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Electronic Voice Phenomena: Voices of the Dead?

James Alcock

December 21, 2004

When we talk about communication with the dead, we are usually referring to “mediums” who talk to the dead on our behalf, or who allow the dead to speak to us through them.

What if, instead the dead could speak to us directly, without the middle person?

If You Survive Death?

Imagine for a moment that you are the dead person, that your body has died, but your mind / personality / soul lives on. You are surprised by this, and you want to tell people, especially your skeptical friends, all about it — you want to communicate with us.

What would you do?

You have no voice box therefore you cannot speak. You have no arms or legs or any means of moving objects. But you are — as they say — an “energy field.” Could you reach us by interference with devices that rely upon other energy fields, a radio or tape recorder, for example?

But if you were able to generate some sounds on a tape recorder, would any one even detect them, or pay attention if they did? It’s often hard to detect weak signals — and you are but a wraith, a spirit, and probably without a lot of energy.

However, there is hope for humans, as Ray Hyman points out, because humans are the best pattern detectors in existence. Pattern detection, in this example, would be the ability to discriminate signal from noise.

Voices of the Dead?

This is exactly what is happening, according to some people. If you listen carefully, they say, you can hear the voices of the dead in tape recordings.

What do the voices of the dead sound like? Here are two examples of actual recordings where people claim to hear spoken words, the words of the dead.

This from the webpage http://members.tripod.com/~GSOLTESZ/evp.htm#listen:

“In this EVP recording, you can hear a voice saying, almost in agony, ...“Save Me.”

You might have to play it a couple of times but you can’t miss it. This recording has only been enhanced by myself using a sound editing program. The reason was to cut down on the “noise” and “bring out” the actual voice.

Here are two other examples from Dr. Michael Daniels, psychologist and parapsychologist. (www.mdani.demon.co.uk)

The website instructs:

“To hear the voices at their best you should play them at maximum volume through headphones. In both cases you should be able to hear a definite “English” male voice. You may need to replay the recordings several times in order to make out the words, which are quite indistinct. The first clip seems to be saying something like “do you like potatoes?”. The second clip sounds to me rather like “five thirty and four-eye”. Different words may suggest themselves to you.” [Dr. Daniels points out that there is divided opinion about the reality of EVP.]

Electronic Voice Phenomena

So — it’s not so easy to hear the voices, is it? These are examples of what are called electronic voice phenomena, or EVP.

We are informed by another website that:

“EVP is a process whereby unexplained snatches of  voice or voices are embedded onto magnetic recording tape by a process that is not yet fully understood. The embedded “ghost” voice can be heard when the magnetic audio tape is played back on a standard tape recorder/player.” [hauntedhike.com]

Again, the Web informs us that:

“Recordings typically last only for a few minutes. This is because intense concentration is required in order to hear the voices on the tape, which usually has to be replayed several times in order to decipher the speech. Use of headphones is recommended.” [www.mdani.demon.co.uk]

The best way to understand the development of EVP it is to go back a little in time.

With the rise of Spiritualism beginning with the “mysterious rappings” of the Fox sisters in the nineteenth century, there have been many attempts to “contact the dead,” while claiming to be engaged in scientific study.

evp-edison

Thomas Edison saw new technology, part of which he invented, as a means by which spirits might try to contact us. Apparently, he strove to make contact through some sort of phonograph device in the 1890s. Then, in the late 1920s, he tried to make contact with the souls of the dearly departed by means of some sort of special chemical equipment. It is claimed that spirit voices were first captured on phonograph records in 1938, seven years after his death.

evp-jurgenson

However, it was with Friedrich Jürgenson (1903-1987) that the study of EVP really begins. Jürgenson was in some ways a Renaissance Man — an archeologist, a philosopher, a linguist, a painter who was commissioned by Pope Pius XII, a singer and recording artist, and a film documentary maker. . Jürgenson’s interest in Electronic Voice Phenomena apparently began when, after having recording bird songs with a tape recorder, he could hear human voices on the tapes, even though there had been no one in the vicinity.

