Gravesend Inn-frasound: Subsonic Show Business

I’ve spent my career wandering around the crossroads of art, science and technology, and I’ve long been especially fascinated by the nexus of those fields: perception. Around 1999, when I started teaching Entertainment Technology full time at City Tech, I started exploring more of the science side of that intersection, and I ended up attending James Randi’s first “The Amazing Meeting” (TAM) in 2003.  This small conference featured speakers who gave rational explanations for “supernatural” phenomena, and I enjoyed it so much that I ended up going back to every conference through TAM 6.  These early meetings were especially interesting to me because of the mix of show business and science, best represented by magicians (including Randi), who were outraged by frauds who used magic tricks to rip people off.  And at TAM 3 in 2005, I saw an excellent presentation by magician and psychologist Dr. Richard Wiseman.  Wiseman’s talk was entertaining and enlightening, and the next year, Wiseman brought his excellent “Theatre of Science”  to NYC.  I invited him out to Brooklyn for lunch and a tour of my school, and we talked about ways we might apply some of his research to our Gravesend Inn haunted hotel attraction.

One of Wiseman's more interesting perceptual investigations we discussed was was “Infrasonic”, a literal combination of art and science--a concert and psychological research study.  This fascinating 2003 project was initiated by Wiseman’s colleague Sarah Angliss (who I later met in London in 2009), and was an extension of fascinating work by Vic Tandy and Tony R. Lawrence, who wrote a paper in April, 1998 that outlined, “an as yet undocumented natural cause for some cases of ostensible haunting. Using the first author’s own experience as an example, we show how a 19Hz standing air wave may under certain conditions create sensory phenomena suggestive of a ghost.”  (More here in another paper which examined another “haunted” space).  Angliss and Wiseman’s “Infrasonic” concert project took this in a slightly different direction: intentionally generating infrasound and exposing an audience to it.  Half the pieces performed in this concert had infrasound (in this case, 17.4 Hz) and the other half (the control group) did not.  And the researchers found some fascinating results (from this page, where you can find many other details): “During our concert, infrasound boosted the number of strange experiences reported among the audience, even among those who were unaware of its presence. Unusual reports included a sense of coldness, anxiety and shivers down the spine.  On average, infrasound boosted the number of strange experiences by around 22 percent. It also increased the intensity of any feelings reported.”

As a sound and show control guy, I thought this was fascinating, and figured we could do some similar testing in conjunction with our own Gravesend Inn.  However, while I had done informal double-blind testing over the years, I had never run a real psychological research study, so the idea languished until Dr. Toija Riggins came to our department.  For Spring, 2010, Dr. Riggins was looking for a culmination project, and I mentioned the the infrasound experiment idea.  This led to Dr. Riggins developing the experimental design, and creating an application to City Tech’s Institutional Review Board, which was approved in mid-2010.  We ran our experiment from Friday, October 22 through Saturday, October 30, 2010, and tested just over 200 research subjects recruited from those who had just completed going through the Gravesend Inn.  What, exactly, was our experiment?  See Part II of this series to find out!