Talking Back[wards]

By Langston, William; Anderson, John Chris | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Talking Back[wards]


Langston, William, Anderson, John Chris, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


A Test of the Reverse Speech Hypothesis: Are Listeners Able to Detect the Emotional Content at Backward Speech?

AT THE HEIGHT OF THE SCANDAL involving Monica Lewinsky if President Clinton had said during his Grand Jury testimony, "Kiss the lying ass," it would have caused quite an uproar. According to David John Oates, Clinton said precisely that. Only he said it backward while simultaneously responding to a question about his testimony in a previous deposition. Furthermore, Clinton was not aware he was saying "Kiss the lying ass" because it was placed into his speech stream by his unconscious mind. How is this possible? The mechanism is described by Oates in his book Reverse Speech: Voices from the Unconscious (see also his web page: www.reversespeech.com). [1]

Oates claims to have discovered that speech actually contains two signals. The forward message is constructed by the left hemisphere and is produced and perceived by the conscious mind. As that is happening, a backward message is being constructed by the right hemisphere representing thoughts and issues in the unconscious mind. The backward message serves a psychodynamic purpose for the speaker. Much as other defense mechanisms can be used to deal with unpleasant information in the unconscious, reverse speech allows a safe outlet for information that would otherwise overwhelm the person producing it.

According to Oates, the implications of his discovery are truly enormous. We agree that if true, they would be. Backward messages, he says, reveal the truth about people's mental states, their internal conflicts, and even the way they fit into the cosmological structure of the universe. Reverse speech has practical implications (serving as a lie detector for job interviews and police departments) and therapeutic applications (by revealing the true state of the unconscious, it is possible for a therapist to know precisely what treatments are required).

Many of the reversals that Oates finds are actually metaphors that he claims come from the collective unconscious (as described by Jung). It is the job of the reverse speech analyst to interpret those metaphors and explain what they mean. It takes years of practice to become a reverse speech analyst. Part of the training involves how to hear speech in the "gibberish" of the signal. Other training teaches the analyst the metaphors used in reverse speach. Without understanding the metaphors, the statements made in reverse speech make little sense.

The purpose of the research reported here was to test some of the claims made by Oates for the reverse speech hypothesis. One might wonder why a hypothesis that makes such fantastic claims is worthy of serious attention. The reasons are clear. If the hypothesis is correct the implications are as far-reaching as Oates and his followers claim. Businesses, the police, and even the partners of unfaithful spouses will have a new tool at their disposal for ferreting out the truth. Furthermore, therapists will be able to gain new insight into their patients' thought processes, making for more effective treatment. On the other hand, if the hypothesis is wrong, a lot of wasted time and effort can be saved. Clients can be spared the trouble of undergoing an ineffective treatment. Innocent people can avoid being accused, tried, and convicted, as they were in the early 1990s when belief in facilitated communication inspired fantasies of sexual abuse in facilitated conversations. [2]

The reverse speech hypothesis makes two claims that can be tested empirically: 1. Backward messages are being embedded into forward speech by the unconscious. 2. These messages can be perceived and understood by listeners. One could argue that the second claim is not all that unreasonable. Surprisingly, reversing speech does preserve a fair amount of the available phonetic information. Begg, Needham, and Bookbinder demonstrated that sentences played backward can be recognized later. …

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