Tuesday, December 2, 2014

EchoVox, Spirit Box, SCD-1 and what is WRONG with all of Them

Most ghost hunting TV shows use EVPs (Electronic Voice Phenomena) as a staple for demonstrating the existence of paranormal entities. Everywhere you look, people are asking questions in dark places while running a digital recorder, Spirit box or EchoVox. When the recording is played back, there are often answers to their questions.

Before we look at any of the video evidence, though, I would like you to ponder a question: If these are audio recordings of sessions talking to spirits, WHY are they always posted as videos? I'm serious about this. Just stop and consider that question. You will find that it is very important as we go on from here.

It's become very popular to mix digital recording sessions with devices and smartphone apps that "assist" in communication. This method is so quick and easy - and works every time - how could anyone resist? Most of what is on YouTube today is probably from a device or app. Again, though, audio devices that mysteriously require a video to work correctly... hmm...

EchoVox: Pre-packaged Assisted "Communications"
The EchoVox app - latest version

EchoVox is a smartphone app that has a database of phonemes. Phonemes are parts of words, and with 24 consonant phonemes and 20 vowel phonemes you can make every word in the English language and most of the words in other languages as well. EchoVox has all of these, and it will play those phonemes as soon as you hit the Start button. It is claimed by its maker in rather vague terms that EchoVox mixes the phonemes with information from your device's input, whatever that means. Are they trying to say that the phonemes of the app's database are somehow altered by environmental sounds...say, from the microphone?  Well, EchoVox plays a barrage of phonemes even if you don't give it access to the phone's mic. I know that, because when I first tried it, I didn't give it access to the microphone and it still played the phonemes. The microphone only goes into effect if you turn Echo on. If you don't do that, it won't even ask permission to access the microphone. Based on microphone on/off tests, the phonemes are just played randomly. The app uses 4 "channels" of phonemes, but I think that the channels just have speed differences plus different levels of distortion, and that's all.

When you have a lot of phonemes being thrown at you, some of them are going to sound like words. There's just no getting around that.  There are all the phonemes of the English language bombarding your ears in both male and female voices. Words will be heard. So, on what basis are we thinking that the phoneme collection - which is what Echovox produces - represents paranormal communication?

That claim is based on "accurate answers" to questions. Sure, the phonemes are random, and that's all that is really here, but if you get the right phonemes to make words, and those words are the correct ones to answer your questions, then there MUST be something to it, right?

EchoVox has become really big in amateur paranormal research. You'll find thousands of videos on YouTube, and there are even several Facebook groups devoted to Echovox and populated by over one thousand "serious investigators." The developer has also added variations on this theme such as BlackVox, which is the same thing but with a pentagram and scarier-sounding voices included. Yeah, I'm sure that helps.....

Adventures in Assisted Spirit Communication

I paid for this app because after all the claims, I had to see it in operation for myself. So even if I felt kind of stupid about it, I did the usual things: I asked if anyone was present, what is their name, do they have any messages. That sort of thing. I recorded all the questions and answers. (EchoVox will record everything for you, IF you turn the "Echo" feature on. If you do that, I'd suggest setting it to 0 delay or the echoing of your own voice will drive you crazy.  You can also just use a digital recorder.  I went for the EchoVox internal recording feature at first - and I was excited by the results. It did seem like there were intelligent responses to my questions, and even though I knew that the device deluged you with phonemes, and I knew about audio pareidolia, it seemed like maybe there was something there. I guess I wasn't that interested in the "how" - mostly I only cared about the positive results -- until it was proven to me that it was just audio pareidolia. Here is how that happened....

I transferred some of my best stuff to a portable digital recorder so I could play my fabulous results for all my friends. At first, I would tell them about all of the incredible, true answers I got - and then they would listen to the recording - sure enough, they heard them too! Confirmation!

But then, I played it for another person without telling him what to listen for, and he just got nonsense sounds - couldn't pick out much of anything except a word or two he mentioned, which I had not heard on that recording. So then I told him what I got and asked him to listen again with headphones: This time he heard my answers. Success! ..... So maybe... yeah.... EXCEPT for an important detail I should mention: I played the wrong file. I had several on there, and I played an Echovox session with different answers (according to what I had heard). I told him what I heard on the file EVP-1 but I played EVP-2 instead. Yet he heard the answers I had told him to listen for! They were the "wrong" answers for the file he actually listened to, though.
Then I tried my files with other people without telling them what answers to listen for. Some heard answers and some didn't, but the ones who heard answers to my questions never heard the same answers I heard. Not one of them.

