By Phil Plait | April 12, 2008 10:13 am

Regular readers know that pareidolia is the psychological term for seeing faces and other familiar things in random patterns like clouds.

There is an aural version of pareidolia as well. You’re probably already familiar with it: silly claims that playing songs backwards reveals satanic worship, or very silly claims that you can record ghost voices on tape. In both cases, these are simply our goofy brains trying to tease information out of noise.

The funny thing about this is that if someone primes you — shows you what you are supposed to hear — then man, you can really hear it.

Don’t believe me? Then check this out:

I LOLed a lot listening to this! For about a billion more examples, head over to Kiss This Guy, which will provide hours of laughs.

Tip o’ the mitre to The Friendly Atheist.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, Pareidolia, Religion

Comments (61)

Links to this Post

  1. Carmina Buraneidolia | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine | February 20, 2009
  1. Awesome.
    But, lets be clear, some backwards messages in songs are intentional and exist (and are totally intune with the universe, man). Take for example, Nature Trail to Hell ( ).

  2. To me it looks like one of the stone formations at the beginning is flipping off God. So the video has a little of both things going on.

  3. Iain T

    I never thought I’d see the day – Aled Jones & Songs of Praise on the internet! He’s come a long way – from singing the theme from The Snowman to presenting a hymn show. Sheesh.

  4. Michael Lonergan

    Not to mention the whole “Reverse Speech” crapola. Now, if you read this post backwards, it says, “Only zombies rise from the dead.”

  5. Dan

    So, I should be eating corn salad?

    Aside from that, those two rocks at the onset actually remind me of Fonzie giving his trademark thumbs up.

    It’s the Church of the Fonz!

  6. JKH

    That is awesome Phil. Does anyone who isn’t reading along in the book know what the hell those church songs are on about anyways??…. and I love those towers pointing the way to God at the beginning. Great post.

  7. Thanny

    That was truly bizarre. With the words on the screen, I heard them. When I played it again with the video scrolled out of sight, I recognized at most a handful of plausibly English words.

    It shows an interesting link between visual and auditory language processing.

    I’m curious if the converse would be true – if you were to play clearly spoken words, while showing text blurred beyond legibility, would that let us “see” the correct words while following along? Perhaps have each blurred word highlighted as it’s spoken, to prevent getting lost.

  8. RamblinDude


    Videos like this are worth a thousand lectures on psychology.

    It reminded me of the Skinner’s Pigeon Experiment–

  9. Bob Hawkins

    According to Rush Limbaugh, if you play Britney Spears’ last but one CD backwards, you hear a voice asking, “Where did you get a CD player that plays backwards? I’ve been looking all over for one of those.”

  10. Will. M

    The San Francisco Columnist Jon Carroll has an occasional topic which has run for several years called “Mondegreens,” in which his readers and he submit misheard song lyrics. You can find examples in the archives of the on-line paper.

  11. Jeffersonian

    How I learned this.
    The Japanese edition lyric sheet of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song replaces:

    “The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands
    Our only goal will be the western shore
    How soft your fields, so green,
    can whisper tales of gore,
    of how we calmed the tides of war
    We are your overlords
    On we sweep with threshing oar
    Our only goal will be the western shore
    for peace and trust can win the day despite of all you’re losin'”


    “The coming of the cold will drive our ships to new lands
    I want to go where there’s a rest and a show
    I sometimes feel so green,
    and whisper Tales of Storms.
    Howling come, the tides are warm
    We are an overload
    Always seek, push it on,
    I want to go where there’s a rest and a show
    Peace (and just get with it)! Disband, all you losin’s!”

    However, once my college roommate had read the incorrect lyrics, he could not be convinced of the real ones, no matter the hilarious incongruities of the mistranslation by the Japanese record company employee (just picture him with his headphones and consternation) and no matter the rationality of the real ones. If it’s been printed, it must be accurate, right?
    Could not be convinced.

  12. Aerik

    Whoa, Phil I have to protest. is a bad website. It’s the opinion of EBW that everything on the internet is public domain, period. They take people’s animations and pictures, remove their trademarks, add their own watermark, and pretend that they found it and put it on the internet first. INFO.

  13. stopgap

    “According to Rush Limbaugh, if you play Britney Spears’ last but one CD backwards, you hear a voice asking, “Where did you get a CD player that plays backwards? I’ve been looking all over for one of those.”

    I was told if you play Briney Spears songs backwards they sound better.

