Meaning in randomness

Claire Elliott considers the significance of ‘electronic voice phenomena’.

Electronic voice phenomena (EVP) describes the anomalous speech-like sounds often found on electronic recordings. A staple in our modern diet of 'ghost-hunting’ programmes, EVP may be of psychological interest for more earthly reasons.

In 1982 George Meek confidently announced to the National Press Club in Washington DC, ‘…for the first time we have electronic proof that the mind, memory banks and personality survive death’ (Banks, 2012). This ‘proof’ was obtained using a device called the Spiricom, a machine with 13 random tone generators spanning the adult male voice. The Spiricom appeared to provide real-time communication from discarnate spirit voices.

The phenomenon Meek and his collaborator William O’Neill observed was nothing new. The first electronic voice phenomena (EVP) recording is alleged to have been made in 1952 by two Catholic priests using a magnetophon. In EVP, voices are usually heard on playback. The newer term instrumental transcommunication (ITC) covers paranormal communication using electronic equipment such as radios, televisions and computers, and provides instant results. Today, EVP is widely recognised by the public, with many websites devoted to the technique. So, are these ‘voices’ messages from the afterlife, or could there be explanations closer to home?

Pareidolia and apophenia
Sceptical commentators argue that EVP is a form of auditory pareidolia, where random sounds appear significant. EVP recordings are often poor quality, with few words embedded in background noise. Yet only minimal sound signals are required to interpret a speech-like message: Remez et al. (1981) found that artificial time-varied sinusoidal signals were enough to support the perception of speech. Messages appear vague (in 1956 psychical researchers Attila von Sealey and Raymond Cass captured the message ‘Hot dog, art’), and so top-down processing appears to influence their interpretation. The influential Latvian EVP researcher Konstantins Raudive believed his ‘voices’ were polyglot: he spoke several languages himself. Paranormal investigators can form an expectancy of the response by asking questions. A typical exchange would be: ‘Would you like us to go?’, followed by ‘Get out!’. The recording methods themselves may contribute to the sounds: automatic gain circuits that amplify low volume sounds and microphones can act as antenna for stray radio signals. Faraday cages stop or reduce these signals. Notably, EVP has not been replicated in control conditions (Barruss, 2001).

Once words are heard, it’s human nature to connect them in order to find patterns. According to The Skeptic’s Dictionary, apophenia is the ‘unmotivated seeing of connections accompanied by a specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness’. Popular examples include seeing shapes of real-world objects in cloud formations, or Jesus on toast. In a 2008 study, Fyfe and colleagues found that a ‘delusional thinking style’ was associated with a tendency to perceive more associations in random moving triangles. The researchers concluded that ‘perceiving meaning in randomness and, more particularly, attributing mental states where none are indicated, may be important factors in the formation of paranormal and delusional beliefs’. With EVP the tendency to infer agency to random patterns or occurrences, and human-like characteristics to non-human objects, could lead to assigning unwarranted significance to what is heard: for example, non-speech sounds may be interpreted as singing or humming from a paranormal entity.

The role of prior beliefs and expectation
Despite the lack of scientific evidence in support of the paranormal, opinion polls in USA and UK consistently find a large proportion of the population subscribe to at least one paranormal belief. For example, three quarters of Americans in a 2005 Gallup survey reported a belief in an aspect of the paranormal. The most endorsed items were extra sensory perception and haunted houses, with 32 per cent believing in ghosts. A 2015 ‘Chapman University Survey of American Fears’ found spirit possession and an afterlife were the most common beliefs, with over 40 per cent believing in spirit-based hauntings. In 2016 a YouGov poll found British people were more likely to believe in ghosts than a creator.

Our understanding of the role of society and the media in shaping such beliefs can be informed by Tversky and Kahneman’s accounts of heuristics, the mental shortcuts that ease our cognitive load, allowing quick judgments but often steering us away from logic and probability. Consider the availability heuristic – the tendency to make judgements based on how easy it is to bring examples to mind. Following media coverage of US pilot Kenneth Arnold’s ‘encounter’ in 1952, there was a surge in ‘flying saucer’ reports (see French & Stone, 2014). Of course, spiritualism, the belief in an active afterlife and spirit communication, is nothing new. But the rise in ghost hunting TV shows over the past few decades has taken such beliefs, and the possibility of contacting the dead, into primetime. EVP is a popular method as part of this, because it is cheap and consistently gets ‘results’.

