In volume 17, issue 1, of The Sceptic magazine, published in 2012, authors John E. Buckner V and Rebecca A. Buckner published an article called “Talking to the Dead, Listening to Yourself”, which reports the results of “an empirical study on the psychological aspects of interpreting Electronic Voice Phenomena”, which I came across because their article cites the version of “Rorschach Audio” that was published in 2001 . The Sceptic article is available to download from the Academia.edu website , and, interestingly, for an openly sceptical piece, is publicised by and referred to on the website of a pro-EVP group called the ATransC, as “a reasonably well-considered study that asks all of the right questions” . To provide some context for that statement, the Association Transcommunication describe themselves as “founded by Sarah Estep in 1982 as the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena”, and state that Sarah Estep’s objective in forming the original AA-EVP was to “provide objective evidence that we survive physical death in our individual conscious state” .
In summarising the history of EVP research, The Skeptic article provides some very interesting information, stating for instance that a Cambridge University student called David Ellis had conducted experiments with the Latvian EVP researcher Konstantin Raudive. To recap briefly, and as anyone familiar with the “Rorschach Audio” project will recall, the basic hypothesis of EVP research is the claim that it’s possible, using various (quite crude) radio and electronic engineering techniques, to literally record the voices of ghosts. Primarily on account of the use of electronic technology, EVP research is often described by supporters as being a form of scientific research. A rational explanation for EVP recordings would be that these voices really do exist, but that they result from misheard “stray” radio transmissions, not from ghosts, with listeners perceiving meaning in these typically distorted and poor quality audio recordings, in much the same way that viewers “see” meanings in semi-random visual shapes such as the famous Rorschach ink-blot tests.
So, evidently, David Ellis conducted experiments with Konstantin Raudive, inside a Faraday Cage, which blanks-out the radio field around a recording apparatus. As a result, according to “Talking to the Dead”, David Ellis recorded no voices, suggesting that interfering radio signals really were responsible for the EVP recordings made by Konstantin Raudive. Similarly the article also describes how Raudive “discovered a passage that he believed was among his clearest examples of communication with the deceased… which he interpreted as using five languages” (since Raudive believed that ghosts speak in “polyglot” voices, which, bizarrely, are said to switch languages from one word to the next). According to The Skeptic article a researcher called Jurgen Keil “reviewed this passage along with eight native German speakers… and concluded that it was likely an Easter Sunday broadcast in German”.
Despite such obviously revealing evidence, EVP research still maintains a persistent fan-base, and attracts interest from sections of the public and from people working in electronic music, in mainstream and “alternative” contemporary art and cultural theory etc. So, in that context, “Talking to the Dead” is interesting as a description of experiments which sought to subject EVP to scientific scrutiny. The article focusses on the interpretation of EVP recordings, and this purpose strongly overlaps with the “Rorschach Audio” project. As regards psychoacoustics, “Talking to the Dead” does a good job of following-up on what “Rorschach Audio” said about the work of Diana Deutsch etc (see links). However, since it’s argued that “proponents [of EVP] have often been critical of skeptics, characterising them as dismissive or as motivated only by the desire to debunk genuine paranormal experiences”, where these two projects differ most is in that the later project engaged EVP supporters in direct collaboration. The authors organised their project in conjunction with four paranormal investigation teams (with the implication being that these teams are proponents of and/or believers in EVP).
The article states that “since proponents and skeptics tend to find conflicting results when conducting paranormal experiments, new ground could be broken if proponents and skeptics joined together in conducting their research”, and the authors “felt it wise to allow the paranormal researchers to do what they do best and conduct their own investigations”. Now, this approach may be diplomatic as regards engaging with paranormal investigators who mistrust sceptics, but, from a methodological point-of-view the approach is flawed, because there’s no control group. To be experimentally valid, results from test subjects who are already paranormal enthusiasts should really be compared to results from listeners who have no interest in the paranormal, who have no knowledge of the purpose of the study, and no knowledge of what the recordings are even thought to be. In fact the authors of The Skeptic article are aware of at least the underlying problem, since they quote the psychologist James Alcock discussing how “EVP proponents are typically expecting to hear something when analysing recordings, and expect that what they hear is paranormal”, with the effect that such expectations “contribute to their interpreting sounds as EVP, much like a self-fulfilling prophecy”. Despite this acknowledgement, in this study “the teams recorded their own investigations, interpreted and identified any present EVPs, and then exchanged their recordings with another team”, without the results being compared to a neutral control group.
As regards the obvious rational explanations for EVP, the authors do acknowledge that “proponents also recognise these… explanations…, and grant that they may explain a small portion of alleged EVP” (emphasis added) – as indeed Raudive did (in passing and very grudgingly). They also observe how “most proponents seem to believe these explanations fall short in explaining all EVP” (emphasis added) – as again Raudive did. Then, prefacing their own research, the authors state that if “entities” (ghosts, angels, aliens etc) “are indeed trying to communicate… it is expected that investigators should identify and interpret EVP similarly” on the one hand, while on the other hand they state that “if EVP is due to psychological influences then the identification and interpretation… should be inconsistent among investigators”.
