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Things that occupy our thoughts often occupy our imagination. But can they affect our perception? As children we all used to stare at clouds and see different shapes, like cars or castles. Our brain tries to find meaning out of things and tries to fill in the gaps of missing information. This is true for all kinds of stimuli.
It's not very often that you read about the general prosecution investigating a child's toy. Usually this may be related to the plastics used or perhaps because of the depiction of violence or adult content. But apart from the prosecution being petty as usual, what should one think when his office opens an investigation on toy guns that allegedly insult prophet Muhammad's wife, Aisha?
For about three years now over-zealous Imams in several Arab countries keep on appearing in mosques with Chinese made toy guns that play a pre-recorded message when the trigger is pressed, in an incredibly surreal and ridiculous scenes warning people of some Iranian-Shia conspiracy to indoctrinate children with hate to Aisha and the Sunni faith.
In the video above, the toy gun has a low quality recorded voice module that plays after you press the trigger "GO GO GO!! PULL OVER AND SAVE THE HOSTAGES!" what Arabic speakers may hear is "GO GO GO!! EDRAB EL SAYEDA AAI'SHA" in a Saudi dialect. Which means “hit lady Aisha.”
The low quality of the toy gun speakers and the recording makes the stimulus ambiguous and it's not clear for Arabic speakers that this isn't Arabic. The brain restores the unclear sounds to match familiar words. When the perception of a stimulus is different from its objective reality, it's considered an illusion. We can be fooled by sensory illusions and in this case auditory one no matter how many times we hear it or how much we know about it.
I can hear both sentences when I listen to it as if it's the auditory equivalent of a Rubin vase. I just need to focus a bit more to perceive the English. There may also be an element of suggestibility. In one of Diane Deutsh's experiments the words that appear to the listeners from the auditory stimulus are related to what's occupying their thoughts. The context in which the stimulus is presented influences the brain top-down processing.
What's occupying the thoughts and imagination of the Imams is influencing their perception. What's dangerous is that despite attempts to explain what is really recorded on those toy guns they refuse to listen and continue to propagate their prejudice and hatred toward Shia. While the prosecution is wasting its time over the equivalent of castles in the clouds.
- For examples of auditory hallucination check this New Scientist article. Or Diane Deutsch's page of the illusions she discovered.
- The McGurk effect
- Phonemic restoration effect
H/T: @SamerAlAtrush for link to the videos.