As a last test - on myself, I put the audio on my computer and cut it up into separate questions and answers; one file for each question; one file for each answer. Then I mixed them up so questions were paired with different answers.... and I still thought I heard correct answers. So audio pareidolia was definitely confirmed.

TL;DR Audio Pareidolia

Audio pareidolia is a very powerful effect. It happens because the brain doesn't really process a whole group of sounds, determine they are words and then match them with your brain's database for conscious understanding. That would be way too slow: A conversation would be over before you figured out what the first sentence said. Instead, your brain picks up a piece of a word, a phoneme, matches it with its database of words according to context (expectation), and then delivers that product (a whole word or sentence) to your conscious mind.

This is the reason we all have times when we were very sure that person A said X when they actually said Y. And we would swear up and down that they actually said the thing that they didn't say - because that is what we really heard. We just heard it wrong. They said what they said, our brain grabbed onto the wrong phoneme, or completed a phoneme into the wrong word, and we consciously heard the other person say something that they didn't actually say.

Audio pareidolia is also why you may think you hear the phone ring when you're in the shower (when it's not actually ringing) or why you might think you hear someone say your name in a conversation that turns out to not be about you at all. Your brain takes fragments of sounds, latches onto them based on a preconception of what meaning might be derived, then delivers the word(s) that it THINKS might be present to your conscious mind.

EchoVox (and its cousins) is an app that is designed to take advantage of this phenomenon of brain function: Echovox has a database of phonemes in several voices, and the phonemes (parts of words) are spit out randomly, at whatever speed you select in the 4 bank speed section. By default, this is quite fast - like a bunch of people yacking away at top speed. The microphone input has NO effect on these phonemes. They are just random. You can prove that for yourself by turning the mic off. If you can't do that on your device (it's just the Settings app, scroll down to EchoVox and tap it, then turn off the switch that gives permission to access the microphone) then plug a dummy mic into the jack. It won't change the phoneme barrage at all; it's exactly the same. So that's how EchoVox works; a big phoneme soup! And you can't help but hear words in that pile of word pieces - because phonemes are what words are made of and the human brain only needs pieces of words to deliver whole words to your conscious awareness. Last but not least, you will hear the words you are expecting to hear - the words that are contextually appropriate - because that is how your brain works. I wish there was more to it than that, but there isn't. YOU CAN CONCLUSIVELY PROVE THIS FOR YOURSELF - READ THE 'DO IT YOURSELF TESTING' SECTION BELOW.

The Spirit Box

Spirit Box (technically P-SB7 by ITC) is an older device working on the same principle, but derives its phonemes from radio broadcasts. With the Spirit Box, what you have is a little handheld scanner that rapidly scans FM (or AM) radio frequencies. Unlike a police scanner (which may be more familiar to some) the Spirit Box doesn't stop when a signal is picked up, it just keeps going. It's blowing by radio station after radio station. The TV show Ghost Adventures loves this little radio scanner.

I probably don't have to tell you after all we've been through, but what that means is that you're getting phonemes from the radio stations; bits of words here and there.  And now that you understand the basics of audio pareidolia, you know what is going to happen, right?  Yep. So EchoVox supplies a full set of phonemes in multiple voices while the Spirit Box relies on phonemes from rapidly scanned radio stations. And like EchoVox, the "proof" comes in the form of videos - because they need to have captions so your brain will know what to hear.

And just to make the madness complete, Spirit Box now has an app version, called SCD-1. It works exactly the same way, the only difference being is that the app version draws phonemes from Internet radio station podcast feeds. There's no practical difference and the effect is the same. SCD-1 stands for "Spirit Communication Device, number 1" - but you're not getting spirits. Like Spirit Box, you're getting actual people talking on radio stations, and then your brain creates an artificial meaning in order to give you the illusion of communication. That's the only thing that it does. If you enjoy fooling yourself, you can have some fun I guess, but there must be a cheaper way to do it. The SCD-1 is outrageously, almost criminally expensive.

