By Courtney Jerk
A few months ago, Wild World profiled the Vance vs. Judas Priest trial, wherein the band were brought before a US court of law following the suicide and maiming of another boy, who claimed that the heavy metal band’s music provided inspiration for the self-focused violence. This was the stuff the PRMC’s dreams are chock full of, and subsequently, the band’s music was scrutinized by lawyers and their expert consultants, who alleged that back masked messages had in fact influenced the boy’s actions. After receiving some mail about the actual validity of back masking as well as subliminal messages, I’ve decided to expand a bit on the mechanics of back masked suggestions and even explore their supposed validity.
Subliminal perception is something that occurs whenever stimuli presented below the threshold for awareness influence a person’s thoughts, feelings, or actions. By definition, the word subliminal means “below the threshold of consciousness.“ The term was originally used to describe situations in which weak stimuli were perceived without awareness. Recently, the term has described any situation where unnoticed stimuli are perceived, and is tossed around especially fervently during lawsuits involving musicians.
This concept is interesting, since it suggests that people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions are affected by things that are discerned without an awareness of the perception. Since the late 1800s, there have been hundreds of studies conducted on the matter, with the results having shown that considerable amounts of information capable of informing decisions and guiding actions is recognized, even when the person is unaware of it. But on the other hand, there have also been plenty of studies done that show that subliminal messages have no affect on a person’s actions at all.
In controlled laboratory settings, studies have shown that stimuli can be perceived even when they are presented under conditions that make it difficult to distinguish one stimulus from another. The British psychologist Anthony Marcel conducted studies in the 70s that consisted of the observer having to classify a string of letters as either a word (such as doctor) or a non-word (trodco). Marcel found that a letter string was identified as a word more quickly when it followed a related word (such as nurse) than when it followed an unrelated word (such as bread). Similar studies have been conducted since the 70s, confirming Marcel’s findings. The studies also established that other stimuli such as pictures, spoken words, and faces can facilitate decisions when presented under conditions that make it difficult to distinguish one stimulus from another.
There have, of course, been many claims made over the years about the power of subliminal messages. In 1957, a market researcher named James Vicary claimed that over a 6-week period, 45,699 patrons at a movie theater in New Jersey were shown subliminal messages while watching the movie “Picnic”. The messages “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Eat Popcorn” supposedly flashed for 3/1000 of a second every 5 seconds on the screen. The duration of the messages were so short that they were never consciously perceived. Vicary claimed that in the 6-week period, popcorn sales rose 57.7% and coke sales rose 18.1%. However, Vicary never released a detailed description of his study, and there has not been any independent evidence to support his claim. It’s a popular belief that his study was most likely fabricated. There have also been the numerous lawsuits and court cases over the years in which family members of dead teenagers have claimed that a band’s embedded subliminal messages drove their child, or another person, to commit murder, suicide, rape, or any number of heinous crimes. According to these people, the music told them to do it, whatever it may be, and so they did. It’s usually discovered that the people involved in these lawsuits have serious mental problems, or had problems in the past. And since there is never any solid proof that the music caused someone to commit a crime, the lawsuits are usually dismissed.
Many companies have also been able to make money off of the belief in the power of subliminal messages by marketing self-help audio and videotapes. The companies claim that regular use of the tapes can cure a variety of problems and help develop certain skills. What distinguishes the tapes marketed by each company are the different subliminal messages embedded in them that can be neither seen nor heard. There have been a number of controlled studies done about the effectiveness of the tapes, but none of them have been able to find consistent evidence based on any company’s claims. There is no evidence that regular listening to subliminal audio self-help tapes or regular viewing of subliminal video self-help tapes is an effective method for improving skills or overcoming personal problems. There’s also the theory that the tapes might not even contain subliminal messages at all. One scientist’s experiments with self-help tapes showed that, like hypnotism, a person under the influence of subliminal priming would not do something that they would not ordinarily do. In the situation of hypnotism–such as in the example of a doctor that can make hypnotized people bark like dogs, etc.- most people firmly state that it will not make a person do something that they would not do anyway, even if would be something they only did behind closed doors.
A common theme regarding claims about subliminal perception is that it is somehow more powerful than perception that is accompanied by an awareness of what is being perceived. Studies indicate that subliminal perception, when it occurs, reflects a person’s usual interpretations of stimuli. There is also no evidence to suggest that people initiate actions based on subliminal messages. Most evidence indicates that in order for a person to initiate an action or change their habitual reaction to stimuli, they must be aware of perceiving the stimuli. Subliminal perception may allow people to make accurate guesses regarding the characteristics of stimuli, but subliminal perception cannot lead a person to eat or drink a certain food or beverage, and it cannot be used to cure a person’s bad habits or to make someone a better athlete. By this same token, a song that supposedly has subliminal messages embedded in it cannot singularly drive a person to kill, maim, or rape anyone, including themselves.
One of the things that people bring up when speaking of the evil nature of rock music is the idea that satanic messages are sometimes covertly comprehended by the mind of the listener through a concept known as “back masking.” The way that it supposedly works is that messages (sometimes reversed) that are below the audio level are received by the unconscious mind, and will, at a later time, affect the actions of the listener. Supposed specialists on the concept have theorized that at the base of the brain there is a type of ‘check valve,’ called the Reticular Activating System. Based on a person’s prior programmed values and conditioning, a message will either be accepted or rejected by this valve. If a message fails to match up with anything in the logical, conscious brain hemisphere, it is passed on to the next hemisphere for further evaluation. If the left conscious brain can find no matching information for the message, the creative right side takes over the process of decoding it. As the right hemisphere mirrors the new message, it is acknowledged and stored. What this means is if someone said to you “kill your mother,” the brain (Reticular Activating System) would reject it. But if the message was “rehtom ruoy llik,” it would be passed on to your subconscious for evaluation, and being that there is no rejection apparatus at this level, the message would be stored. Of course, only one time may cause it to be buried in all of the other stored information, but reinforcing the message again and again may have an impact. All talk of the subconscious mind is usually based on Freud’s theory of the unconscious, which has been discredited time and again because it has not been supported with proof in any way.
There is no doubt that back masked messages do exist–they were indeed found on the Judas Priest album Stained Class–but since there is no solid proof that the method actually works, there is no way to find musicians brought to trial guilty of murder. Even Christian musicians use back masking, referring to it as “subliminal evangelism.” These musicians also go so far as to claim that the Holy Spirit itself placed the messages in the music, without their knowledge.