When People Talk Backwards
by Brian Dunning
Filed under Conspiracies
June 17, 2008
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Just when you thought there was nobody in the world crazier than yourself, along come people who believe that we all subconsciously say what we really mean in reverse, through the unconscious but deliberate choosing of careful words which, if played backwards, say what we actually mean. Get it? The idea is that I think some coffee is really horrible but I still want to be polite, my brain will subconsciously choose words to make my polite compliment that, if played backwards, would say: This coffee stinks.
Proponents of this hypothesis call it Reverse Speech, because they were really creatively inspired on the day they named it. This is a small group of people — I believe there were six of them at last count — who take this completely seriously and believe that a whole world of secret information and opportunities is waiting to be unlocked by analyzing peoples' speech in reverse. They turn first to world leaders, play their speeches backward, and listen to learn what they believe is the truth underlying the speech.
A leading advocate for reverse speech, also called backward masking, is David John Oates, an Australian. He's written several books on the subject and even used to have a syndicated radio show promoting his theory. Just about any time a reverse speech expert is interviewed on television, it's David John Oates. His web site is ReverseSpeech.com, and it's loaded with all the examples you could ever hope to hear, as well as quite a few products and services he'd like to sell you if you believe his claims. He believes strongly that the human brain secretly encodes its actual meaning in reverse into a person's normal speech. You can use this to your advantage in business, by decoding what the people across the table are actually telling you; and you can even use it in personal development by listening to your own speech backwards and learning more about what you really want. One of the examples from ReverseSpeech.com is of this man giving a talk: [play sample]
And when you play it backwards, turns out he was trying to comfort you with the message "You're frightened, lean on me": [play sample]
Pretty interesting, but not necessarily convincing to a skeptic. A skeptic is more likely to dismiss these guys as conspiracy nuts and laugh at what paranoid delusionals they are, but it's actually way cooler and more interesting (and more constructive) to ask if there is any science behind what they're claiming. I'm not talking about science supporting the claim that people say what they actually mean in reverse; I'm talking about science behind the perception of order from chaos. And, it turns out, there is good science behind it. The journal Science published an article in 1981 by Remez, Rubin, Pisoni, and Carrell called Speech perception without traditional speech cues. By playing what they called a "three-tone sinusoidal replica", or a complicated sine wave sound, they found that people were able to perceive speech, when in fact there were no traditional speech sounds present in the signal. So rather than laughing at a reverse speech advocate, instead appreciate the fact that there is good science driving their perception of what they're hearing. They're not making anything up, they're just unaware of the natural explanation for their phenomenon.
To better understand what these authors did in their experiment, listen to this brief cue consisting of nothing but sine waves: [play sample]
It almost does sound like speech, doesn't it? But it's not quite clear what it's saying. Well, suppose someone told you that it says: [play sample]
Now listen to it again: [play sample]
This time, it's almost impossible not to hear the words that you've been preconditioned to hear. Let's play another one, this one is harder: [play sample] [play sample]
Pretty cool, huh? There is a web page by Matt Davis that lists some more of these.
This phenomenon is called pareidolia, which we talked about not too long ago when we discussed the face on Mars. Pareidolia is the perceptual phenomenon by which we perceive familiar patterns in disorder. It is the brain's incredible computing power that lets us recognize people, understand language, and read handwriting. For the brain to have this capability, it necessarily results in the ability to perceive patterns where none in fact exists. Most of us can say "Hey, that tree bark looks like Ernest Borgnine," without actually concluding that Ernest Borgnine has somehow become a tree. Our intelligence allows us to not make that mistake. But sometimes a horse might see a garden hose on the ground; its pareidolia tells it that it's a snake, but it lacks sufficient intelligence to overcome the instinctive recognition. I'm not saying that reverse speech believers lack intelligence, only that they lack critical thinking skills; because there is a genuine gray area where it's hard to tell if a pattern is accidental or deliberate. But speech is a deliberate speaking action, so the reverse speech advocates do have a point they can make. It's not an accident of nature like the tree bark, speech is the deliberate result of a speaker's brain communicating. What the reverse speech advocates are missing is that the well-known, well-understood, and well-evidenced phenomenon of pareidolia is a much more reasonable, simple, and probable explanation for why we can often perceive patterns in meaningless noise, in this case reverse speech.
