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Electronic voice phenomenon is the alleged communication by spirits through tape recorders and other electronic devices. The belief in EVP in the United States seems to have mushroomed thanks to Sarah Estep, president of the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena, which claims to have members in some 40 states and publishes a newsletter. Estep claims that in the 1970s she started picking up voices on her husband's Teac reel-to-reel recorder. She is sure that the voices are spirits, proving there is life after death. Estep also claims to hear voices of aliens on some of her tapes. She says she has taped some 20,000 ghosts and aliens. Aliens don't speak English, however, so she is not sure what they are saying.

Interest in EVP apparently began in the1920s. An interviewer from Scientific American asked Thomas Edison about the possibility of contacting the dead. Edison, a man of no strong religious views, said that nobody knows whether “our personalities pass on to another existence or sphere” but

it is possible to construct an apparatus which will be so delicate that if there are personalities in another existence or sphere who wish to get in touch with us in this existence or sphere, this apparatus will at least give them a better opportunity to express themselves than the tilting tables and raps and ouija boards and mediums and the other crude methods now purported to be the only means of communication. (Clark 1997: 235)

There is no evidence, however, that Edison ever designed or tried to construct such a device. And he probably did not foresee spirits communicating with our tape recorders and television sets.

While it is impossible to prove that all EVPs are due to natural phenomena, skeptics maintain that they are probably due to such things as interference from a nearby CB operator or cross modulation. Some of the "voices" are most likely people creating meaning out of random noise, a kind of auditory pareidolia or apophenia. And now that the phenomenon has a number of devoted followers (a recent Google search for "electronic voice phenomenon" yielded 12,200 hits, with this article coming up number one!), some hoaxers have probably entered the fray.

Psychologist Jim Alcock explains why many people believe in EVP.

Perception is a very complex process, and when our brains try to find patterns, they are guided in part by what we expect to hear. If you are trying to hear your friend while conversing in a noisy room, your brain automatically takes snippets of sound and compares them against possible corresponding words, and guided by context, we can often “hear” more clearly than the sound patterns reaching our ears could account for. Indeed, it is relatively easy to demonstrate in a psychology laboratory that people can readily come to hear “clearly” even very muffled voices, so long as they have a printed version in front of them that tells them what words are being spoken. The brain puts together the visual cue and the auditory input, and we actually “hear” what we are informed is being said, even though without that information, we could discern nothing. Going one step further, and we can demonstrate that people can clearly “hear” voices and words not just in the context of muddled voices, but in a pattern of white noise, a pattern in which there are no voices or words at all.

Given that we can routinely demonstrate this effect, it is only parsimonious to suggest that what people hear with EVP is also the product of their own brains, and their expectations, rather than the voices of the dearly departed. (Alcock 2004)

Despite widespread belief in EVP, scientists have shown about as much interest in the phenomenon as they have in John Oates's reverse speech theory, and probably for the same reason. We already understand priming and the power of suggestion. As Alcock says, the simplest explanation for EVP is that it is the product of our own wonderfully complex brain, aided by the strong emotional desire to make contact with the dead.

Sound engineer David Federlein thinks

it is safe to say that unless the EVP believer is highly bankrolled, I use much higher standard recording equipment, built to much higher tolerances. That being said, I've never heard from the dead, and I have been listening to tape and hard disk recordings for years. It may be the low quality of their equipment that is cause for mistaken ghosts, but it sure isn't lack of willed ignorance!

For example one website says to set the "sensitivity level" of the microphone to the highest possible setting as ghosts are apparently afflicted with laryngitis. Doing this raises what's called the "noise floor" - the electrical noise created by all electrical devices - creating white noise. If I were to filter white noise (the audible equivalent of watching the snow on a detuned TV) I could make it say just about anything. This is really no different than using a wah pedal on a guitar. It's a very focused sweep filter moving about the spectrum creating open vowel sounds. Was Peter Frampton channeling? I hardly think so, however his use of the "talkbox" effect on his guitar sounds exactly like some of these recordings. When you factor in other aspects of physics, such as cross modulation of radio stations or faulty ground loops in equipment, you have a lot of people thinking they are listening to ghosts when in fact it is nothing more than a controlled misuse of electronics. (Personal correspondence).

Federlein finds the website GhostStudy.com particularly amusing with its list of 17 helpful tips for the ghost hunter including using brand name tapes and maintaining a positive attitude. But nothing is said about using high quality electronic equipment.

I can't stop laughing at the suggestions given on one site that you should act like you know there's a ghost there at all times. Is that how to get them to be more responsive? Are we to really believe that ghosts won't actually talk to us because we aren't acting cool enough? Perhaps we should set out a plate of cookies.

And maybe we should remind our ghost hunting friends that there are billions of electronic gadgets filling the air waves at all times. The odds are that they're picking up some earthly signal rather than some voice from beyond the grave. My VCR used to receive CB signals from my neighbor, until he died. Since then, the uninvited voices have vanished.

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