Electronic voice phenomena (EVP)

The final line of enquiry into post death phenomena refers to an approach Beischel (2019) classifies as ‘requested’ in the sense that an experience may occur because of the experiencer engaging in a particular practice. In this instance it is attempting to communicate with the deceased via electronic equipment. Electronic voice phenomena, or EVP, refers to voices emerging from a recording when no voices were present during the initial recording process. Originally it may have involved tuning a radio between stations and recording the output on audiotape but with advancing technology now includes recording such alleged voices via telephones, televisions and computers (Baruss, 2001). They represent part of a wider range of phenomena grouped under the collective heading of instrumental trans-communication (ITC) which refers to attempts to communicate with entities beyond the current known reality (Baruss, 2001; Boccuzzi & Beischel, 2011; Laszlo, 2008). EVPs are interesting for several reasons. First, is the assumption that the voices are those of people who have died and as such the material has implications for the survival hypothesis. Second, some have suggested that EVPs may be the result of unconscious psychokinesis (PK) on the part of the individual making the recording, which again would bring the phenomenon within the remit of psi research. Furthermore, there have also been suggestions that the voices represent individuals from another planet, dimension or even from the past (see, Leary & Butler, 2015). Irrespective, the phenomenon represents a possible ADC experience, albeit one based on the use of technology, and as such it is worth briefly exploring the background history of EVP research.

History of EVP

Reports of anomalous voice phenomena began soon after the invention and use of radios, telephones and audio recording/playback equipment. One of the earliest reported events was that from Bayless (1959) who reported on audio recordings taken from a soundproofed closet containing a microphone and tape recorder. Over time various individuals sat in the closet and audio recordings were taken. Though the report clearly states that during the recording no sounds were heard, when the recordings were played back examples of human voices could be discerned. According to Leary and Butler (2015), at around the same time a Swedish amateur ornithologist by the name of Friedrich Jurgenson discovered strange unexplained voices on tape recordings he had made of birdsong while alone in the forest. Jurgenson wrote about these experiences, believing them to be voices of the dead, and this led to a spike in public interest, which included films and TV. After reading Jurgenson’s book about EVPs Kontantin Raudive became convinced the voices were real and spent many years studying them. Raudive (1971) went on to claim that not only were such voices real but that they could be obtained using a microphone recording set up to record the output of one or more radios tuned between radio stations, generally referred to as the radio-microphone method. These ambiguous sounds became known at the time as ‘Raudive voices’. Raudive (1971) also argued that recognising such utterances as words required intensive and concentrated listening. Unfortunately attempts to have independent observers identify the sounds recorded failed to show any clear effects as none were able to identify the sounds given by Raudive (Ellis, 1975). Others also noted that Raudive’s work was often uncontrolled, and his interpretations often went beyond the data (Leary & Butler, 2015). Since then there have been few, if any, academically trained scientists willing (or able) to investigate this field, though some have suggested it is possible to characterise the different types of EVP.

Characteristics of EVP

An EVP is sound based, which makes it difficult to convey the nature and characteristics via the written word. However, selected websites listed at the end of the chapter provide the interested reader with an opportunity to listen to some audio samples of EVPs. Generally, EVPs have a short duration of around 1-5 seconds, and are between one and five words long. It is not clear why they are so short and the messages so abrupt. The quality of the voices and recordings also varies a great deal from the reasonably clear human type voice to whispers, hoarse rasping voices or pulsed speech. In his early work Raudive (1971) suggested that EVPs can be classified into three groups. The first, Class A, contain remarkably clear recordings of which there would be general agreement on the content. The second, Class B, may sound like voices but independent listeners may not always agree on the content. Finally, Class C refers to the less obvious, voice-like sounds which are difficult if not impossible to interpret. More recently, Leary and Butler (2015) have argued that EVPs can be classified in two ways. First are what they call transform EVPs which refer to voices or voice-like sounds. A key point is that these alleged voices are not heard at the time of the original recording. The second classification is called live-voice EVPs and refers to voice-like sounds which are heard at the time of the recording. Given the often vague and ambiguous sounds that form an EVP it should be no surprise that there is often disagreement about what a particular EVP is saying. For instance, Leary (2013) using a consensus style judgement found only 21% agreement on what an EVP clip contained. It has also been suggested that knowing what other people think an EVP clip contains influences your response (Leary & Butler, 2015).

Evidence

There are many interesting anecdotes and case reports of EVP phenomena. A particularly well-known case is that of the Italian Marcello Bacci’s ability to speak to voices and conduct conversations through his radio. Bacci used a Direct Radio Voice Method (DRV) which involved attempting to obtain anomalous communications directly through the loudspeakers of radios, and such voices were frequently claimed to refer to listeners by name, respond to questions put to them and sometimes provide relevant and lengthy items of information. Interestingly, assessment of such claims has shown no evidence of fraud (see e.g., Laszlo, 2008; Richards, 2016). However, to date there have been only a few controlled empirical research studies exploring such a phenomenon.

For instance, Baruss (2001) attempted to document EVPs by having research assistants simulate interactions with discarnate entities while recording the output from two radios tuned between stations. This produced over 60 hours of recordings which they listened to for any evidence of anomalous voices or utterances. Unfortunately, there was no clear evidence in the recordings of any sounds that could be identified sufficiently clearly as voices. More recently Boccuzzi and Beischel (2011) examined the ability of people and a specialist software program to identify possible utterances from a range of audio samples. Unfortunately, about half of the participants tested reported hearing recognisable words in both the active (i.e., clips that were thought to contain utterances) and control (i.e., those that did not) sessions. Further analysis showed no evidence that individuals were able to correctly identify the presence of an utterance. In addition, when the active recordings were examined using specialist speech recognition software it failed to detect utterances that were reported by the person making the recording. This, they suggested, meant there was a high chance of someone reportedly hearing an utterance irrespective of whether one was there or not, also, that the recognition of such sounds tended to be highly subjective and that objective verification using specialist software did not match the subjective experience. A study by Cardoso (2012) that reportedly described a series of investigations into EVPs across a two-year period claimed to have produced a number of recordings with apparent anomalous voices. Unfortunately, the level of methodological rigour in these experiments was limited; in particular it was not made clear how each audio clip was rated or assessed and by how many, and whether they were blind to the study goals or not.

