Tag Archives: back masking

Did Grover drop the F-bomb?

The science of suggestion

A clip from Sesame Street is circulating online and there is a debate about what Grover said. Have a listen, does he say “that’s a f**king excellent idea”?

But could it be, “that sounds like an excellent idea!”? Have a listen again with that suggestion in your mind. For me, what you hear depends on what you’re primed to hear.

This is playing on the same perceptual illusion that leads some people to hear satanic lyrics when playing Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” backwards. Here is a demonstration of the satanic lyrics.

But proper scientific experiments show that if you listen to “Stairway to Heaven” backward with your eyes closed, what you actually hear is gibberish [1]. Try listening to the video again but without looking at the lyrics. Even though you might remember the odd word you’re meant to pick out, it is basically gibberish. The satanic lyrics are heard only if the printed lyrics are there as a prompt.

What is going on? When we speak sometimes the words come out slightly garbled. Also if you’re chatting in a noisy environment some of the speech will get hidden by noise about you. Consequently, it is an important skill for a listener to be able to correct errors in speech. The brain is very adept at finding patterns and fitting together different sources of information. But sometimes the brain gets it wrong, in this case matching the written satanic lyrics to the otherwise incomprehensible backward murmurings.

The same thing is happening with Grover. What he said was ambiguous, and consequently by prompting that it might be the f-word, then that is what the listener thinks they hear. As Professor David Alais from the University of Sydney said to The Guardian over the similar Yanny/Laurel debate:

“All of this goes to highlight just how much the brain is an active interpreter of sensory input, and thus that the external world is less objective than we like to believe.”

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/16/yanny-or-laurel-sound-illusion-sets-off-ear-splitting-arguments

Do you know of any other audio examples? Is it true that Fanny Cradock once dropped the F-bomb?

Further reading

  1. S. B. Thorne and P. Himelstein, “The Role of Suggestion in the Perception of Satanic Messages in Rock-and-Roll Recordings,” Journal of Psychology 116 (1984): 245–48.
  2. I. M. Begg, D. R. Needham, and M. Bookbinder, “Do Backward Messages Unconsciously Affect Listeners? No,” Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology 47 (1993): 1–14.
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