March 29, 2015

Phantom voices in the night

HAVE YOU EVER HEARD VOICES when you’ve been alone on the night watch at sea? Voices that don’t really exist?

Lots of people have, apparently, and it seems to be quite normal. The explanation is given by Professor Michael Stadler, a psychologist, in his book Psychology of Sailing: The Sea’s Effects on Mind and Body (International Marine).

All the noises and sounds in our environment are made up of multiple overlying sinewaves, according to Stadler. Pure sine waves with only one frequency do not exist in nature, he claims, nor can they be reproduced by musical instruments. They can only be reproduced artificially by tone generators.

On the other hand, there are many noises that contain a broad spectrum of almost all possible frequencies in random combinations. For example, there’s the noise of the wind and water in stormy weather at sea. These are complex noises that can, of course, contain all the frequencies you’ll find in speech or music.

“It thus often happens that the sailor who has been exposed to this white noise for a long time, and who is also worn out from struggling against the storm, will succumb to the illusion that he is hearing voices or music, even though he is quite alone,” says Stadler. “This is not a psycho-pathological symptom but an entirely normal occurrence which many people experience.”

He observes that even in a normal environment our hearing system operates a constant filtering process. “This selects the frequencies which are of greater significance for survival from the background of noise, which might otherwise mask them. Without this filtering process we would not be able to understand what the crewmember calling out from the fo’c’sle was saying.

“In extreme cases, when one is tired and perhaps in a position where the sound of another voice would be welcome, it can quite easily happen that the acoustic system understands something from the stimuli which in reality does not exist.”

Boaters have reported hearing phantom cries for help from someone in the sea at night, which must be a frightening sensation, and, of course, there is Joshua Slocum’s famous story about how the pilot of the Pinta came aboard the Spray and told him he would help him while he was sick.

It’s good to know that hearing human voices or music at sea is a frequent and normal occurrence, and that those who experience it are not necessarily crazier than the average yachtsman.

Today’s Thought
The voice which speaks in conformity with our dearest hopes will always be listened to.
— Emile Gaboriau, File 113

As an airplane is about to crash, a female passenger jumps up frantically and yells: "If I'm going to die, I want to die feeling like a woman."
She removes all her clothing and cries: "Is there someone on this plane who is man enough to make me feel like a woman?"
The guy in front of her stands up and slowly takes off his pants. 
"Sure honey," he says. "Here, iron these!"

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


DaShui said...

Lindbergh talked to a gremlin, what sailors are hearing is Davy jones inviting them to visit his locker.

Alden Smith said...

One of the sanest books on sailing alone is Frank Mulvilles 'Single - Handed Cruising and Sailing. A great read and good advice based on sound experience.