Put your headphones on
February 21, 2008 2:47 AM   Subscribe

New Scientist has a feature on 5 great auditory illusions. (via Mind Hacks)
posted by Lezzles (49 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
That third one reminds me of Steve Reich's "Come Out" piece. I always hear shit like helicopters and dragging chains at different points.

I don't think the fifth one worked for me, and anyway it's "Fr├╝hlingsrauschen" -- "Fr├╝hlingsrauchen" would be "smoking spring", not "rustle of spring".
posted by creasy boy at 3:21 AM on February 21, 2008

I played the second one ("Phantom Words") to a group of people and the variety of responses were pretty interesting. People heard "No way," "background," "Melvin," and "Belgrade." It also seems neat that once your brain picks something out, it's hard to hear anything else.

Nice post!
posted by Ljubljana at 3:27 AM on February 21, 2008

My Phantom Word was 'Nowhere.' Interestingly, playing it on my laptop speakers had no effect, but with headphones I specifically heard two voices saying, 'nowhere, nowhere, nowhere..."
posted by farishta at 3:42 AM on February 21, 2008

I got 'nowhere' too, but the crazy thing is if I listened to it while reading the different words that Ljubljana added, the word I hear instantly becomes the the word I'm reading. Without reading it reverts back to 'nowhere'.

And is it just me or do the phantom words sound like they have a distinct Asian accent?
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 4:06 AM on February 21, 2008

That phantom words one is really odd, especially if you listen to it for a while. You start to hear breaks and patterns, as if parts of words were being repeated more quickly, or said twice. I get wayno, no way, nowhere and occasionally Melvin. Very odd.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:13 AM on February 21, 2008

'Melvin' is Satanian for 'Kill them all, kill them all, now'.

posted by davemee at 4:25 AM on February 21, 2008

I'm kind of surprised the tritone paradox didn't make the list.
posted by edd at 4:26 AM on February 21, 2008

Another good one: enjoy Shepard's tones
posted by ddaavviidd at 4:28 AM on February 21, 2008

I kept hearing "no brain" which i suppose could be quite frightening if you're somewhat paranoid and you begin to wonder if you're being brain washed via strange audio frequencies...
posted by yeoz at 5:17 AM on February 21, 2008

Interestingly, playing it on my laptop speakers had no effect, but with headphones I specifically heard two voices saying, 'nowhere, nowhere, nowhere..."

My experience was that when listening it to headphones, I could only hear 'nowhere', but if I listened to it via speakers I could make myself hear the other words like 'Melvin' and 'Belgrade'.

Also, I was pretty disappointed by the New Scientist's explanation of the "Barber's Shop illusion". There's a lot more going on here than simple differences in volume -- what you're listening to is clearly a binaural recording.
posted by chrismear at 5:22 AM on February 21, 2008

Nice, thanks. I've heard the Barber's shop illusion before - it's impressive. The phantom words is great, you can consciously morph the word you're hearing by concentrating on different parts of the sound. I originally heard "No Way" but I could make it become "Rainbow" by concentrating on the "way" sound...
posted by patricio at 5:37 AM on February 21, 2008

yeha the Barber shops sounded like more than mere volume adjustment.
posted by mary8nne at 5:52 AM on February 21, 2008

The scale illusion is, far and away, the best one. Neato.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:59 AM on February 21, 2008

I got "pac-man pac-man pac-man" out of the second one.
posted by JohnYaYa at 6:02 AM on February 21, 2008

I got no way no way no way no way.
posted by Mocata at 6:15 AM on February 21, 2008

"No wang. No wang. No wang."

Also, the fifth one was totally meaningless to me. Yes, I can discern a melody because the tones that make it up are 4 times LOUDER than the rest of the arpeggio! It's even more obvious at 1/4 speed! I don't really see the illusion there.

Virtual barbershop was very trippy. Totally freaked out when he whispered in my ear.
posted by tehloki at 6:21 AM on February 21, 2008

I'm slightly confused about what I was supposed to hear with the two-scale illusion. Was I supposed to be linking the two scales together alternately (with one going down all the way and then coming back up and the other doing the opposite, crossing each other mid-octave) or was I supposed to link the first half of one scale to the second half of the other (with the two scales approaching each other, meeting in the middle, and then pulling away)? I found that the former was the case, with one of the alternate scales appearing slightly louder (in my mind, this is the one that "started" on the way down). With respect to the ear alternation, it sounded like the "louder" scales were moving to the left while the scale descended and back to the right as it ascended (I couldn't spatially place the "quieter" scale).