  14. There’s a brilliant version of Nickleback’s “Frodo-Graph” over at pointless waste of time…

  15. Jeffersonian
  16. another


    It’s not big and it’s not clever. This is like a little boy saying a
    nasty word to get the parents’ attention.

    Grow up – oh and be more respectful to people who believe in

  17. Hannu Siivonen

    I wonder what “Always on the aftershave” in Stairway to Heaven (backwards offcourse) means

  18. bkallee

    Is there something disrespectful of religion? Seems a clever play on words to me. “Religious persons” have a sense of humor don’t they? At least where I grew up they did.
    Perhaps this is “another” way to look at things.

  19. Tim G

    What are expressos?

  20. bkallee

    Passed over coffee?

  21. Zeke

    A tip for the religious: when you post bizarre comments almost certainly intended to be insulting (although, do its bizarreness I can’t really tell) on a post that has nothing to do with religion and end with “Grow up – oh and be more respectful to people who believe in religion,” absolutely no one is going to be convinced that you or your religion deserve respect.

  22. Mark Martin

    Somewhat similarly is a story that Donny Osmond told about a concert early in his career. He secretly suffered panic attacks for a long time, and he went out on stage and completely forgot all the lyrics. So he just made up wordy-sounds on the fly to go along with the music. The audience couldn’t tell the difference. They heard all the lyrics just fine.

  23. Steve P.

    Paul is a dead man.

  24. Greg E

    Just out of curiosity, what is the name of the hymn they are signing in the church….??? I think it would be most interesting to see the actual lyrics juxtaposed next to the fabricated, silly ones we saw on the video.

    Nice posting and topic, Phil.

  25. More aural Bollywood pareidolia. About nipples:

    (warning: some salty language in the subtitles)

  26. Donnie B.

    Here’s another excellent one:

  27. TheBlackCat

    Would you consider ventriloquism a form of auditory pareidolia? Here, instead of the content of the sound it is the location. The location is ambiguous because of the limitations of our direction sensitivity for sound (about 1 degree when straight ahead under ideal conditions). Because of this our brain looks to our eyes to resolve the ambiguity, and ends up getting the target wrong because the doll looks like it is speaking while the speaker doesn’t. It is at least similar to this, where being primed as to where the sound should be alters your perception away from where it really is.

  28. I remember singing that particular hymn in church back when I was growing up.

  29. Steve P. says: “Paul is a dead man.”

    You mean “I buried Paul” or “Turn me on, dead man.”

    – Jack

  30. J says: “Reminds me of the talking cat video”

    That was seriously disturbing. Cats with consonants [shudder]

    – Jack

  31. But getting back to pareidolia, sometimes people see images even in maps (A link to the story is just below the map).

  32. TheBlackCat

    Notice how they had to add a non-existent line in order to complete the pentagram. They similarly had to ignore a lot of lines to get the devil horns. Also, looking at a map of Washington D.C. I see a ton of different patterns. For instance the capital building has the anarchy symbol in front of it. Hoagland would be proud.

  33. Jeff Fite

    @J: Dangit! I wanted to post the talking cat video! That one cracks my whole family up…even after dozens of viewings!

  34. Washington D.C. was deliberately laid out on a grid with major boulevards cutting across them as radials from the important centers (e.g. the White House). I find very little compelling about being able to take select radials and connect them into (most of) a pentagram.

    – Jack

  35. sci_tchr

    That was a hoot. I have to go wipe my eyes from laughing so hard.

  36. k9_kaos
  37. Jeremy

    I also want to know what the real words are. Anyone know?

  38. CyberJIT

    I think the “playing backwards” crap would end instantly if we started to look (or hear) for satanic messages in recordings of:
    – hymns
    – CDs of the Pope (yes, there are)
    – speeches of priests and prominent ultra-religious politicians.

    If someone posted audio proof that in one of these recordings there is something like “I love you, Satan”, I think they would agree that these things are pretty much in our brains, or just plain coincidence.
    Or they would turn on each other, which is fine by me, also.

  39. boggis the cat

    It doesn’t work if you know the lyrics. There are some often used phrases in Christian hymns, so some of that video didn’t sync with me where the “obvious” phrase clashed with the sub-title.

    Very interesting example of how we will hear (as we also see) what fits into our conceptual framework. Poorly discernable singing can be easily transformed by a variant sub-title, and an alien culture can get transformed into “enemies”.

    We are very limited creatures, and have difficulty thinking outside of set parameters. That can apply equally to the religious fanatics and the anti-religion fanatics. :)

  40. Gary Ansorge

    Respect is an earned attribute.

