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.