From seeing shapes in clouds to hearing Bing Crosby in a blizzard of static, we’re all prone to finding things that aren’t there. And there’s a name for it: apophenia
The Latvian psychologist Konstanins Raudive spent the summer of 1965 trying to contact the dead. Every day, with careful precision, he would take a new reel of recording tape from its box, thread the tape through the rollers of the recorder and set up the microphone next to a mistuned radio. The static hush was saved on to the recorder and he would spend hours reviewing the audio, listening for the quiet whisper of the deceased.
But the dead were frustratingly shy. Despite his technical skills and linguistic abilities he heard nothing except the fuzz and pop of the radio for months on end. But slowly, with time and attention, words began to form. “It takes at least three months for the ear to adjust itself,” Raudive wrote later. “To begin with, though [the ear] may hear speech-like noises, it cannot differentiate the words, let alone understand what they mean.”
He amplified and re-recorded his samples to help him find meaningful sounds and gradually the spirits seemed more present. When Raudive summoned an old girlfriend from Scotland who had since passed away, she seemed to reply: “All sait dein, Aileen” using a single word from English, French and German to say: “Your Aileen knows all” (except, it would seem, the consistent use of grammar). Even stranger was that the spirits often spoke in languages they had never known in life. Raudive’s mother, a firmly Latvian woman by all accounts, seemed to speak in mixed Spanish, Italian, Swedish, German, standard Latvian and her own dialect.
Although baffling to many of his scientific peers, Raudive eventually published his discoveries in a book that appeared in English as Breakthrough. It was a massive success and the media lined up to listen to the “electronic voice phenomena“. The results were somewhat mixed. When the BBC science programme Tomorrow’s World turned up to film Raudive in action, only the odd indistinct word could be made out. They left, unimpressed.
A Cambridge parapsychologist, David Ellis, studied Raudive’s attempts to contact the dead but all the evidence pointed to the impressions having been formed by the listeners. Later, psychologist Imants Barušs attempted to listen for ghostly words using Raudive’s methods under laboratory conditions but few could be found and, when they were, every listener seemed to hear something different.
Rather than discovering a form of communication with the dead, Raudive had inadvertently rediscovered the remarkable human talent for perceiving meaning where there is none. Known as apophenia or pareidolia, it is something we all experience to some degree. We see faces in the clouds and animals in rock formations. We mishear our name being called in crowds and think our mobile phones are vibrating when it turns out to be nothing but the normal sensations of our own movement.
- 10 Astounding Examples of Pareidolia In Outer Space (iLLumiNuTTi.com)
- 31 Inanimate Objects With Secret Inner Lives – Pareidolia (iLLumiNuTTi.com)
- 50 Things That Look Like Faces – Pareidolia (iLLumiNuTTi.com)
- Pareidolia: Seeing Faces in Unusual Places (iLLumiNuTTi.com)
- Ghost Box: Pareidolia Through White Noise (iLLumiNuTTi.com)
- ‘Mars Rat’ Takes Internet by Storm (iLLumiNuTTi.com)
- The Face on Mars (iLLumiNuTTi.com)
- The Lurking Pornographer: Why Your Brain Turns Bubbles Into Nude Bodies (iLLumiNuTTi.com)
- Apophenia (iLLumiNuTTi.com)
- Neurologist Examines The “Ghost Box” (iLLumiNuTTi.com)
- Why we can ‘see’ the house that looks like Hitler (theguardian.com)
- Why we see things (southofheaven.typepad.com)
- Study claims EVPs Persist, Even in Controlled Environments (mysteriousuniverse.org)
- Listening for the voices of the dead (mindhacks.com)
- Supernatural skeptics don’t know what they’re missing (washingtonpost.com)