This surprising event naturally piqued his interest, and he turned his attention to making recordings of nothing — that is, recordings made in a quite place with no one around. He continued to detect voices on these tapes, and his studies led to the 1964 publication of his book Rosterna fran Rymden (“Voices from space”).

He subsequently recognized some of the voices that his tape recorder picked up, including that of his mother, who called him by her pet nickname for him. However, as we say where I grew up, his mother was already “on the wrong side of the grass;” that is, she was deceased. It seemed natural to him to assume that she was communicating from beyond the grave. Thus, he came to the conclusion that all the voices that he had recorded were voices of the dead. In 1967, he published Sprechfunk mit Verstorbenen (“Radio-link with the dead”).

evp-raudive

Dr Konstantin Raudive (1906-1974), a student of Carl Jung, was a Latvian psychologist who taught at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. He was preoccupied with parapsychological interests all his life, and especially with the possibility of life after death, and he kept in close contact with leading British psychical researchers

In 1964, Raudive read Jürgenson’s book, Voices from space, and was so impressed by it that he arranged to meet Jürgenson in 1965. He then worked with Jürgenson to make some EVP recordings, but their first efforts bore little fruit, although they believed that they could hear very weak, muddled, voices.

However, one night, as he listened to one recording, he clearly heard a number of voices- and when he played the tape over and over, he came to understand all of them — some of which were in German, some in Latvian, some in French. The last voice on the tape — a woman’s voice — said “Va dormir, Margarete” ("Go to sleep, Margaret”).

Raudive later wrote (in his book Breakthrough): “These words made a deep impression on me, as Margarete Petrautzki had died recently, and her illness and death had greatly affected me.” Amazed by this, he then started researching such voices on his own, and spent much of the last ten years of his life exploring electronic voice phenomena. With the help of various electronics experts, he recorded over 100,000 audiotapes, most of which were made under what he described as “strict laboratory conditions.” He collaborated at times with Hans Bender, a well-known German parapsychologist. Over 400 people were involved in his research, and all apparently heard the voices. This culminated in the 1971 publication of his book Breakthrough, mentioned above. His impact was such that these phenomena are now often referred to simply as “Raudive voices.”

Raudive developed several different approaches to recording EVP, and he referred to:

  1. Microphone voices: one simply leaves the tape recorder running, with no one talking; he indicated that one can even disconnect the microphone.
  2. Radio voices: one records the white noise from a radio that is not tuned to any station.
  3. Diode voices: one records from what is essentially a crystal set not tuned to a station.

Raudive delineated a number of characteristics of the voices, (as laid out in Breakthrough):

  1. “The voice entities speak very rapidly, in a mixture of languages, sometimes as many as five or six in one sentence.”
  2. “They speak in a definite rhythm, which seems forced on them.”
  3. “The rhythmic mode imposes a shortened, telegram-style phrase or sentence.”
  4. Probably because of this, “grammatical rules are frequently abandoned and neologisms abound.”

Of course, to the skeptic, these characteristics are what one might expect if indeed the “voices” are simply misinterpretations of random, “white” noise.

EVP Today

Serious parapsychologists today show virtually no interest in EVP, and modern reports in the parapsychological literature find no evidence of anything paranormal in such recordings. That does not deter the devoted, of course: it is claimed that there are more than 50,000 sites on the internet devoted to EVP! Again, an example from the Internet:

“Briefly, electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) is the process of capturing messages from the spirit world, including our loved ones in Heaven, by using an ordinary tape recorder. Yes, someone in your family or your special friend who has passed on, can record or imprint their voice onto your tape. It is not the scope of our [web] site to fully explain EVP, but please feel free to visit the learning links below for more information. Our site is designed to help you, the beginner, succeed with EVP” [www.paranormalnetwork.com]

And now it is claimed that one does not even need to be quiet while making the recordings — the voices often show up in the background while one is recording a conversation. Consider these examples (from www.paranormalnetwork.com).

Examples:

Voice of the dead?

