Paranormal State states case against the paranormal.

The US cable network A&E is premiering a new show called Paranormal State soon — it’s a docu-drama that follows the lives of students at Penn State’s paranormal research group, claimed on Wikipedia to be the only such college group in the country. Well, since the one at Princeton got kicked out on its can.

A&E has a vile marketing scheme to promote their new show — billboards that make you think you’re schizophrenic. Josh from Gawker experienced the incredibly tasteless display when he walked past the billboard on Prince St. in New York and heard a woman whispering in his head. Apparently, the signs are equipped with special speakers that unleash a mini-assault upon your brain when you walk past.

Doesn’t that sort of make a point that what we think of as the paranormal actually has perfectly normal explanations? Like a poorly thought-out marketing scheme?

Anyway, I’m curious if there are any audio experts out there who can further explain how this works. Crappy marketing gimmick, but interesting technology.

I might try to check this out this weekend, since I’ll once again be in the city. Part of the reason for my visit: my buddy Steve Novella will be speaking for the New York Skeptics! Here’s the info, from their site:

Saturday, December 8, 2007, 1:00 PM
New York Public Library, Jefferson Market Branch
425 Avenue of the Americas, New York at 10th st.
New York , NY 10011
(212) 243-4334
For the December meetup we will meet at 1 PM for the New York City Skeptics Public lecture.

In this lecture, noted scientist, author, and podcaster Dr. Steve Novella will discuss the basics of a skeptical world view, why it is important, as well as share his experiences as a skeptical activist. There will be an audience Q & A session after the lecture.

So bring your skeptical minds, your questions for Dr. Novella and I hope to see you all there.

I hope I see some of you there!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. What a shame, I was at Penn State when these loonies formed and didn't know about it. They would have been more fun to heckle than the Willard Preacher.

  2. Ooh, damn. I’d love to pop down for Steve’s lecture, but a friend I haven’t seen in a while will be in town. Quality time beats skepticism in this case, I’m afraid.

  3. Wow, high-tech gaslighting. And Madison Avenue has got to be among the worst hands it could fall into.


  4. They’re probably using some directional audio technology. You can basically “beam” the sound so that one person hears it but someone standing next to them doesn’t.

    When I first read about it, maybe a year ago, suggested applications were talking billboards, and signs in the isle of your grocery store. And of course military.

    This site has more info:

  5. It’s interesting technology, I’m surprised I haven’t run into it. It would be fun to get one of these and use it to scare the shit out of people You could really make someone think they were going insane ;)

  6. Randi talked about this exact same technology, I think in relation to the presentation about the fun-labs-thing (some searching on the JREF site leads me to believe it was Dr. Neil Gershenfeld's presentation) where kids get to experiment with technology and build on each others inovations.

    Anyway, Randi talked about being at MIT (?) and having someone show him a directional speaker, and then using it to screw around with some guy on the square several floors below. He also mentioned how cool that kind of technology would be to use in stage magic and mentalism tricks.

    Sadly, there's only a very, very small gap between that and the likes of Sylvia Browne and John Edward. You don't even need any imagination to see how this technology could be abused to steal from people.

  7. Regarding the directional sound: It's actually really pretty clever. In many ways, it's analogous to an AM radio transmission. Normal audio frequency sound is not very directional at all and spreads all over the place. Sound at ultrasonic frequencies(~20kHz or so) is far more directional and can be carefully focused on a rather small area.

    The logical problem, of course, is that we can't hear ultrasound. So they use a 'mixer', which multiplies the audio frequency signal with the ultrasonic signal. It modulates it. This modulated signal is now very directional and can be focused on a small area. The ear, being unable to hear such high frequencies, acts as a low pass filter to drop out the ultrasonic carrier – leaving behind only the original audio frequency signal.

    It's 70 year old radio technology, applied to sound.

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