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Audio Pareidolia

Have you ever been singing a popular song along with the radio when your friend turns to you and asks, “What are you singing?” The incredulous look on their face suggests to you that perhaps you are not singing the correct words, and eventually you both get a laugh at how horrendously you mangled the lyrics. I friend of mine, for example, once confessed that they thought that in the  song “little red corvet” Prince was singing “pay the rent collect.”

This is a form of audio pareidolia. Pareidolia is the neurological phenomenon of seeing a pattern or figure in random noise – a face in the clouds, or Jesus on a tortilla shell, for example. The images are not really there. There is just the suggestion of a face or some figure in the image and our brain does all work, finding the closest match to a recognized pattern, and then enhancing and even filling in details to create the illusion of a face or whatever.

Audio pareidolia is hearing words in sound that are not actually there. This can occur by misinterpreting words that are being said, or by hearing words in random noise. The phenomenon is the same as with visual pareidolia, in that the brain is searching for a recognized pattern, finds the closest match, and then processes the incoming sensory information to enhance the apparent match.

Here is an example (sent in by Peter Davis) - a Youtube video of what looks like a church group singing a song. Below are subtitles suggesting what they are saying – and this is sufficient suggestion to force a match between what you are hearing and the words in the subtitles. It’s pretty funny, but also a good demonstration of the effect. And here is a great one – alternate lyrics to Carmina Burana (a nerd favorite because of its use in the movie Excalibur).

Recently on the SGU, a Who’s That Noisy segment was the doll that allegedly says “Islam is the light.”

Sometimes audio pareidolia can fool people into believing (or perhaps is driven by belief) in bizarre ideas. Here is Victor the Budgie who, it is claimed, can not only speak but can speak in context, displaying an understanding of human speech. I recommend you listen to the video first without looking at the subtitles suggesting what the bird is supposed to be saying, then listen back watching with the subtitles.

Audio pareidolia also is common in the world of paranormal research – mostly with the alleged phenomenon known as EVP or electronic voice phenomenon. Here ghost “researchers” listen to hours of recorded audio until pareidolia kicks in for a word here or a phrase there. They then not only supply the words that are being said but the context as well. Here is a good page with lots of examples.

Skeptics love talking about pareidolia, whether visual or audio, because it is right in the sweet spot of the skeptical skill set – understanding why people often come to dubious and even bizarre conclusions because they fail to understand the nature of the human mind. It’s also fun and easily demonstrated, and so it makes an excellent skeptical lesson – your brain can be fooled, you can be fooled, and in order to properly interpret this one needs only to understand a little bit about how our brains work. Our brain actively process sensory input, making many assmptions, and forcing fits to recognized patterns. Our brains do not give a truly objective and accurate representation of the world. It give a human one – full of pattern recognition – sometimes real, sometimes forced.

12 comments to Audio Pareidolia

  • wb4

    Reverse speech is another example of this. Some people (including one of my co-workers) believe that the mind subconsciously encodes backwards messages into our everyday speech. They record their own speech, then play it backwards and listen for hidden “messages” from their subconscious.

  • The Blind Watchmaker

    You made me think of the “Stairway to Heaven” played backward bit, demonstrated by Michael Shermer.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8T_jwq9ph8k

    I only heard gobblety-gook (?spelling) until I read what I was supposed to hear. Then I could not help but hearing the Satanic message.

  • Steve Page

    Good video, and from Adam Buxton too. I recommend Adam and Joe’s podcast if you’re ever in need of some light relief. There’s no skepticism in there, but it is funny, and occasionally hilarious.

  • Steve Page

    Oops, should’ve said that I was referring to the first video (sent in by Peter Davis).

  • Bastard Sheep

    With that doll I can hear the “Islam is” bit, but the last two words definitely don’t sound to me like “the light”. I listened to it about 30 times on the podcast while waiting for my bus home one day and still can’t figure out where they get “the light” from.

    The best thing about visual and audio pareidolia is that it’s the fooling of senses and interperative systems we use on an almost constant basis. If such highly utilised senses can be fooled so easily, then how accurate can senses which need to be “trained” (such those who claim they can sense energy/ghosts/whatever) be?

  • russ

    getting the lyrics wrong like “pay the rent collect” is called a mondegreen – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondegreen. you can find some pretty funny ones on the net: “There’s a bad moon on the rise” -> “There’s a bathroom on the right”

  • larry coon

    Brian Dunning found a nice one for his podcast. This is just output from a sinusoidal tone generator:

    http://media.libsyn.com/media/skeptoid/rs_Sine_1.mp3

    Play it, then play this:

    http://media.libsyn.com/media/skeptoid/rs_Sine_1_Clear.mp3

    Now that your mind has been primed, go back & play the first one again.

    (Thanks to Brian and Skeptoid.)

  • gr8googlymoogly

    The alternate lyrics to Carmina Burana layed me out! Hilarious! My friends and I have another term for audio pareidolia as it refers to mistaken song lyrics – chronic lyricosis. Brian Dunning had a great episode on Skeptoid about audio pareidolia. Check it out – the ‘Benny Lava’ song was easily as good as the Carmina Burana example.

  • fredeliot2

    The term for mistaking the song lyrics is mondegreen. Source is The Word Detective.

  • radiantmatrix

    ARGH! There are two irritating problems in this post.

    First, Carmina Burana is an entire cantata. The hilarious YouTube video is simply one movement, known as “O Fortuna” – it opens and closes the cantata.

    Second, as @fredeliot2 points out, the phenomenon of hearing different words than were spoken (or sung) is properly mondegreen. The phenomenon of pareidolia is the discovering of seeming patterns in random stimulus.

    Thus, hearing speech in the audio patterns produced by amplifying random radio/EM interference (i.e. “electronic voice phenomenon”) is audio pareidolia, while hearing “foot leaking when near cherries” in O Fortuna is not.

  • I maintain that mondegreen is a specific case of audio pareidolia. The core phenomenon is the subconscious searching for a best pattern fit for ambiguous sensory input. Sure – random noise is maximally ambiguous, but that does not mean that garbled or difficult-to-make-out lyrics cannot also qualify.

    While I appreciate semantic precision, and I appreciate learning the word “mondegreen” which I had not previously encountered, I warn against being distracted by semantics and thereby missing the actual point.

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