Tuesday, January 04, 2005


The Guardian gives a column today to the supposed "electronic voice phenomenon", apparently because it will appear in a film soon. For those who have so far avoided this nonsense, this is the belief that you can hear the voices of dead people in white noise on various electronic devices. Now, there are two - so far equally valid - rational explanations for this perception. The difference is based on your view of the nature of language. The equal validity is because the debate between the theories rests unresolved by experiment.

If you take one view, associated with Chomsky and Steven Pinker, we all have an innate (presumably evolutionary) physical adaptation for language. If you take the other (Skinner), we have an ability to learn that, in our social circumstances, leads us to develop an expert skill in language. For our purposes there is in fact very little difference between these, even less when you think that the brain's organisation can alter through learning. What matters is that language is so important to us that we are predisposed to detect it. Scientific experiments have shown that, if you play meaningless noise at human beings, they tend to perceive words. If you start by showing them something else, that will tend to turn up in the words they think they hear. This is of course just what you'd expect from a creature with a sense attuned to understanding language - at the moment, there are posters on British railway stations with a message about mistreating the staff garbled up, and the tag "It doesn't make sense". Of course it does make sense, or the poster would be unintelligible. Although the spelling is scrambled (knid? aubse?) we understand it without difficulty, because we assimilate it to our knowledge of language.

With the so-called electronic voices it should be clear that the same process is at work. The prevalence of dead relatives might either be a Freudian issue or simply explained by the fact that we learn language around them. Ha.

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