by Tom Butler
Previously published in the Fall 2012 ATransC NewsJournal
A frequent source of consternation for people who are asked to listen to EVP examples is their failure to hear what is reported. It is expected there will be some disagreement between listeners and practitioners. That is the nature of EVP (see Online Listening Study). However, a problem develops when listeners report hearing only noise, and doing so with example after example from the same practitioner when the practitioner insists there are paranormal voices in the examples. The question necessarily must turn to why the practitioner is hearing what others do not.
For this study, sound file containing only noise were presented to ATransC.org online listeners who were told there was only noise and were then asked to report what they heard. The study confirmed the prevalence of people who report hearing “phantom voices.” the study includes a discussion as to why this may be.
The evidence is very clear that there are examples of Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) that contain clearly understood messages. EVP are empirically demonstrated phenomena. Yet, a commonly heard complaint is that websites concerned with the paranormal often have examples of EVP that sound like simple noise.
Website visitors have used the contact tool to announce that they are receiving astoundingly long and important EVP, which on close examination, have proven to only contain noise. Yet, others have provided excellent, clearly heard examples. So what is the difference? What leads one person to hear messages where there is only noise while others do not?
The prevalence of this “phantom voices” phenomenon is increasingly evident as more people become involved in EVP. The resulting confusion is seen as an obstacle to useful collaboration amongst practitioners and certainly must warn off potential researchers.
To develop more understanding of the problem of phantom voices, the ATransC conducted an online listening study using two sound files. One contained simple brown noise (emphasis on voice-frequencies) and the other contained broad-spectrum noise modulated with audio pulses that simulate the cadence of speech. It was clearly stated that neither example contained voice. Possible explanations about what might cause a person to hear phantom voices were included above the hearing test and what was in the files was clearly stated.
Of the 111 submissions, 15.3% (17) reported hearing voices in the brown noise file and 27.8% (33) reported hearing voices in the modulated file. That means that 39% (43) reported voice in one or both of the files.
Participants were also asked if they had a history of hearing voices not heard by others. Thirty-six percent (40) of the respondents said that they did. Most indicated they were likely in a hypnagogic state of awareness.
Interestingly, many respondents reported hearing music or musical tones. While hearing music might be an associated characteristic of the phantom voices phenomenon, the question has not been addressed here.
This was an informal study in the sense that there were no controls. Although respondents were asked how the samples were listened to, it is mostly unknown if the samples were heard under optimum conditions. It is also reasonable to ask if respondents would be candid about hearing voices they were told were not present. There is probably a natural selection of respondents which biases the results away from “hearing voices” reports. The website receives nearly a thousand visitors a day and receiving only 111 responses to the study over more than a year suggests that many who might have read the discussion prior to listening to the sound files, and subsequently heard voices, chose not to respond. For the purpose of future study, it is hypothesized that at least 43% might hear voices in sound files which are not present.
The phantom voices phenomenon appears to have a number of possible causes ranging from mental illness to the natural human tendency to make sense of ambiguous stimuli. Mental illness does not appear to be a factor for EVP; however, in the most extreme examples, there does appear to be a complex of common behaviors which may imply a situational fixation on hearing voices. This is addressed below in “Listener Fatigue.”
There are a number of mental characteristics described in the psychological literature that touch on this experience, but hypnagogia seems to be a key concept. It is defined as: Inducing sleep; soporific [sleepiness]; drowsiness preceding sleep; relating to the images or hallucinations sometimes experienced in this state. According to Gurstelle and de Oliveira,1 “…daytime parahypnagogia (DPH) is more likely to occur when one is tired, bored, suffering from attention fatigue, and/or engaged in a passive activity….”
The mind will naturally seek order in chaotic stimuli (see “Perceptual Order” below). The order is apparently based on what is in the person’s memory, so the almost-heard sounds have a familiar feel for the experiencer. A common report received by the ATransC is hearing voices or music for which the source cannot be found or recorded. In most reports, the sounds are described as a distant conversation or the sound of a radio program that can “almost” be made out, but no specific words or songs can be identified. As it happens, the phantom voices are often associated with a person who is distracted by activities that permit the person’s mind to wander. They may also be experienced at the beginning and end of sleep time.
Experiencers often resist mundane explanations, and insist they are experiencing something paranormal.
There are also a number of types of auditory illusions that have been identified. A good article about these is “Audio illusions that will fool your ear (and brain)” by Rich Pell.2 One such illusion is described as “The phantom words illusion,” which is simply the same two words being repeated over and over but time displaced between the left and right channel. This demonstrates how easy it is to hear words and phrases that are not there, and even hear them change, as the brain attempts to make sense of the aural ambiguity. This is a pretty interesting effect!
