As everyone knows, some sounds are pleasing, and others are not. Chalk drawn across a blackboard can send chills down the spine automatically; canned "muzak" evokes a mood that makes many shoppers more amenable to purchasing goods.
Automatic though our responses to these sounds may be, we at least have the satisfaction of hearing them. Some sounds, however, are too low or too high to be detected by the human ear. These sounds are known as "infra-sound" and "ultrasonics," respectively.
The following article describes an experience with the unsettling uses to which the government now appears to be putting ultrasonics. For the author, a respected businessman who in the past held a highly sensitive military post, the experience began innocently enough. But it soon turned into a nightmare in which abject terror and euphoria could be induced in him at the push of a button.
REASON went to considerable lengths to establish the truth of the story, including an on-site visit to the experimental facility in question. We researched 15 years of published materials on the effects of ultrasonics upon human behavior, and consulted leading authorities in the field.
The research was frustrating at first. Officials at the experimental facility denied the story, although one did concede that the effects of inaudible sounds were of interest to the agency's scientists The library at the test facility contained numerous works on ultrasonics, but little on their physical or psychological impact.
A search elsewhere of published materials on ultrasonics proved to be more rewarding. The destruction wrought by high-intensity ultrasonics is well-documented; in experiments with mice, Dr. F. J. Fry of the University of Illinois has created extensive lesions in the brain of the animal. Lesser intensities suppress electrical activity in the central nervous system of the subject.
The impact on humans has also been tested, although to a lesser degree. Studies by the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research at the University of Southampton, England, discovered that workers exposed to ultrasonics from industrial dish washers displayed a number of symptoms. In a 1967 article published in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine, the study group concluded that the inaudible sounds caused nausea, fatigue, ear complaints, and headaches persisting for several hours after exposure to the ultrasonics. Since the authors seemed to be even more susceptible to the symptoms than the workers, they speculated that the workers grew somewhat acclimatized after repeated exposures.
Aerospace medical researchers in the United States report similar effects of inaudible sounds upon behavior. A paper released in 1971 by Dr. Walter Grether, of the U.S. Air Force, did not explore the results of high-intensity ultrasonics, but it did contain intriguing information aboutthe effects of infrasound-that is, vibrations too low to be audible. Nausea, giddiness, and impairment of motor ability were among the consequences observed.
Dr. Karl Kryter, a noted authority on sound who is now based at the Stanford Research Institute, told REASON that infrasound has the ability to do great damage to the body. fi the intensity and frequency are right, he said, the sound can "'splatter" organs such as the brain and the eyes Members of the Psychology Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara concur that infrasound can do bodily harm, and even kill.
Dr. