, which Andrew Usher says he can *only* hear “brain needle” in, I had a much easier time hearing “brainstorm” but eventually managed to hear “green needle”.

    (I started typing this as an interesting counterpoint to Andrew’s comment, since I thought I could *only* hear “brainstorm” and then had to update it when I finally managed to hear “green needle”.)

    I think the moral of the story is that human brains are very good at filling in incomplete perceptual data, and also very good at backtracking from messy raw perceptual data to a model of how the data was produced.

    I'm reminded of an anecdote — I think recounted by Oliver Sacks, although my google-fu is failing me — of somebody who had a brain injury and lost the ability to work back from the raw data of red, green, blue, and brightness that the rods and cones fed to his brain under certain lighting conditions to the original characteristics of pigment and reflectivity that an object must have had. So a large piece of fabric crumpled up would have looked to him not like a single object of a single color with highlights and shadows seen at various angles, but like a crazy jigsaw puzzle of little pieces of different colors and shades. (If somebody knows the anecdote I'm talking about, I’d love to find out if it was in fact retold by Oliver Sacks and in any case I’d love a pointer to more information about the case.)

  17. Christopher Buckey said,

    October 3, 2021 @ 8:15 pm

    I heard "pine needle". Then again, I wasn't looking at the screen when the sound played.

  18. Tako Schotanus said,

    October 4, 2021 @ 11:31 am

    With a LOT of difficulty I can force myself to hear Storm (although more "Store" and imagining the M), but I'm left with a spurious EE sound between the Brain and the Storm, as if it was pronounced by someone who's not used to starting words with an S, like many Spanish speakers (they tend to say "eh-street" and "eh-special"). So I hear "brain-ee-stor". "Green needle" is definitely easier but my brain does give that a low probability as well.

  19. Morten Jonsson said,

    October 4, 2021 @ 3:22 pm

    I keep waiting for the revelation that this is a a joke I'm not in on, because I can't hear anything but "needle" for the second syllable. "Storm"? Really? There's no s, no t, no o-like vowel, no m.

    The first syllable could be "green," could be "brain." Could be "grain" or "breen," for that matter.

  20. VVOV said,

    October 5, 2021 @ 1:49 pm

    Interestingly I had the following experience:

    When I watch the youtube video in the OP with the two captions, I hear only "green needle" no matter what.

    When I watch the textless video in the tweet linked by Ben Zimmer, I can easily switch between hearing "green needle" and "brainstorm" at will.

    I think what may be going on is that my brain finds "green needle" to be the more accessible / preferable reading, and the fact that the 1st video has the text "green needle" on the screen at all time blocks me from perceiving "brainstorm" even when I'm focusing on the caption for the latter. In contrast, when there is no text on the screen, nothing inhibits me from perceiving "brainstorm" at will.

  21. Andrew Usher said,

    October 5, 2021 @ 10:18 pm

    To state for the last time, I can't match the second part of the utterance with any word but 'needle', no matter now much I try. And judging by the thread above, mine seems to be the majority belief. Anyone that can perceive 'brainstorm' must at the least have an excess of imagination.

    Perhaps a formant analysis would have been desirable, as with Laurel/Yanny, which I still find unclear.

  22. rpsms said,

    October 6, 2021 @ 2:55 pm

    So, in the clips where the toy is visible, the lights track the audio, and there are three distinct pulses that track with 3 clearly-audible syllables.

  23. Andrew Usher said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 8:06 am

    Indeed. If the toy really is supposed to be saying 'brainstorm', that's a remarkable coincidence.

  24. Arun said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 10:03 am


    Seems the commentariat is tied:

    Can't hear or skeptical:
    – Philip Taylor
    – David Y
    – Duncan
    – Andrew Usher
    – Christopher Buckey
    – Tako Schotanus
    – Morten Jonsson

    Can hear:
    – Scott P
    – Antonio L. Banderas
    – Terry K.
    – Y
    – Robot Therapist
    – Jay Sekora
    – VVOV
    + Arun

    If it helps, "green" and "brain" are not perfectly aligned. "Brainstorm" is enunciated in a prolonged and dramatic way, as heard here:

  25. Nat J said,

    October 7, 2021 @ 10:34 pm

    I’m happy to break the tie. I can easily hear either (although I have never once been able to see the dress as white and gold, despite years of effort).
    I think those who can only hear it one way are expecting the word boundaries to match, which they don’t. The middle syllable “nee” corresponds to a gap between “brain” and “storm” (It is probably relevant that “green” ends in ’n’ and “nee-“ begins with it.” “Storm” corresponds to “-dle”. Note that ‘d’ and ‘t’ are both labiodentals and that both these syllables have a falling pitch.
    The only strange thing is that anyone is still surprised that two phenomenally distinctive experiences can result from identical sensory inputs

  26. Breffni said,

    October 8, 2021 @ 6:53 am

    I'm with those who can hear both. Along with Nat's point that the word boundaries don't match, it may help to note that "storm" is pronounced non-rhotically, as [stɔm] (the [m] is indistinct). And that [ɔ] is highly similar to a velarised /l/.

    This is the way I hear the correspondences, omitting the uncontroversial "brai(n)/gree(n)" part (I hope the IPA characters make it through):

    (brai)nstorm [nstɔm] – needle [nidl̩]
    [n] – [n]
    [s] – [i]
    [t] – [d]
    [ɔ] – [l̩]
    [m] – indistinct

    NB: Y explained above why [s] can be heard as [i].

  27. Kris said,

    October 9, 2021 @ 2:57 pm

    I agree completely with VVOV. Link in the OP I can only hear green needle. So I thought that was my preferred/innate hearing of the utterance. But in the link from Ben Zimmer I can switch at will between the two perceptions. The amazing thing is that both seem perfectly clear when listening for them in the second video.

    Andrew Usher, the majority of people who report listening to the second video don't seem to match your idea that only needle is possible as an interpretation. I agree with VVOV again that the captioning in the original video seems to have a remarkably strong effect on the (in)ability to perceive at will.

    Agree also that the "storm" does sound somewhat like "stole", or perhaps the way a non-rhotic speaker might pronounce storm at least. But giving the benefit of doubt as to a non-rhotic speaker, I can certainly hear storm as the intended pronunciation. IMO, this is a much clearer and more remarkable ambiguity than the laurel/yanny or the blue/white dress phenomena.

  28. Andrew Usher said,

    October 11, 2021 @ 7:48 am

    I assume by 'the second video' you mean the one with the visible toy, which is the one from Ben Zimmer – not the one from the cartoon which is clearly the original 'brainstorm'. I now understand how the phonemes match up and how it is supposed to be said, but I am unable to override what my ears hear. The question now, in my opinion, should be how the sound got to be so horrifically mangled.

    This is really basically the same as the Laurel/Yanny clip: I couldn't hear Laurel even after knowing that was the original. I actually heard it first as 'Yairy' (rhymes with scary), then saw how it could be someone's 'Yanny'. There I assumed that it was a prankster that distorted the original sound to mess with us, but that can't be here because there's an actual toy that actually makes the sound represented by that nonsense clip.

  29. Ronan Maye said,

    October 13, 2021 @ 6:45 pm

    I heard both words, but it changed based on which word I looked at on the screen. This reminds me of the gold-dress/blue-dress illusion that went viral a few years ago.

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