This also fully explains a couple of other pop culture phenomena: Satanic messages encoded in rock music played backwards, and EVP, the electronic voice phenomena claimed by ghost hunters. Here's a really popular clip, Jim Morrison of The Doors singing the line "Treasures there" from Break On Through: [play sample]
Now listen to it backwards, he says "I am Satan": [play sample]
But, to get it to sound like "Satan", you have to be a little disingenuous with the razor blade. Here's what it says if you don't try to deliberately isolate the word Satan: [play sample]
More like "Sata-Schnigel". So if reverse speech is real, Jim Morrison's true intention in life was to inform us that he's Sata-Schnigel. And, as you can probably surmise, even that very impressive "You're frightened, lean on me" is much less convincing without the incisive editing: [play sample]
Really you should be leaning on Me-journey Elm. This is what we call cherrypicking.
Recordings of alleged ghost voices, usually called Electronic Voice Phenomena, fall into three categories: First, hoaxes; second, undetermined; and third and most commonly, audio pareidoliac cases of mistaken identification. You hear some random anomalous sound on the tape, and your brain does its best to make sense of it, often turning it into speech. If the words that the ghost hunters claim are spoken are at all indistinct or ambiguous, there is a very probable explanation for them that's not "a ghost". You're hearing some sound, and unless you were present throughout the tape's entire history (which you probably weren't), it's some sound of unknown origin that, to your brain, sounds vaguely like speech, and isn't it interesting that it's always in the ghost hunter's own language and dialect? Here's a really good illustration of that. Listen to this song, it sounds like it's from India but really I have no idea. I won't even remotely guess what language it's in, I don't speak it and it's meaningless to my brain; but to me, it sounds quite clearly like someone saying:
My lurid barn is fine, Benny Lava... [play sample]
Minor bun engine made Benny Lava... [play sample]
Anybody need this sign, Benny Lava? [play sample]
In mirror one, divine Benny Lava... [play sample]
I could be high today... [play sample]
I see the nuns are gay... [play sample]
The words I heard are a little different from what someone else heard, as you can see from this subtitled video posted to YouTube. YouTube is full of similar examples (here's another good one that's too racy for Skeptoid). The human brain is hardwired to hear its own language in otherwise meaningless noise. If it wasn't, you'd never be able to recognize your own name when someone calls out to you in a noisy room full of people.
Whether that noise is human speech played backwards, music played backwards, traffic sounds, random noises in a graveyard or haunted house, or the musings of the great Indian poet Benny Lava, your human brain will process it and find intelligible speech. It's the way your brain works, it's not evidence of ghosts, Satanic messages, and certainly not of something as childish as reverse speech.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "When People Talk Backwards." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
17 Jun 2008. Web.
25 Nov 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4105>
References & Further Reading
Banks, J. "Rorschach Audio: Ghost Voices and Perceptual Creativity." Leonardo Music Journal. 1 Dec. 2001, Volume 11: 77-83.
Blom, J. D. A Dictionary of Hallucinations. New York: Springer, 2010. 47-48.
Davis, M. "An Introduction to Sine-Wave Speech." MRC CBU, Cambridge >> Matt Davis. University of Cambridge, 24 Nov. 2007. Web. 13 Jan. 2010. <http://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/people/matt.davis/sine-wave-speech/>
Remez, R. E., Rubin, P. E., Pisoni, D. B., Carrell, T. D. "Speech Perception Without Traditional Speech Cues." Science. 22 May 1981, Volume 212: 947-9.
Searcey, D. "Behind the Music: Sleuths Seek Messages In Lyrical Backspin." The Wall Street Journal. 9 Jan. 2006, Newspaper.
Whalen, D. H., Liberman, A. M. "Speech Perception Takes Precedence over Nonspeech Perception." Science. 10 Jul. 1987, Volume 237: 169-171.
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