essay

57520 strange signals

We are all in motion all of the time, for when we are not, we are dead and not reading these words. We are in motion simply because we live, and blood ebbs and flows in our veins, like waves in the sea, and electricity ripples through our nerves, like tiny bolts of lightning. We are in motion because we can walk, most of us, and when we walk, we are seeing and hearing and smelling and tasting and feeling, and the effort of walking quickens our blood, and the electricity that leaps across our synapses. We are dynamic beings in the thrall of these rhythms, while our heartbeats mark time, and the regular ins and outs of our breathing do, too, making an ensemble music of muscular pumps. But most important, probably, is the fact that we take meaning, or make meaning, from the matter and detail of much of that passes around us, and because of this, we are always changing.

We are always changing because the outside changes us on the inside. We make meaning when we see or hear a new thing, and this new thing may change how we perceive every old thing already known to us. The new thing, once encountered, is put in some obscure mental place, and when we encounter it again, we know we already have a model of it on a shelf in our brain somewhere. Memories from the past always feed back into perception in the present. And then the past forms consonances or dissonances with the present, which may strengthen stored perceptions, or it may alter, weaken, or break them down.

Once, I was riding in a car along the shore of a lake. It was a clear winter day, of the sort that brings a sun so bright that, at first, the eyes disobey and simply do not see. The opposite shore was mountainous, and the white snow lying in the sunlight brought a stabbing pain, one that persisted, momentarily, even behind closed eyelids. The afterimage of this white surface left a hazy veil over the scene when the eyes were opened again. The surface of the lake was calm and softly rippled and, in the glare of an empty sky badged with a burning vortex of light, a few gray clouds began to gather on the horizon, and the surface of the water looked like brushed aluminium.

Further down the road, I slowly became aware of the sound of a radio. I thought maybe the car radio had been left on with the volume very low. But when I looked down at the dashboard, I could see that the display panel of the radio was dark. I tried the switch, and verified that the radio was off. The sound I was hearing seemed like a man’s voice, barely audible above the sound of gentle static, but with the rapid syllables of a radio announcer.

I asked my friend, who was driving, if he could hear it. He paused, listening, and agreed that he thought so, but was no surer about it than I was. I happened to look across the lake and I could see a line of radio or electrical towers on the other side. The sound we were hearing was so faint that it seemed possible that we simply imagined that we were hearing it. Perhaps it was a pareidolia effect, our brains trying to find order in the rushing white noise of the road, air moving past the car, and the rumble of rubber on asphalt, like seeing the shapes of animals in the clouds. But, as we put more distance between ourselves and the towers, the sound disappeared.

Turning recently to the internet, I made a few searches. It took a half-dozen tries to find a useful search query, but soon I was reading accounts of people picking up radio transmissions through their dental fillings. Others left comments about “hearing voices,” that suggested that they may be schizophrenics in need of treatment. At the same time, there appeared to be a name for a phenomenon at least superficially similar to what we experienced, called electrophonic hearing. Then, a radar technician elaborated on the sensation that some people have of hearing radar. It seems that direct electromagnetic stimulation of the human ear is possible, and even the deaf can hear these sounds.

I still have no idea if what I experenced was related to one of these things, or simply the subconscious yearning of our brains to find order in the chaos, to find the hidden meaning of things. But both instances are fairly interesting to consider.


A version of this essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 18th post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“