Back to my earlier question: Why does everyone take audio recordings and put them in a video? At this point, you should know the answer. Your brain needs an expectation trigger in order to hear specific words and phrases, so you won't hear their amazing messages from beyond the grave unless you are told what to hear via captions - or possibly the person telling you what is said and then replaying the "message" so you'll get it. It's just a trick of the mind because the human brain works that way (with a caveat which I will place in the footnotes).

I mean, think about it: If you linked me to a lecture by Stephen Hawking or... I don't know, an interview of Mariah Carey - would you feel the need to tell me what to hear in order for me to "get" what they're saying? Of course not, because they're speaking real words (in Stephen's case, we're not even talking about a human voice but an electronic one - and STILL no captions are needed). The reason these phoneme cannon recordings need to be captioned is because they're just phonemes, LOTS of them, not actual words, and the brain needs an expectation trigger in order to know which phonemes to lock-in on to turn into words and phrases.

Oh, I have to give a dishonorable mention to Ghost Adventures, here. If you use this device in an area with lots of radio stations, it sounds pretty much like EchoVox; a barrage of phonemes but with bits of songs being played on those stations, here and there. On the other hand, if you take this device out to the desert of eastern Oregon, or some similar place where the stations you can pick up may number in the zeros, you'll just get a steady, rhythmic whoosh-whoosh-whoosh sound - the scanner locking to each frequency for a tenth of a second, then moving on to the next where it does the same - and so on.  On Ghost Adventures, the sound is clearly edited. All you have to do is use a Spirit Box once to realize they don't sound as portrayed on the show. On the show, it's a very formed, pattern click-click-click static until there's a voice giving a message. That really never happens with this device, for the reasons stated, and cannot happen in real use. So they're editing out the phonemes from other radio stations. And the people involved KNOW that's going to happen, which is why the star of the show mutes the device as he speaks - to cover the edit. Of course, this is also the tv show that recently tried to sell a spider descending on a thread from the ceiling as something supernatural, so they're pretty much beneath contempt and appear to have no ethics at all.

Bottom Line: With apps such as EchoVox and devices such as the Spirit Box, there's no input from spirits or anything else as far as we can tell, it's just all the phonemes of the English language being thrown at you, and the ones that meet your expectations for an answer will stand-out in your mind. They'll probably even seem louder than the background chatter. The human brain does that. All of the "answers" are coming from your own mind via your brain's natural inclination to make intelligible words out of minimal input. And of course, if you have to tell someone else what to hear in order for them to hear it too, it isn't real. I guess if you have spirits that must be spoken with, you'll have to find yourself a good psychic medium. Probably, anyway; I have a longshot alternative explanation in the footnoes.

Random Example Video

So now that you know the truth, let's put this to the test! I don't want to hear any crap about how it's just my opinion. I'm talking about well-documented science of how the brain works, but you  won't be satisfied until you see this effect in action. I made a random choice of an "amazing" spirit communication - and the one I chose was chosen only because it came up in the first page on YouTube and is very short...

 To do this, you will need to follow my instructions. It's something I already mentioned, though, so this is just a reminder. You're going to watch a video of the EchoVox app in action. Except you MUST NOT watch it the first time through. Get a pad and paper, then start the video and turn your head away. DO NOT LOOK AT THE VIDEO.  Write down every word you think you hear (not counting the "investigator's" words, of course - just stuff from the stream of phonemes). Since you have 4 banks throwing phonemes blaring at you, every once in a while two or three of them will come together by sheer coincidence to make an actual word or phrase. There are only 44 phonemes that make up every word and every name, so when you are being hit with a barrage of them, SOMETIMES you'll get real words. Even so, maybe you won't get anything. Your brain needs to pick a context in order to infer meaning. But if you are thinking that ghosts are talking to you, then maybe that is all the context you need. Remember, no looking! ....Yes, I know, one of the captions shows up in the preview here. I can't help that. Just try to listen for words and forget about what you're told to hear...

As I said, I picked a short one so I wouldn't be torturing you too much, but you can do this with ANY of these videos of EVP sessions, regardless of the device involved. Just look away from the video the first time through and write down your own impressions. Sometimes (as happened here at one point) the person who is doing to the recording will give you an audio cue as to what answer is expected - so you'll hear that. But if you go back and listen carefully, the word you thought you heard isn't really there. It's just a phoneme. Your brain did all the work and filled in the details.