In the absence of empirical evidence, why do such beliefs persist and thrive? Martie Haselton and David Buss’s error management theory would suggest that biases have survived because they confer advantages in evolutionary terms. If an individual perceives a threat as real, and acts accordingly, they are more likely to survive. Some argue that sceptics may be dismissing something that is actually there. It’s also natural for people to desire control in an uncertain world. Whitson and Galinsky (2008) found participants who lacked control were more likely to perceive illusory patterns, a tendency that has been implicated in paranormal belief (see Tobacyk & Wilkinson, 1991). In a similar fashion, conspiracy theorists underestimate the random, unintended nature of events and connect unrelated events, attributing greater meaning to them (van der Linden, 2013). As with the paranormal, these beliefs may give someone a sense of control in conditions of uncertainty.

Among the many paranormal beliefs – such as psi, witchcraft, psychokinesis, precognition and extraordinary life forms – it is perhaps haunting phenomena that are the most frequently endorsed and of particular relevance to EVP. James Houran has outlined site-specific paranormal experiences that include apparitions, sounds, smells, sense of presence and bodily sensations, and found a positive relationship between paranormal belief and such experiences. This echoes other research finding that those who believe in the paranormal are more likely to incorrectly report objects moving in a faked seance (set up by Richard Wiseman), and to report unusual experiences and events (such as the malfunctioning of equipment and objects moving) in a house or theatre when told it has a reputation for paranormal activity. In Wiseman’s 2002 study, believers in ghosts also reported more unusual experiences when walking around Hampton Court Palace. Beliefs appear to be providing a cognitive framework for structuring haunting-related events and experiences.

Auditory hallucinations and illusions
Suggestion can also induce personal anomalous experiences such as visual and auditory hallucinations. Using hypnosis, O’Connor et al. (2008) created a feeling of déjà vu in participants. The suggestion that mirror gazing (scrying) could bring about anomalous, paranormal sensations resulted in more reports of visual and auditory apparitions (Terhune & Smith, 2006).

Let’s apply this to sound. There are many examples of patternicity in sound (see Shermer, 2008). Most of us are familiar with the idea that hidden messages can be revealed in pop and rock music when it is reversed. However, this ‘backward masking’ often pops out to the listener when it’s suggested something is there (Thorne & Himelstein, 1984), and the specific lyrics may only make sense when you’re told what they’re supposed to be (try it for yourself at jeffmilner.com/backmasking). With EVP, many examples show the proposed message alongside the recording, making it difficult to hear anything else. A similar phenomenon is a ‘mondegreen’, a term for the mishearing or misinterpreting of lyrics coined by American writer Sylvia Wright in 1954, writing about how as a girl she had misheard the lyric ‘...and laid him on the green’ in a Scottish ballad as ‘...and Lady Mondegreen’. The website kissthisguy.com archives modern examples (including Beyoncé’s ‘All the single ladies’ misheard as ‘I own a single lettuce’.

Such illusions represent the misinterpretation of an existing stimulus, but the brain has an amazing ability to perceive meaning even in the absence of stimuli. This can be demonstrated in Charles Bonnet syndrome and musical ear syndrome, and in the 10 per cent or so of those who are hearing or visually impaired who experience complex auditory and visual hallucinations. Unlike illusions, hallucinations are unique to the individual. One example of an auditory hallucination is the verbal transformation effect (VTE), where the repetition of words or phrases makes them appear meaningless, known as semantic satiation. This can lead to new words being heard in the sound (see tinyurl.com/yauzfa8k for a demonstration). Again, this is the brain’s attempt to impose meaning on stimuli presented out of context.