    Ideas that are flat out wrong deserve nothing but disdain.

    Gary 7

  41. Jack Hagerty:
    Steve P. says: “Paul is a dead man.”
    You mean “I buried Paul” or “Turn me on, dead man.”

    No, one of the ‘reverse masking’ was supposedly:
    Paul is a dead man, miss him, miss him.

    (Good memory, eh?)


  42. That can apply equally to the religious fanatics and the anti-religion fanatics.

    Grow up – oh and be more respectful to people who believe in
    … or… um… who don’t… and the middle ground doesn’t get enough respect either for that matter. Oh why can’t we all just get along? Or not. Whatever.

  43. Should’ve been a blockquote around the first line of my last post. Oops.

  44. J. D. Mack

    “And, if you play the new John Lennon single backwards at slow speed, it screws up your needle!” – George Carlin

    J. D.

  45. Matt Garrett

    As a Christian, I think that the whole backwards masking nonsense is just that. Nonsense. Sure, the Beatles did the whole “turn me on dead men,” and “Paul is dead” thing, (not sure about that one exactly), but if the brain was so simple that backwards messages could get you to do a bunch of stuff, it’s be a hell of lot more easier to just give the messages fowards.

    The Brain is much more complicated than that. And as such, it’s just a waste of time to play stuff backwards. I’d rather focus on the messages in songs going foward. Not to mention that even basic psychology teaches you can’t force anyone to do something they don’t already have a predisposition to do anyway.

    But even saying that, I fail to see why it bothers you guys that people waste their time this way.

  46. Pat

    Why does it bother anyone that people waste their time this way?

    Because delusion begins at home. There are enough people who have clinical pathologies without the marginal jumping onto the bandwagon of don’t-trust-anyone and the whole world is a conspiracy and you better believe us or you’re a patsy in the machine.

    Fear is there to warn you of real dangers. If you start making them up, you won’t be ready or even able to recognize real dangers. And, if you think the harmless is somehow corrupting or dangerous, you will end up with a damaged heart from constant stress. Fear constantly, die young.


  47. AngusR

    Just to give “props” (if that’s what the kids are saying these days) to the creator of this bit of silliness, Adam Buxton (British readers may know him best as the Adam of “Adam and Joe”, and those overseas may recognise him from appearances in various films – “Hot Fuzz” and “Stardust”, for example, but probably not from “Shaun of the Dead” because he was a zombie in that one). This clip, along with various other bits of silliness, can be found at

  48. Joshua Zucker

    Once you see the faces, my lip-reading skills are apparently strong enough to override a lot of the text on the screen, and I hear much more of what the words were supposed to be. Interesting! I didn’t realize how much I hear with my eyes.

  49. Irishman

    Example that always comes to my mind…

    Living Colour, “Cult of Personality”, the end of the song contains the refrain,

    “I’m the cult of -”

    about a dozen times. Someone in college sang over the line about 5 times,

    “I’m a tow truck”

    For the rest of the repetitions, I clearly heard that instead of what I new the line was. Now I think of it every time I hear the song, too.

  50. Matt Garrett

    Pat, if it is indeed a delusion, I have lost nothing but time. But if God is alive, then you’ve lost it all. Something to think about.

  51. Matt, which god? Something to think about.

  52. John Paradox says: “Jack Hagerty:
    Steve P. says: “Paul is a dead man.”
    You mean “I buried Paul” or “Turn me on, dead man.”

    No, one of the ‘reverse masking’ was supposedly:
    Paul is a dead man, miss him, miss him.

    (Good memory, eh?)”

    Yup, I’d forgotton that one.

    “Turn me on, dead man” is the reversed BMI test voice at the beginning of “Revolution #9,” and “I buried Paul” was the slowed-down voice at the end of “Strawberry Fields” (Lennon later said he was saying “cranberry sauce” which was slowed down 40-50%).

    – Jack

  53. Doug Little


    Do you ever think that if god does indeed exist he is actually going to accept people who blindly go along with something that to common sense is completely non nonsensical. Surly a higher power is going to respect someone who actually thinks about what religion actually is and doesn’t resort to Pascals wager. I think that if there is a god he is accepting people into his kingdom that don’t believe in him.

  54. Buzz Parsec

    No one will ever beat Billy and the Boingers/Deathtongue’s reverse masking which said “Respect your parents” and “Do your homework.” Bill the Cat nearly died of embarrassment.


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