Now, if you like, you can go back and watch the video, and see what you were supposed to hear, according to the person who posted it. Did you match them very often? No? Of course not, because their "answers" were based on their own expectations for answers. Your expectations are different, so your answers will tend to be different. But with them telling you what to hear, you'll probably clearly hear their messages now. Try this with as many videos as you like, but you're going to find out fairly quickly that audio pareidolia is all that is going on, here. Sorry.

Old-School EVP Recordings

EVPs are obtained by other methods, too. In paranormal TV shows, you're more likely to see someone using a digital recorder, like the one shown above. They will hold the recorder up to their mouth, ask a question, then immediately stick the recorder out into the air and wave it around, like they are interviewing a moving yet invisible guest. For non-TV paranormal teams, digital EVP recordings are a staple.

The problem with that is that these recorders have variable sensitivity and when you stop talking the audio gain instantly goes to maximum - so they  pick up any noise whatsoever. Contact noise (like moving your fingers on the body of the recorder) will be the loudest things that get recorded. Of course there will be noises during that moment of "silence!" There's more, too: the rustling of your clothing as you move, clearing your throat, barely audible mumbling you might do subconsciously, stomachs growling, someone speaking in another room or outside of the building.... You won't be aware of any of these things when they happen, but the recorder will pick them up. With playback, now they seem supernatural, because you didn't notice them when they happened. Add audio pareidolia and magically you have a message from dead people.

Do-It-Yourself Testing

Digital recorder videos can be analyzed the same way as EchoVox videos: Just listen to them without looking at them. Write down any words you think you hear, and when you are done then and only then watch the video to see what happens. Unless the investigator also tells you what to hear in addition to the captions, you won't hear it. Except in perhaps a rare case: Sometimes the investigator's question will have such an obvious answer that your brain will immediately know what it is supposed to "hear." Sometimes the investigator is simply muttering the answer (perhaps subconsciously) and giving a real message that way. Sometimes the recorder will pick up someone speaking in another room. With EchoVox, on top of pareidolia you'll also have phonemes come together in the random assault on your ears that accidentally form words. But mostly, it's all pareidolia. This simple test will debunk 99.9 percent of EVP videos out there. And you can prove that yourself.

If there are any true EVPs out there, then this is the test to find out: Have a number of people listen to the audio only, with no cues as to what they are supposed to hear, and have them write-down (not speak) what they think they heard. Look at their notes after you are done. If you give them suggestions as to what to hear, you've killed the test: You're just trying to trigger their pareidolia mechanism. SO NO CUES!

If all of them agree on a phrase being spoken, it might be something. Maybe: If the answer wasn't obvious from the questioner's context, and if you can show that it wasn't the investigator muttering or a real live person in another room or outside the building speaking. Super mega bonus points if the message is not only intelligible to everyone but also contains information that can be verified but couldn't possibly have been known to the investigators or test subjects.

On the other hand, if your test subjects can't agree, it's because audio pareidolia is in operation and they don't have enough context to trick their brains. That's all.  And congratulations, you just conducted your own scientific investigation!

VERDICT: Debunked. Devices like Spirit Box and apps like EchoVox are just phoneme generators. They take advantage of the fact that the human brain is pre-programmed to latch-on to any shred of a word, and turn it into a real word or phrase - and this process happens entirely subconsciously, so people think they really heard something. Digital recorder EVPs are not entirely debunked but they also typically rely on captioning ambiguous environmental sounds to trick your brain into hearing words. Obviously, if it is real then nobody will need to tell you what to hear. Otherwise, there's nothing paranormal going on - to a 99 percent certainty. My only reservation will be contained within the footnotes.

There is something scam-like happening though with the various apps and devices, because there is a moneymaking opportunity which takes advantage of a known brain phenomenon. That is, "known" in the sense that anyone who has done any research at all knows about it. The average member of the public probably doesn't know, though, and that's where the scam comes in. And to the people who make money off of that, all I can say is shame on them. These developers are walking a very fine line between running a legal scam and outright fraud.

(1) I did say there was a caveat, although it's a big long-shot I feel obligated to mention it since apparently I'm the first human on earth to notice this: Here goes... If we must, let's talk about pareidolia and all the special messages you see on YouTube: Ghost boxes, Echovox, and all that - all that must be captioned in order for other people to "hear" the special message that the original person heard.