Given such findings it is not surprising that the conclusions offered by those that have looked into the phenomenon is that there is no clear evidence for EVPs (Baruss, 2001). However, Leary and Butler (2015) point out that the assumption that an EVP can simply be recorded at any time/place may not be accurate and that it may require a certain context and/or environment to elicit such an effect. Such a view is consistent with the notion that a unity of thought needs to be achieved in those attempting contact with the deceased for the electronic system to work (Locher & Harsch-Fischbach, 1997). These ideas are both interesting and potentially useful but they need to be empirically tested and supported before they can be accepted. Ideally, utilising the clear and rigorous protocols outlined by Boccuzzi and Beischel (2011).

Explanations of EVP

A number of potential explanations have been put forward to account for EVPs; these include contamination, radio interference, a form of auditory apophenia, psychokinesis and the possibility that they represent the communications from discarnate entities. As is often the case each view can offer some insights and may account for some aspects of the data but no single comprehensive theory has yet emerged.

Contamination

The simplest explanation is that the voices heard on an EVP clip are due to contamination, that is, someone present at the time of the recording uttered a word or sound which others either did not hear or did not remember hearing. For instance, it could simply be a growling stomach, or someone clearing their throat which is later ‘misinterpreted’ as a specific sound. Other potential artefacts include external environmental noise which people at the time have habituated to, for instance, external noises such as a dog barking, birds singing, people passing nearby the recording location. Leary and Butler (2015) outlined some of the options open to researchers to deal with possible contamination, including employing multiple recording devices and clearly identifying on the recording any extraneous noises that are noticed.

Radio interference

Another obvious possibility is that EVPs are radio transmissions picked up by the recording equipment. However, Leary and Butler (2015) suggest that this is unlikely given the detection and processing requirements that would be involved. Also, they argue that signals from other sources such as baby monitors and mobile cellular phones employ different analogue-to-digital encoding protocols which would make it very unlikely for a digital recorder to detect such signals. In addition, EVPs have been recorded on instruments shielded against electromagnetic interference, including radio waves (MacRae, 2005). Leary and Butler (2015) also argue that the content of an EVP is distinctly different from the material broadcast on most radio stations. For instance, EVPs generally do not include songs or snippets of commercials, news broadcasts, weather forecasts or announcements.

Auditory pareidolia

Pareidolia is the psychological phenomenon of perceiving ‘meaning’ from vague and random stimuli, and includes visual as well as auditory sensations. For example, most people are familiar with the idea of seeing faces in the clouds or in other random elements. Similarly, auditory pareidolia involves interpreting random sounds as meaningful (Blom & Sommer, 2010). Given the wide range of possible processing parameters Nees and Phillips (2015) point out that anomalies are likely to occur in many recordings that may sound similar to human speech. Indeed, research has shown that when participants are played background noise that has been modulated to mimic voice like cadences but does not in fact contain any speech the number of participants reporting voices significantly increases (Butler, 2012). In addition, researchers have shown that simply suggesting that there may be paranormal events at play can shift people’s perception of ambiguous stimuli. Specifically, Nees and Phillips (2015) found that priming participants by telling them that the audio files they were about to listen to may contain voices of ghosts led participants to report significantly more voices present compared to a control group who were simply told the recordings may contain voices in a noisy environment. However, it should be noted that whilst the paranormally primed group did report more instances of human voices there was no clear agreement among them in terms of the content of these perceived utterances. French and Stone (2014) suggest that this merely highlights the tendency of those who believe in psi and the paranormal to perceive meaning in randomness and assume it to be caused by an intentional agent. Hence, it is the top-down expectations and biases that lead some individuals to report illusory perceptions of voices in ambiguous auditory recordings. Of course, pareidolia may be able to account for some of the recordings, but it is unlikely to be able to account for all, in particular, when the voices heard stand out by virtue of their loudness/amplitude and other frequency characteristics.

Psychokinesis

One interesting suggestion, given that the language of the voices is often in the same language as those making the recording, is that the EVP is the result of a form of super psi PK (see, Braude, 1992). Unsurprisingly, it is the individual making the recordings who is often the most motivated to elicit or find an EVP and as such the suggestion is that, either through conscious intention or unconscious activation, the individual is able to alter the recording in a subtle way to produce the ambiguous sounds. Hence, the idea is that the electronic equipment used to record the material may be influenced by the researchers or interested parties which would be consistent with other claims regarding PK type effects. However, such a proposal is more anecdotal than empirical. For instance, the small PK effects seen in research using random event generators (see Chapter 6) suggests that such an idea may be possible, though given the complexity of the EVP phenomenon it is not necessarily probable.

Discarnate entities

A central assumption of early researchers was that the EVPs were the voices of discarnate entities. Some in fact claimed to have been addressed by name by deceased individuals whom they knew whilst alive (see e.g., Raudive, 1971). Hence, the voices could be accounted for by suggesting that they do in fact come from deceased individuals providing support for the survival hypothesis. However, such a proposal has little empirical support at this moment in time. In addition, it is not clear how it would be possible for a discarnate entity to influence such electronic equipment and/or why, if they can do so, the assumed messages are so vague and short.

 
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