Pareidolia in Practice. Avoiding the Pitfalls of Patterning with EVPs

Sitting in the woods attempting to record spirit voices with a home-made Raudive diode detector got me thinking a lot about pareidolia.

For those who might not know, pareidolia represents how we as humans are hard-wired to find patterns in randomness – things that are familiar, like faces in trees or rock formations.

It turns out that this “patterning” is an evolutionary advantage – helps us quickly identify potential predators hiding in the bushes, and why we can’t just shut it off.

And it’s not just limited to visual stimuli, you can find plenty of audio and tactile examples as well. Hearing spirit voices when listening to electronic voice phenomena (EVP) recordings is a mainstay of paranormal TV shows.

Konstantin Raudive, one of the early pioneers of EVP (he called it instrumental trans-communication) had a set of “guidelines” to help extract the elusive spirits recorded on his hardware. These are all from his book “Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead“:

  • The voice-entities speak very rapidly, in a mixture of languages, sometimes as many as five or six in one sentence
  • They speak in a definite rhythm, which seems to be forced upon them by the means of communication they employ
  • The rhythmic mode of speech imposes a shortened, telegram-style phrase or sentence
  • Presumably arising from these restrictions, grammatical rules are frequently abandoned and neologisms abound
The Viking 1 “Face on Mars” image of the Cydonian mesa. NASA/JPL
Ghost Adventures: Guess that EVP
Konstantin Raudive

In addition, he describes techniques such as varying the speed of the playback, re-recording the output over and over, and setting the mics to the highest possible input levels.

Clearly, all of the shenanigans with the audio processing and interpretation leave a lot of room for finding meaning in anything captured.

Raudive was no doubt an intellectual. He was a student of Carl Jung, a trained psychologist and a writer. I respect the fact that he dedicated his life to the study of EVP. He must of strongly believed something was there or he wouldn’t have dedicated so much time and energy studying the topic over the course of his life.

However, even an intellect can fall victim to what notorious skeptic, Michael Shermer describes as an “error in cognition” when it comes to pareidolia. We are simply hard-wired to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. In statistics, this would be considered a Type I error – the false identification of patterns in data. There’s also the problem of confirmation bias – if you’re an EVP proponent, you’re going to expect to hear something.

Some obvious EVP pareidolia pitfalls can be easily avoided. First, avoid the temptation to process the recordings. Analyze the raw data. While researching examples of audio captured with diode detectors, frustratingly I found very few cases that weren’t run through some type of processing filter (such as Audacity’s voice isolation effect). With enough post-processing you can make audio sound like anything you’d like.

Second, take steps to avoid confirmation bias. Have people listen to recordings and ask them what they hear without first sharing what you’ve heard. Get a wide set of opinions. Unfortunately, leading the witness with “I heard this, do you hear it too?” is a staple of most ghost hunting TV programming.

The fundamental question is whether EVP even exists. One empirical study concluded that the evidence presented did not provide a definitive answer and found psychological causes more fitting. For me the jury is out.

What are your thoughts about EVP? Drop me a line and let me know your EVP experiences or opinions.