Here, we are told to listen for a whispery woman’s voice saying “we all turn this way” or “we all turn that way” recorded by “Karen and Jill” at Edgar Allen Poe’s grave on his birthday. (The salient part of the recording is repeated five times so that you can catch it.) [Listen]

Voice of the dead?

In the middle of the recording, we are told that a voice whispers “Pat!” [Listen]

There is no end to the efforts people will make to find “voices.” For example, it is claimed that:

“Some voices of spirits or entities are very close to the background level of static; Others may be clearly heard. If the speech is difficult to understand, remember that the spirit talking may be talking in a language or dialog that is not in common usage today. The voice can also be in reverse, you would need a computer to reverse this to hear it.” [www.blueskies.org]

As yet another example of the unbridled enthusiasm and creativity associated with finding voices, consider the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena. Its website informs us that:

“The membership includes people who record paranormal voices, pictures and information from friends and loved ones on the other side through tape recorders, telephones, fax machines, television, computers and video recorders.”

“EVP has been featured in such technical publications as “Popular Mechanics” and “wireless world.” It was recently shown in a movie called “the sixth sense". Sarah Estep, one of the world’s foremost EVP recorders, has been featured on cable channels such as discovery and Sci-Fi with her numerous EVP recordings. Why EVP remains unknown by the general public continues to astound us. EVP can provide a huge sense of relief for the bereaved and documented proof for paranormal investigators.”

And if one surfs the web, sooner or later, one finds sites that offer to sell devices to help you obtain better recordings!

Possible Explanations

Well, if the voices aren’t spirits, what are they?

  1. Cross-modulation. This is a common phenomenon; I first became aware of it in the 1960s when my “record player” clearly picked up a local radio station, which one could hear between cuts.

    But Raudive dismissed this possibility, saying that it cannot be radio since one never hears music or other obvious elements of radio transmission.

  2. Apophenia. This refers to a common perceptual phenomenon whereby we spontaneously perceive connections and find meaningfulness in unrelated things. In other words, it involves seeing or hearing patterns where in reality, none exist. A visual example is the Rorschach Inkblot test.

    We may be the best pattern detectors that exist, but not all the patterns we find have any objective meaning. However, once we think we have detected a pattern, it is hard to ignore it, and generally, we take it to be meaningful. A common example of apophenia occurs when people are in the shower, and mistakenly think that they hear their door bell or telephone ringing. The white noise produced by the shower contains a broad spectrum of sounds, including those that make up ringing bells. The ear picks out certain sounds from the spectrum, and we “detect” a pattern corresponding roughly to a bell.

    (Apophenia is virtually synonymous with what has been called Pareidolia, an illusion involving misperception of an external stimulus; an obscure stimulus is viewed as something clear and distinct. Examples include instances such as when thousands of people in New Mexico saw the face of Jesus on a Tortilla chip in 1978. This perception, or misperception, does not involve conscious effort or any particular mental set, and the illusion does not vanish even when one pays closer attention to the stimulus because it is so ambiguous that it has no objective meaning at all.

    (See http://thefolklorist.com/ for many examples)

While you might accept apophenia as an explanation for voices barely discernable from static, as in the earlier examples above, can it account for the “clear voices’ in the later examples (e.g. — recall the word “Pat” from the tape)? First of all, of course, the extraneous voices, if really there, could be the result of intended or unintended background interruptions by real people — the recordings were not made under any sort of controlled conditions. Secondly, as is discussed below, it is fascinating just how easy it is for our brains to come to interpret certain noise patterns as words, once we know what the words are supposed to be.

What is going on?

Perception is a very complex process, and when our brains try to find patterns, they are guided in part by what we expect to hear. If you are trying to hear your friend while conversing in a noisy room, your brain automatically takes snippets of sound and compares them against possible corresponding words, and guided by context, we can often “hear” more clearly than the sound patterns reaching our ears could account for. Indeed, it is relatively easy to demonstrate in a psychology laboratory that people can readily come to hear “clearly” even very muffled voices, so long as they have a printed version in front of them that tells them what words are being spoken. The brain puts together the visual cue and the auditory input, and we actually “hear” what we are informed is being said, even though without that information, we could discern nothing. Going one step further, and we can demonstrate that people can clearly “hear” voices and words not just in the context of muddled voices, but in a pattern of white noise, a pattern in which there are no voices or words at all.

