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Rorschach Audio – Your Ears are Alight!

January 24, 2016

As will hopefully be clear to anyone familiar with this project, audio illusions arise as side effects of the mind’s ability to employ “perceptual hypotheses” – what in plain language we’d call intelligent guesswork – to restore streams of intelligible and coherent meaning, in situations in which accurate perception has been compromised by listening to interrupted or unusually quiet or distorted speech. From time-to-time this faculty leads the mind to guess wrongly, and it is those (very occasional) mistakes that we think of as being auditory illusions. It’s important to remember however that this exact same faculty also helps us to make sense of all speech. Because that mental guesswork is (usually) so sophisticated however, we perceive most speech accurately, and tend therefore to remain more-or-less blissfully unaware of the important role that psychology of illusion – it might be more accurate to say psychology of projection – plays in normal perceptions of everyday events. In this sense, the “Rorschach Audio” narrative extends way beyond a simple analysis of the role that audio illusions play in fringe activities such as EVP listening, into a much more general analysis of psychology of perception.

As anyone who attended the “Rorschach Audio” lecture-demonstrations should also be aware, a whole battery of cognitive psychology experiments can be used to show that this faculty is active rather than passive, and not only projective, but compensatory, restorative and sometimes predictive as well. This faculty is also creative, and perceptual creativity lies at the heart of what we think of as being fine art, and also emerges in that other great art form – humour. As it happens, the communications theorist Marshall McLuhan characterised advertising as the folk art of the 20th century, and illusions of sound are familiar to the public from (for example) a classic advertising campaign that the agency HHCL devised in 1989. The HHCL adverts promoted the sound quality of Hitachi corporation’s high-grade Maxell brand cassette tapes, under market pressure from the new CD format. So, in parody of D.A. Pennebaker’s promotional film for Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, song lyrics for “The Israelites” by Desmond Dekker are misheard as “me ears are alight” (the joke is that the illusion kicked-in because clear perception was compromised by listening to inferior quality audio cassettes).

More recently a very similar gag was used by the agency VCCP to transform perceptions of a (frankly) bland-sounding on-line brand into a market leader – being actively misheard as “Compare the Meerkat”. Interestingly, although this time in the visual realm, a version of what’s almost the same joke was used in the “Should have gone to Specsavers” campaigns (devised in-house). Incidentally, if you check out “Subterranean Homesick Blues” on You Tube, that’s beat poet Allen Ginsberg chatting in the background. When it comes to perceptual creativity and active listening, your ears really are alight!

Article copyright Joe Banks © 24 Jan 2016

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