With regard to that first assumption, it is because of the role that psychological influences play in moulding perceptions, that we would expect investigators to identify EVP similarly. If investigators hear sounds that conform to the auditory characteristics they already associate with EVP, then they’re likely to believe those sounds are EVP, with their doing so proving (unfortunately) nothing about the alleged production of these sounds by discarnate “entities”. It is belief that causes investigators to identify EVP similarly, not ghosts.
With regard to that second assumption, that if supernatural interpretations of EVP arise due to psychological causes, then those interpretations should be inconsistent, in fact (as stressed by the “Rorschach Audio” publications) it’s the same psychological faculties which enable listeners to mishear EVP, that also enable us to accurately hear normal speech. If multiple listeners hear the same reasonably well-made recording of any spoken word, then we would expect listeners to agree on the correct interpretation of that word. So (notwithstanding those cases where EVP demonstrations tell people what words are thought to mean before listeners hear them) if, as the authors imply might happen in their study, listeners do disagree on the interpretation of the distorted voices that are characteristic of EVP, then all such inconsistencies prove is that the speech was hard to interpret because it was badly recorded.
It is conventionally argued by EVP advocates that EVP voices are ghosts and angels because some recordings seem to be voices of deceased relatives etc, who are said to address some listeners personally. It can however be argued that such evidence supports the opposite conclusion, that it supports the psychological explanation (after all, if your mind is likely to project any meaning onto a distorted voice, the most emotionally tempting projection would be to imagine you’re hearing a departed loved-one). It is true that the process of auditory projection, whose discussion is central to “Rorschach Audio”, and which is demonstrated so well by the recordings of Diana Deutsch etc, plays a huge role in the process by which some listeners mishear ambiguous voices as personally meaningful. Such demonstrations can also be useful in encouraging listeners to adopt a more critical mindset, however the inconsistent interpretations that result from projecting meanings onto ambiguous voices don’t disprove claims of ghostly origin on their own (although they do cast considerable doubt on them). So, arguably, the contribution that an understanding of projective perception makes to understanding EVP has as much to do with how people come to adopt EVP-type beliefs, as self-fulfilling prophecies, in the first place, as it has to do with testing claims that specific voices might be of ghostly origin. Before EVP fans think I’m letting them off the hook however, it’s important to stress that even if the interpretation of recordings is consistent – which in one case, described below, it actually was – that still doesn’t prove ghostly origin! What might prove ghostly origin would be if an EVP voice communicated information which it could be proved only a specific deceased person could have known. That might well be impossible to test, and the spoken content of even the clearest EVP recordings is usually far too short to communicate substantial information, when in fact it’s not just outright gibberish – in fact the artist and noise musician Mike Kelley described the spoken content of Raudive’s recordings as “imbecilic” .
As the “Rorschach Audio” project has evolved, I’ve come to realise that, stressing the positive here, the greatest value in understanding processes involved with illusions such as EVP, comes not so much from what we learn about allegedly supernatural phenomena, as much as from what we learn about the human mind. Bearing that in mind, the authors of The Skeptic article describe how they approached 500 paranormal investigation societies, across the USA, asking if these groups would like to participate in a scientific study of EVP. Only 46 teams expressed an interest, 25 filled-in the consent forms, and just four completed the study – less than 1%. The participating societies did produce recordings of the type intended, identifying 153 potential EVPs. The authors state that “more important than merely identifying potential EVP… is the consistency with which the teams’ EVP matched in terms of timestamp and interpretation”. After the recordings from each team were analysed by the other three groups, of these 153 potential EVPs, “there were no EVPs for which all three teams had matching analyses”. There were just “two matching EVPs based on timestamps for two of the three teams, although the interpretations for these EVPs differed”, while there was, again for two of the groups, just “one matching EVP based on both the timestamp and interpretation” – a voice which said “let me go home”.
Inevitably, given these results, the authors conclude that “overall, the results of this study support the psychological explanations for EVP”, but still they claim that “it is possible that the one matched EVP is a result of communication with the deceased” (emphasis added). It’s unclear whether that last statement was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, because, at the risk of stating what’s very obvious, and in keeping with the processes described above, it’s also possible that this match occurred as a result of two teams accurately hearing someone use a CB or taxi radio or a walkie-talkie to ask eg – their boss if they can knock-off at the end of their shift. In this case the issue of mishearing is effectively a moot point, while the acid-test is that, with the application of Ockham’s Razor, the allegation of a supernatural cause is undermined by the availability of much simpler explanations. In this case it is the fact that this voice wasn’t misheard that provides evidence of there not being a ghostly origin.
The authors of this study should be congratulated for their open-mindedness, for their willingness to engage with the ghost-hunting community, and for drawing attention to some very revealing information about Konstantin Raudive. I would however question some of the assumptions that informed the analysis of their results. On a more positive note, and bearing in mind that the paranormal research societies that the authors approached are people who’ve identified themselves as having the inclination and the time to devote to ghost-hunting, the finding that may well have the most empirical value, and which is meaningfully quantified, statistically significant, sociologically relevant and properly informative, is that when asked if they’d like to participate in a scientific study of EVP, more than 90% of paranormal investigation societies declined that invitation.
Article copyright © Joe Banks, 21 Nov 2016