Perhaps a better term for hypnagogia would be “passive concentration” because the person has focused attention, but not with concentrated awareness. This distraction from the inner chatter of the brain leaves the mind open for unnoticed inputs.
In principle, the hypnagogic state of mind is ideal for our etheric communicators to commune with our otherwise too busy mind. Passive concentration is a spontaneous version of mindful meditation which is a deliberately cultivated technique for communing with one’s inner senses and is an important technique for mediumship. The important point is that we must recognize the part these natural tendencies play in our perception of phenomena.
Apophenia and Pareidolia
Apophenia is a term used in psychology for the mind’s natural tendency to identify patterns where none exist. Pareidolia is a subset of apophenia which applies to finding meaning in sound or images that does not exist. Skeptics love to use these terms to explain away reports of paranormal experiences. When applied to all reports with no examination of the evidence, these terms are, in effect, psychobabble used to explain why people reporting paranormal experiences are imagining things. The term, “apophenia” does not apply to simple cases of misidentification such as a balloon being identified as a UFO or a fellow investigator’s reflection being mistaken as a ghost in a mirror. It applies to the result of the mind’s need to find order in chaos. When presented with information the mind is unable to identify or make sense of, its natural reaction is to offer up the next best fit. If the person is intent on finding voices in noise, the mind will probably offer a likely word or two.
Some reports of the paranormal may be instances of apophenia. The study of things paranormal often involves poorly formed images and hard to understand sound files which must be carefully studied. A person who is unfamiliar with the concept of mediumship, and who does not know it is possible to sense subtle energy, may be inclined to express a natural fear of the dark as a “sense of a nearby evil entity.” Such responses to unfamiliar experiences are not evidence of a psychological flaw, but are natural human attempts to relate to circumstances. The “antidote” is education.
In Gestalt psychology, the whole is seen as being different than the sum of its parts. In this, the observer might find understanding where there is little or no substantiating information. The Gestalt Laws of Perceptual Organization3 also provide possible explanations for the natural human tendency to find order in chaos. They include:
The Law of Similarity: Similar stimuli or elements that are close together tend to be grouped.
The Law of Closure: Stimuli tend to be grouped into complete figures.
The Law of Good Continuation: Stimuli tend to be grouped so as to minimize change or discontinuity.
The Law of Symmetry: Regions bound by symmetrical borders tend to be perceived as coherent figures.
The Law of Simplicity: Ambiguous stimuli tend to be resolved in favor of the simplest.
Clairvoyance or “clear seeing” has become a catchall term for the ability to sense information in subtle energy. This may be in the form of voices, images, smells or a general “knowing.” It is possible that a person might hear voices in a soundtrack containing only noise, via clairaudience, if none are physically present. However, in the study of EVP, the voices are either physically there or they are not. If they are there, then others should be able to experience them. They are objective, meaning they have physical form. Understanding this point is central to the study of how transcommunication is experienced.
EVP practitioners spend a lot of time listening to often noisy audio recordings. The expected EVP are usually mostly hidden by the noise and one must listen very carefully to distinguish them. Once isolated, the paranormal utterances are usually Class C, meaning they are not very easily understood. This makes it necessary for the practitioner to concentrate and listen to the sound segment many times. This situation is a formula for noise to be mistaken as anticipated EVP.
The first documentation of EVP was in 1959 and the phenomenon remains poorly understood today. Fundamentally, the examples are just sound tracks usually containing a lot of noise and a few, often poorly formed words.
With proper training, usually gained by trial and error, with feedback from friends or people on the ATransC Idea Exchange, the practitioner learns to recognize the difference between actual voices transformed out of background noise and imagined messages. However, in cases in which this learning has not occurred, practitioners have been known to find meaning which does not exist in the noise. For all of the reasons one might propose to explain this, the most available means of avoiding problems with phantom voices is education.
This study should provide a sense of how common it is for individuals to mistake mundane information as something paranormal. The phantom voices effect is not unique to EVP, but can be seen in virtually all forms of transcommunication including visual ITC and mediumship. While this report addresses what has been called here, “phantom voices,” the larger phenomenon might be referred to as a form of hyperlucidity as the experiencer’s mind goes to extremes in an attempt to assign meaning.
- Gurstelle EB, de Oliveira JL., Daytime parahypnagogia: a state of consciousness that occurs when we almost fall asleep, William Paterson University, Wayne, nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14962619, Reviewed 5-3-2012
- Pell, Rich, Audio illusions that will fool your ear (and brain), com/electronics-blogs/audio-designline-blog/4033473/Audio-illusions-that-will-fool-your-ear-and-brain-, Reviewed 5-3-2012
- Saw, Jim, “Design Notes: Art 104 Sesign and Composition,” Palomar College, palomar.edu/design/gestalt.html, Reviewed 1-9-2015