My phantom word was originally "no way", but after a while, I started hearing "a win". It slowly alternated back and forth after that. (I must be some sort of pendulum on the optimist-pessimist scale. The bottom half of the glass has water in it and no air while the top halfhas air and no water?) I was able to hear the other suggestions while concentrating (except for "pac-man"), but they appeared softer, in addition to the primary sound, which always sounded like "nuhweynuhweynuhweynuh..." I could only get that to change by mentally remondegreening the words around, changing the phoneme borders and adjusting my accent filter for the vowels giving "no way", "a win", "aweena" (whatever that means), or "nowhere" (but only with a very strong accent).

I found the phantom words to be the most striking example.

Could anyone else hear the phantom melody at the slowed speed?
posted by ErWenn at 6:26 AM on February 21, 2008

I bought Diana Deutsch's "Musical Illusions and Paradoxes" years ago, and ripped it to MP3 (note: you probably don't want to do that in joint stereo mode, as I originally did...). It has since been banished from my main music library, because I love random play, but would rather not have my mind blown at unpredictable moments.
posted by dansdata at 6:36 AM on February 21, 2008

Expanding on the phantom word illusion, try this sometime: take a short loop of intelligible speech, 2 or 3 seconds long, and set it to loop. Listen intently in a dark room. After about 20 minutes it changes, blossoming out into all kinds of additional messages, or at least it did for everyone in the room when we tried it.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:37 AM on February 21, 2008

I'm slightly confused about what I was supposed to hear with the two-scale illusion

All I can tell you is what I heard, which was ascending-descending patterns in both ears, with one high while the other is low. Which is neat, given what's actually happening in each channel.
posted by uncleozzy at 6:38 AM on February 21, 2008

My phantom words: "Milk maid," "pick me," "Boothbay."

I was really excited to see this. In the dim halls of memory I recall a writing workshop I attended when I was sixteen. The instructor, one day, played us a sound montage of some kind that had just this effect. It was a different one, though - we had to listen and write the words we were hearing as they came and went. I can remember that one that I heard consistently in that recording was "cryptic quack," but everyone heard different things. We then went around and shared them, and the responses were quite diverse. True to the nature of sixteen-year-olds in writing workshops, saying stuff like "cryptic quack" at unpredictable times became a meme. The meme I remembered, but I had forgotten what the recording was supposed to be demonstrating.

Now I'm wondering if it is was one of these Dana Deutsch things. How interesting. I have a friend who constantly mis-hears things, and always comes up with a similar-sounding, but very wrong sentence. When I was teaching reading, I learned about the tendency we have to simply scan words, taking in their length and starting and ending letters and basically taking a guess at what the word is, which is how proficient readers really do read (they don't decode every letter one by one). So you can fool readers by inserting nonsensical words with similar structure but internal differences, and the context will lead to you to read it not as written, but as it should read. The human brain really does seem to want desperately to make things make sense. I might leap off into speculations about mythology, religion, and the occult, but I will resist. Sill, damn, do we hate stuff that doesn't seem to have meaning.

The "legislators" one was cool, too, though less astounding. I know there is a visual phenomenon where your brain will fill in missing detail with material from the context that makes sense. There is some optical illusion which uses a patterned wallpaper with a small object on it - when you maneuver it so that the object is in your retinal-nerve blind spot, you don't see an empty hole, you see all pattern. It's neat that the brain's coping strategies seem sort of similar in some ways regardless of what type of sensory input is going on.

I agree with others about the last one. You can still hear the melody in each one - I can't imagine saying that the melody 'disappears.' It doesn't. But then I wondered if there's a certain type of person that will impose an idea of melody on all random sound - for instance, when I hear construction work going on, my mind will usually try to make a little music track out of hammer-blows or table-saw whines. Almost every sound with presence over time seems to suggest melody to me.
posted by Miko at 6:59 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Fascinating observations, Miko - I also tend to make a little music track out of otherwise non-musical sounds, and it is comforting to hear someone else mention it. I guess I hadn't really realized I did that until you commented on it.
posted by newfers at 7:48 AM on February 21, 2008

