Friday, January 23, 2009

Getting the dead to talk back.

In his January Scientific American column, "Skeptic", Michael Shermer writes about his experience as the token scientist invited to Univ-Con, a paranormal conference organized by Ryan Buell, the telegenic host of A&E’s television unreality series Paranormal State.
“Is Matthew there?” asked Cheyenne, directing her voice toward the box on the table in hopes that her brother would come through from the other side. “Yes,” the reply came. With the connection “validated,” Cheyenne shakily continued: “Was the suicide a mistake?” The speaker crackled, “My death was a mistake.”... Cheyenne’s life-affirming messages were coming out of Thomas Edison’s “Telephone to the Dead”—or at least a facsimile of a rumored machine that the great inventor never built. It was just one of many readings that day (at $90 a pop) conducted by Christopher Moon, senior editor and president of Haunted Times magazine.

I couldn’t hear Cheyenne’s brother, mother or any other incorporeal spirits, until Moon interpreted the random noises emanating from the machine that, he explained to me, was created by a Colorado man named Frank Sumption. “Frank’s Box,” according to its inventor, “consists of a random voltage generator, which is used to tune an AM receiver module rapidly. The audio from the tuner (“raw audio”) is amplified and fed to an echo chamber, where the spirits manipulate it to form their voices.” Apparently doing so is difficult for the spirits, so Moon employs the help of “Tyler,” a spirit “technician,” whom he calls on to corral wayward spirits to within earshot of the receiver. What it sounded like was the rapid twirling of a radio dial so that only noises and word fragments were audible.

“Well, since we know how easy it is for our brains to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise,” I continued, “how can you tell the difference between a dead person’s real words and the random noises that just sound like words?” Moon agreed, “You have to be very careful. We record the sessions and get consistency in what people hear.” I persisted: “Consistency, as in what, 95 percent, 51 percent?” “A lot,” Moon rejoined.

That evening in my keynote address I explained how “priming” the brain to see or hear something increases the likelihood that the percepts will obey the concepts. I played a part of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven backwards, in which one can hear an occasional “Satan,” and then played it again after priming their brains with the alleged lyrics on the screen. The auditory data jumped off the visual cues (the funniest being “there was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan”—see it in my lecture “Skepticism 101” at I also played a number of auditory illusions produced by psychologist Diana Deutsch of the University of California, San Diego (, in which a repetitive tape loop of a two-syllable word educes different words and phrases in different people’s minds. These are examples of patternicity, the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise (a concept I introduced in my December 2008 column), and the next day I put it to the test when Moon gave me a personal demo. With the Telephone to the Dead squawking away, I tried to connect to my deceased father and mother, asking for any “validation” of a connection—name, cause of death ... anything. I coaxed and cajoled. Nothing. Moon asked Tyler to intervene. Nothing. Moon said he heard something, but when I pressed him he came up with nothing. I willingly suspended my disbelief in hopes of talking to my parents, whom I miss dearly. Nothing. I searched for any pattern I might find. Nothing.

And that, I’m afraid, is my assessment of the paranormal. Nothing.

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