Recently I was engaged in an interesting conversation with a good friend of mine on what could be considered proof of paranormal phenomena. My answer to this question is always very simple but it tends to piss off ghost hunters or paranormal investigators. So I told this friend of mine “there is no such thing as paranormal or supernatural, there is only the normal and natural.” Instantly my friend jumped in and said “that’s your opinion.“ I asked him “what would he consider proof?” Almost instantaneously he responded with “E.V.P.”
For those who may not know what E.V.P. is, it is an acronym for electronic voice phenomena. It is a technique ghost hunters and paranormal enthusiasts use to capture anomalous voices which are said to be that of the dead. Paranormal investigators will walk around alleged haunted locations with a recorder (digital or analog) and ask questions such as “is anyone here?” or “is there a message you want to tell me?” The investigator will wait about 10-20 seconds in between each question in hopes they will capture some sort of response. Now the responses are not audible by the human ear, but can be heard upon play back of the audio recording. Usually when a “voice” is found, it will be isolated and enhanced by some type of audio program and then presented as evidence of the paranormal.
Now I think it is important to know I am not someone who just finds a reason to criticize these things or have no idea how they work. I too at one point thought E.V.P. would be the thing that somehow proved the existence of ghosts or life after death. I mean the thought is quite romantic, asking a question to a loved one who has passed away and possibly receiving an answer. I have attended hundreds of paranormal investigations and have participated in many E.V.P. ‘sessions.’ I was convinced for years I had made contact with the other side and never thought I could be convinced otherwise. I used to actually think “how can scientist and skeptics not consider this phenomena authentic evidence of the paranormal?” So I whole heartedly understand where my friend and other individuals are coming from when they think these voices are authentic.
Culprit one and the most common which is quickly dismissed by most investigators is audio pareidolia. Pareidolia is a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct. It is why people see faces of Jesus Christ on burnt toast, the Virgin Mary on wood grain or Abraham Lincoln in the clouds. The same thing can happen with audio. Any indistinct sound or noise the brain can’t identify can be interpreted falsely. For some reason this hits a nerve with paranormal investigators, for many will claim it is a possibility, but of course never with their own evidence. Usually when you ask the investigator about the authenticity of the E.V.P. one of the first things they will say is “I know some of you might think this is nothing more than audio matrixing (a term improperly used instead of pareidolia) but the voice is clear and no one was around or talking when the recorder was running.” Most of the time the voice isn’t clear, it is usually something quick and very low in volume. Which brings me to my next possible culprit; audio enhanced white noise.
Another thing many investigators don’t know is that their recorders produce something called white noise or noise floor. In an article on CSICOP website psychologist James Alcock states that perception is a very complex process in which the brain is trying to find a pattern, and when doing this we prompt our brain by what we expect to hear. It can be demonstrated that people can clearly hear and make out voices in a pattern of white noise, a pattern where there are actually no voices present at all. And the fact that we can routinely demonstrate this effect, it is only parsimonious to suggest that E.V.P. is a product of their own brain, and their expectations, rather than the voices of the dead.
So just imagine if you think you are hearing something and you start to enhance that audio, you are in effect trying to distort the audio into something that relates to what you want or think you are hearing. So what if the individual is really hearing a voice? Still that doesn’t mean the individual has picked up an authentic spirit talking from beyond.
I am going to quickly share a story about when I used to own a recording studio. With top of line recording equipment, it was still possible and pretty common to pick up C.B. Radio signals from semi trucks driving up and down the road. This is called cross modulation. Now if it was that easy to pick up these signals on high tech recording equipment, believe it is just as easy to pick them up on handheld recording devices. It is not just C.B. Radio signals. Cross modulation can occur with VCR’s, cell phones, cordless phones, AM/FM radio, walkie talkies, baby monitors and so on. This could explain why some many E.V.P. seem out of context.
There are many more reasons why a voice may be imprinted on a recorder or cassette tape. For instance, the possibility of old recordings not erasing all the way, leaving faint voices behind that were previously recorded. Believe it or not, this can also occur in the digital world.
So back to my conversation with my friend. He stated that the voice he obtained came from a place where no one was present and his recorder was new. He also said no obscure noises were made at the time of the recording. He said he exhausted all the explanations I would give, thus making it paranormal. This is the thing that fascinates me about the human brain, how individuals can make this jump from normal and rational to paranormal and irrational. My friend proceeded to tell me he knows a voice when he hears one and I don’t doubt that, but I also know how easily the brain is fooled. How something as simple as a book bag being zipped up can be translated as a ghost voice saying Del Rio (true story) or how someone coughing can be misconstrued as a woman screaming (again another true story). So just because my friend knows a voice when he hears one, doesn’t mean he cant misinterpret a noise as a voice.
The argument that because he didn’t know what it could be, so it must be paranormal is a logical fallacy called the argument from ignorance. Now, just to be clear, I am not calling my friend ignorant, but by saying because I don’t know what it is, so it must be paranormal simply doesn’t work. In science there is something called Occam’s razor, a concept that states if there are two or more explanations that lead to the same outcome, the one that provided the easiest explanation is usually the correct one. So following this logic and knowing there are logical and natural explanations for E.V.P. what makes most sense? That it was probably a product of something natural or the voice of the dead? One last point, the fact that other explanations can be given for how “E.V.P.” can be obtained (non ghost/paranormal related), should make this technique null and void.