"No way", then "Randall". Then both.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 8:06 AM on February 21, 2008

my phantom words was "no way," the "mangoes mangoes mangoes." Than I thought about "mangrove" sounds similar to "mangoes" and it became "mangrove mangrove mangrove" before shifting back to "no way" on my right and "mangoes" on my left.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:07 AM on February 21, 2008

WTF are they talking about here:

"We had a big pool to choose from, from the mysterious quintina (fifth voice) heard in some types of throat-singing, to the saxophone solo that isn't on Lady Madonna (it's actually the Beatles singing into their cupped hands)"

Sure, the "ba ba ba baa" bit, which is obviously a vocal part, is sung by the Beatles. But there IS an actual saxophone solo on Lady Madonna. It's played by British jazz musician Ronnie Scott.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:13 AM on February 21, 2008

Sorry, here's the correct Ronnie Scott link.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:14 AM on February 21, 2008

flapjax, it's an assertion made by Daniel Levitin in This is Your Brain on Music, if I'm remembering correctly. I don't have a copy of the book right here to see if he made an attribution, so that mistake might very well have originated with him.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:23 AM on February 21, 2008

I was wondering about that myself, flapjax. I never thought of that example of Beatles' beatboxing as anything other than vocally-created, and separate from the actual saxophone in the mix as well. Don't know what they meant by that.
posted by schleppo at 8:30 AM on February 21, 2008

With the Diana Deutsch one I started off by hearing only "no wang no wang" like tehloki, but very quickly it became the creepier (for me) exclamation: "No, Graham!"

...which is my name...
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 9:34 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sorry, the Diana Deutsch Phantom Words one, I mean.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 9:42 AM on February 21, 2008

Diana Deutsch is so cool. I'm still amazed by her discovery that perfect pitch is probably a teachable thing (provided you start young enough).
posted by longdaysjourney at 10:03 AM on February 21, 2008

Oooh, the barbershop one was awesome, but I'm afraid it kind of freaked me out, here at work... Also, didn't Manuel sound like a Muppet?
posted by Squid Voltaire at 11:28 AM on February 21, 2008

Almost all of these are full of it.

Barbershop: ok, yeah, binaural hearing is a nice thing, but hardly new.

If you listen to just the right or left track of the phantom word one, you'll find that it's empirically a woman's voice saying "no weh". And wow, it sounds like "no way!" No way!

The cough sound starts with (loosely speaking) white noise. The "s" sound is white noise. The cough sounds like the missing "s", so of course you can't tell what's missing. (I've noticed this effect with drums and cymbals in certain songs adding apparent sibilants and screwing up the lyrics.)

The scale illusion...well, that one half-worked for me. I heard the alternating up and down tune in my left ear but couldn't pick it out in the right. Also I'm left-handed and the blurb says that southpaw MMV. So that's something.

Phantom melodies: I don't even understand what they expected with that one. The tune is still there.
posted by darksasami at 11:34 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Tchaikovsky uses the scale one in his 6th Symphony, either the first or last movement, can't remember which. The first and second violins trade notes as in the example, and the result is the same: we hear one descending scale with harmony. Back when firsts and seconds were seated opposite each other at the front of the orchestra (rather than next to each other as they are now), it might have had a subtly disquieting effect.
posted by ancientgower at 12:16 PM on February 21, 2008

posted by UseyurBrain at 2:20 PM on February 21, 2008

The phantom words illusion is particularly interesting in terms of religious glossolalia and prophecy, historically and in fiction. Most of us if we hear such a thing would assume the person's talking in a fit, and attach little meaning to their nonsense words, but a listener who believes God is talking to them through the speaker would strain to make out relevant words, and find them. A similar effect happens with nonsense letters, or images, or static. The human mind finds patterns, whether or not they exist, and those patterns tend to be emotive or evocative words: Graham's name, "please don't", "no way", "nowhere". I suspect this process is likely to be heavily involved in dreams, hallucinations, and drug-induced vision states. (I can't find a reference to a study on it as such, but it seems a reasonable assertion.)

When "primed" to hear particular words or phrases, especially by authority, especially when the words or phrases are meaningful in the context, the effect is even greater: for example, I am assured by a psychiatrist friend of mine that, after 30 seconds or so listening to the recording, a person with low-level homicidal tendencies will hear "kill me" clearly repeated over and over. Try it! 1

This also works with actual words, in actual sentence structures: the "babbling" associated with mania, schizophrenia, heat stroke, fever etc has long been associated with prophecy, and people have recorded the words of "mad prophets" for centuries. There are a range of psychological disorders whose sufferers compulsively speak nonsense (Tourette's is a well-known example, but it in particular is a lot more complicated than just speech). The last words of Dutch Schultz are an example of this kind of thing - no-one seriously considers these prophecy (I hope!) but that they might be is a theme in Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus trilogy.

