This image appears as an eye, though in reality it is a trillion-mile long tunnel of glowing gases, known as the Helix Nebula. As illustrated here, we ‘see’ visual objects’ that correspond to those that are familiar to us, even if our perceptions are quite incorrect. Similarly when listening to speech, the words and phrases that we ‘hear’ are strongly influenced, not only by the sounds that reach us, but also by our knowledge, beliefs, and expectations.
Some years ago I discovered a way to produce a large number of ‘phantom words’ and phrases within a short period of time. One of these is on my CD ‘Musical Illusions and Paradoxes1 and six more are on my CD ‘Phantom Words, and Other Curiosities’2.
To obtain the best effect, find a time when you will not be disturbed, and sit in front of two loudspeakers, with one to your left and the other to your right. (Headphones don’t work so well for this illusion.) Make sure that your sound system is set for stereo, and that the two loudspeakers are balanced for loudness. In a ‘phantom words’ demonstration, each track contains two words, or a single word composed of two syllables, and these are repeated over and over again. The same sequence is presented through both loudspeakers, but the tracks are offset in time so that when the first sound (word or syllable) is coming from the speaker on the left the second sound is coming from the speaker on the right; and vice versa. Because the sounds coming from the two loudspeakers are mixed in the air before they reach our ears, we are given a palette of sounds from which to chose, and so can create in our minds many different combinations of sounds.
It works well to have a pen and paper in front of you, so that you can write down the words and phrases that you hear. Often people initially hear a jumble of meaningless sounds, but after a while distinct words and phrases suddenly emerge. It often seems that the left and right loudspeakers are producing different words, which sometimes appear to be spoken by different voices. So write down separately the words that you hear as coming from the left, and those that you hear as coming from the right.
After a while, you will probably find that new words and phrases appear to be coming from one or both of the loudspeakers. When this happens, write down the new ones also. In addition, it’s not unusual to hear a third stream of words or phrases, apparently coming from some location between the loudspeakers. Nonsense words, and musical sounds such as percussive sounds or tones, sometimes appear to be mixed in with the meaningful words. People often report hearing words and phrases spoken in strange or ‘foreign’ accents – presumably they are interpreting the sounds from the loudspeakers as words and phrases that are meaningful to them, even if this causes the speech to appear distorted.
If English is your second language, you may find that you hear some words and phrases in your native language. In courses on illusions that I taught at UCSD, I generally played some ‘phantom words’ to my class. The students at our university are linguistically very diverse, and taken together I’ve received reports of ‘phantom words’ in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, French, German, Italian, Hebrew, and Russian – to name just a few. It’s not unusual for students in my class to feel strongly that such ‘foreign’ words have been inserted into the tracks, and sometimes they adamantly stick to this belief, despite my assurances to the contrary.
People appear to hear words and phrases that reflect what is on their minds – rather as in a Rorschach test, though it’s my impression that the present effect is stronger. I can guess who is likely to be on a diet, as they report words like ‘I’m hungry’. ‘diet coke’ or ‘feel fat’. And students who are stressed tend to report words that are related to stress – if I play these sounds close to exam time, students may well hear phrases like ‘I’m tired’, ‘no brain’, or ‘no time’. Interestingly, female students often report the word ‘love’, while male students are more likely to report sexually explicit words and phrases.
Joe Banks has argued in detail3 that the brain mechanisms that cause some people to believe that they are hearing voices from the spirit world (called ‘Electronic Voice Phenomena’, or ‘EVP’) are the same as those that produce my ‘phantom words’.
Multitrack Installation of Phantom Words, together with a lecture and continuous (looped) video presentation,
during the Festival 'The Sound of Distance' at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Oct 21-24, 2021.
Video by: Jan St. Werner
PHANTOM WORDS SPATIAL, Multitrack Installation of Phantom Words, in collaboration with Jan St. Werner,
Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, Porto, Portugal, September 10 and 11, 2022.
Photo by: André Delhaye