Given that we can routinely demonstrate this effect, it is only parsimonious to suggest that what people hear with EVP is also the product of their own brains, and their expectations, rather than the voices of the dearly departed.

We can describe the process, leading from mental set to expectation to perception to amazement to belief in the following general way (see graphic): We are told that tape recordings made with no one around contain mysterious voices. This sets up a mental set that motivates us to try to discern voices. That is, we must presume that there may be something there, or we would not waste our time in listening. If others have told us what the voices seem to say, this expectancy influences our auditory perception, so that our brains match up bits of random noise to the words that we expect to hear. Of course, if we play the same piece of tape over and over, as is explicitly recommended by some of the web sites cited earlier, and if we do everything we can to focus our attention on the “noise” (perhaps by listening through headphones, again as recommended by the web sites), then we not only increase the likelihood of discerning voices if they really are there, but we maximize the opportunity for the perceptual apparatus in our brain to “construct” voices that do not exist, to detect patterns that match up with our expectations. Then, once we “hear” the voices, then it is easy, given the mental set that is usually involved, to attribute them to deceased individuals. This interpretation is likely to produce an impressive emotional reaction, and since we have now heard what we set out to hear (our expectancy is fulfilled) our belief in the reality of the voices of the dead grows, and this may be rewarding in various ways. Such an outcome is likely to heighten the expectation that we will hear more voices the next time we listen to such tapes.

How to disabuse the believer

evp-diagram

How can someone who has heard the voices be persuaded to be more critical and to examine more mundane possibilities?

A rational, deliberative discussion is rarely helpful because clear evidence or logic is not involved. Believers are reporting an experience that was highly meaningful and perhaps highly emotional to them — not something that is easily challenged by logic. Moreover, there is a self-selection of people predisposed to believe — the voices are compatible with their belief system.

Remember — we process information in two different ways through two more or less separate parts of our brain and nervous system. On the one hand, part of our brain works on a very intuitive / emotional / automatic level, and on the other hand, another part of our brain works according to the logic and rationality that we develop over our lifetimes. These two systems often produce contrary results, and this is especially so where paranormal phenomena are involved. The “believer” removes the contradiction by bringing the intellect into line with the intuitive interpretation, that is, by coming to accept the paranormal — in this case, the voices — as reality, and thereby reshaping the intellectual understanding of the world so that belief in such phenomena appears to be rational. Over time, an impregnable belief system develops which is supported by a very substantial base of personal experience (interpreted in such a way as to support the paranormal belief), as well as anecdotal evidence provided by others.

It is very difficult to change such deeply held beliefs, especially if they include a significant emotional component. Consider this example: In my work as a clinical psychologist, a father wanted me to “cure” his gay son. I asked the father how easy would it be for me to turn him (the father) into a gay person? “No way !!!,” he said. I told him that it would likely be as difficult to turn his son into a straight person as it would be to make him, the father, turn gay. Fortunately, he saw the point and came to accept his son as he was. My point is this: When we ask how to turn believers into skeptics, let us ask instead: “How easy would it be for me to persuade you that voices on a tape really are spirits of the dead?” Well, that is probably just how easy it would be to persuade devoted believers that their beliefs about the voices are wrong.

What the Raudive voices teach us is that intelligent people — for Raudive was no doubt an intelligent man - can come to believe fervently in phenomena which in all likelihood do not exist. There is a lesson in this for all of us, for we just as surely may be mistaken in some of our own deeply held convictions. This is why we must rely on science as the avenue to truth rather than personal experience or other people’s anecdotal reports. Science, with its reliance on data and its insistence on looking for sources of error and for alternative explanations, provides the best method that humans have produced for protecting against error and self-delusion. Electronic Voice Phenomena are the products of hope and expectation; the claims wither away under the light of scientific scrutiny.

James Alcock

James E. Alcock is professor of psychology, Glendon College, York University, Toronto.