Another good example in fiction is in Grant Morrison's graphic novel series "The Invisibles", where a group of the main characters track down the head of John the Baptist, which turns out to have been mounted on an (ancient) mechanical device that causes it to whisper random syllables. The listener hears all kinds of assertions, orders, prophecies, etc, none of which have any real meaning.

[1 May or may not be true.]
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:32 PM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oh, this is interesting. The main poster seems to believe his glossolalia is prophecy (doubtful, IMO) ... but the thread is full of references to scientific study on the phenomenon.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:52 PM on February 21, 2008

Does anyone remember a sound illusion on the net a few years ago in which you would hear one phoneme if you saw a pair of lips speaking, but a different phoneme when there was no video of lips? That was amazing. Anyone? Link, please? Anyone?

The scales illusion impressed me because I heard the lower scale in my right ear and the higher one in my left, and this was still true after I swapped my earbuds left to right. That's a dramatic effect.

Also, my phantom word switched between "no way" and "bueno."
posted by etc. at 5:30 PM on February 21, 2008

etc.: It's called the McGurk Effect.
posted by inconsequentialist at 6:03 PM on February 21, 2008

And is it just me or do the phantom words sound like they have a distinct Asian accent?

Interesting! I totally heard Japanese names in the phantom sounds. "No way" morphed into "Inoue", then "Ueno" and "Nobue". With some "bueno" thrown in there too.
posted by QueSeraSera at 6:20 PM on February 21, 2008

My right ear is the same as etc.'s: "no way" with a little "bueno" thrown in (and "noge whey" a couple times). Left ear changed around a lot among "Randall," "whammo," "lame-o"(!), "rainbow," "ran boat," and "no rain."

I have pretty poor pitch, but had no trouble at all following the quarter-speed melody. Years of cousins playing "Fur Elise" verrrry sloowwwwllly?
posted by hippugeek at 10:03 PM on February 21, 2008

If anyone's interested, (and can access the full content) I've started having a debate on one of the other articles here.

Scientists sometimes draw big conclusions from small evidence.
posted by leibniz at 2:14 AM on February 22, 2008

Yes, the McGurk effect. I think that and the experiment asking you to count the number of times the players in white pass the basketball to each other are my favorites.
posted by etc. at 11:16 AM on February 22, 2008

etc., is there a website for the main experiment? Like, what number we're expected to count, what number is correct, and the theory behind the experiment? I counted 15.
posted by tehloki at 10:54 PM on February 22, 2008

tehloki, after you watch the video, enter your results here.
posted by etc. at 6:42 AM on February 23, 2008

Wow. I think I vaguely recalled seeing something large and hairy, so I put "gorrilla". Apparently after watching the video without obsessively trying to count the passes between the white-shirted players, the gorilla is pretty easy to distinguish from the black-clad ones.
posted by tehloki at 4:28 PM on February 23, 2008

I noticed the gorilla on pass 8. It went something like: for the first two passes, all seemed chaos. I wasn't sure if the ball could pass from black to white. Then I realized that white players were only passing to each other, which made counting easier, so I just focused on the white players. When the gorilla entered, I didn't see him, but when he trrned his face there was a flash of white (teeth?) so that drew my notice. Then he walked in front of a player in white.

When I answered that I had seen the gorilla in pass 7-9, the answer page said:

Well done. You know what? I don't really believe you.

Really? Did anyone make it through the whole video without noticing something weird in black?
posted by Miko at 5:33 PM on February 23, 2008

Amazingly, Miko, most people don't see it at all unless they're aware of something funny going on. For those who fall for it, it's an incredibly stunning demonstration of the fact that we don't see what we're not focusing on. Unfortunately, I've seen it ruined many times by people setting it up incorrectly, or laughing when the gorilla enters the stage.
posted by ErWenn at 9:10 AM on February 24, 2008

Wow - I've gotta try that with some other people. Neat-o. Thanks.
posted by Miko at 10:14 AM on February 24, 2008

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