Obviously, the words are not really present in the sounds - that's why you have to have captions. When you hear a message, it's only in your head. But did you ever ask yourself (apparently nobody does); where did the message in your head come from? ...Well, your own brain, right? Right. But where did your own brain get the idea to make a particular choice and give you a plain message from gibberish?

Let's consider the use of psychic mediums for spirit communications. Now of course the skeptics here will all say it's bullshit because they think everything is bullshit. They used to spend time debunking quantum mechanics, too, until they had to shut up about it. Ever notice how skeptics never do a mea culpa? They never admit when they're wrong, they just go on to the next topic? Skepticism is a no-lose proposition; you just say no and it didn't happen until you start looking foolish then you shut up about it and find something else to ridicule and belittle. Being a skeptic is a great because you get to feel intellectually superior to the rest of the world and you never have to say you were wrong about anything, ever, nor do you have to do any actual work beyond negating everything anyone else says.. But I digress.... Skeptics will say any kind of spirit communication can't happen because spirits don't exist and nothing exists but the material world, and so forth. On the other hand, Dr. Gary Schwartz, professor of psychiatry and surgery at the University of Arizona says mediumship is real, and he can prove it. What if he's right?

So if Professor Schwartz and others are right, then it is possible to make psychic contact with the spirits of the deceased. At least, *some* people can do it. Are you with me so far?

Only certain people have that knack, and it's a small minority of a minority (I think most of the people who *think* they are psychic mediums are probably fooling themselves). BUT... if it's real, even for a tiny percentage of people - even only one person, then there is a mechanism behind it; a way the conscious mind can interface with the spirit world. And if there is a mechanism, then we all have it but most of us are unable to latch onto that stream of information and pull it up into our consciousness (like every human has a voice but few can sing opera). At best, it would be a tiny subconscious influence for most people.

At this point, the argument should be a real no-brainer but I will spell it out: Spirit communication is possible via some brain (third eye/pineal gland?) interface for everyone (must be true if there is even one person EVER in this history of mankind who did it) but most people can't bring the information stream up to the level of conscious awareness. Pareidolia happens at the subconscious level: The brain creates whole words and phrases out of sounds, and that happens before your conscious mind hears anything. Spirit communication is also potentiated at the subconscious level. It's the perfect intersection of non-conscious processes; where any spirits could influence the words your brain manufactures from random sounds, and thus deliver a message.

Not sure how you would prove or disprove that other than delivering message content that can be subsequently verified but could not have been known to the receiver. ..But there it is. By the way, I do NOT authorize anyone to use this argument to sell their pareidolia wares. Since I invented it, I own it. I will come after you if you do that! :) It's intellectual property rights at work. ...Others are free to quote me, but you must give correct credit to this author. Sorry, but I just want to make sure my own intellectual work isn't used for evil purposes.

(2) More information on pareidolia in general and audio pareidolia in particular:
Paranormal Research: EVPs - things you should know
Audio Pareidolia at The Rogue's Gallery
Pareidolia on Wikipedia
Bridgtown Paranormal Group on Audio Pareidolia
Visual and audio pareidolia examples

(3) If you want to do the world a big favor, and dispel some ignorance, save a link to this page and post it every time someone puts up a new EVP video. Everyone should know the truth - it's only fair.

EDIT: Confirmation from the other side. The "other side" in this case, being the builders of these devices. Now, it's difficult to believe that any of these hawkers of paranormal gadgets actually think they work - but you'd expect them to keep their mouth shut about it. It's how they make their living, after all! Nevertheless, one gadget developer came clean to Popular Mechanics in an email: Bill Chappell (inventor of the Ovilus and many other paranormal gadgets) explained his view on the paranormal in a blunt email saying "I do not believe in Ghosts or Spirits."
The inventor says he's built hundreds of devices and performed countless experiments over the last decade trying to understand the phenomena of EVPs and instrumental transcommunication. "The unmistakable conclusion," he wrote. "It is us, we are the ghosts."

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this post or blog is meant to suggest that the supernatural or paranormal does not exist. The fact is, I don't know. All I can do is look at the evidence to see if it stands up to the test of very simple scrutiny. If it passes, yay. If it fails, oh well... there's always next time. Investigators are human. I'm human. We all make mistakes. My pointing out the mistakes that others make should not be taken to imply that they are wrong in general, or that the things they investigate are only the product of imagination.