Whilst we can all experience examples of these perceptual aberrations, there is evidence some people may have an increased tendency to patternicity and attribute greater meaning to their perceptions. ‘Hallucination proneness’ refers to the predisposition to hallucinate in healthy individuals. Self-report scales (e.g. from Gilles Launay, Peter Slade and Richard Bentall) are constructed on the basis that hallucinatory experiences are on a continuum with normal mental states and include questions on visual and auditory hallucinations. For normal functioning, we rely on a feed forward signal of our intention to act. Hallucinations could occur when there is a breakdown in the system monitoring those intentions. For example, inner speech may not be recognised as internally generated, and is then interpreted as coming from an outside source (Vercammen et al., 2008).

Research in non-clinical populations suggests that hallucinations are part of normal consciousness for most people. A 1983 study by Posey and Losch found that 71 per cent of college students reported experiencing an auditory hallucination at least once in their lifetime. In a 1992 cohort from Barrett and Etheridge at least a quarter reported regular auditory hallucinations. Evidence of top-down processing can be seen in the most commonly reported hallucinations, such as one’s thoughts appearing to happen out loud, or apparently hearing someone calling our name.

There are other perceptual phenomena that could make someone more susceptible to auditory hallucinations. Hyperacusis is the excessive sensitivity to normal sounds. Dubal and Viaud-Delmon (2008) found an association between magical ideation and hyperacusis. A hyperactive auditory system could make an individual susceptible to deviant auditory experiences. A recent study led by Christopher Fassnidge found that 22 per cent of participants had synaesthesia-like experiences, where visual movements were heard as faint sounds. It could be argued these were auditory hallucinations, possibly influenced by suggestion. These results suggest that a minority can experience an internally generated soundtrack, either involuntarily or when directed to turn their attention inwards. In certain circumstances this could be misinterpreted as coming from an external source.

Both hallucination and fantasy proneness have been linked to hearing meaningful information in ambiguous noise. Fantasy proneness refers to the tendency for some people to experience extensive mental involvement in fantasy. It’s conceptualised as a disposition or personality trait (Wilson & Barber, 1983). Typically, these individuals spend more time daydreaming and have vivid mental imagery (Merckelbach & van de Ven, 2001). They tend to report more paranormal experiences, including traditional religious concepts, psi and spiritualism (Irwin, 2009). Fantasy proneness has also been linked to the intensity of UFO experiences (Spanos et al., 1993), hypnotic susceptibility and acceptance of pseudomemories (Hyman & Billings, 1998) and anomalous apparitions (Wilson & Barber, 1983).

Feelgood and Rantzen (1994) demonstrated that auditory hallucinations can be created in controlled conditions using ambiguous sound. The recording consisted of a human voice, segmented, randomised and played in reverse, sounding similar to white noise. High scorers on hallucination proneness reported hearing more words than low scorers. But what about a stimulus more analogous to EVP, such as a detuned radio? Merckelbach and van de Ven (2001) asked university students to listen to an audio track containing only white noise. They suggested Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ could be present below the auditory threshold. 32 per cent of the participants then reported hearing it. These individuals scored high on hallucination and fantasy proneness. The researchers believe such hallucinatory experiences may represent the fantasy-prone individual’s tendency to adopt lax criteria when classifying internal experiences as hallucinations. High ‘hallucinators’ have also been shown to be more responsive to auditory suggestions (Young et al., 1987). My own research used a similar method to Merckelback and van de Ven to elicit auditory hallucinations in an EVP listening task.

Communicating with ourselves
There are many factors, both practical and psychological, that can explain EVP as non-paranormal – yet it continues to be accepted by some as ‘proof’ of an afterlife. The mental biases and shortcuts we have to lighten cognitive load can lead us astray into the formation and reinforcement of false beliefs. Research suggests certain groups may have an increased susceptibility to EVP, such as paranormal believers and those prone to hallucinations. However, little research has been done on the cognitive-perceptual factors and role of prior beliefs in the perception of EVP. It is an area that can tell us much about the human condition and desire to believe, our tendency to find patterns and seek out meaning.

About the author

‘My master’s thesis was entitled “Electronic voice phenomena: Specific paranormal beliefs (haunting) and proneness to hallucinate may be implicated in illusory speech perception (auditory pareidolia)”. I’m a member of both the Greater Manchester Skeptics Society and a paranormal investigation team.’

- Claire Elliott is a recent MSc Psychology (by Research) graduate of Manchester Metropolitan University
[email protected]

Illustration: http://www.marcelinaamelia.com

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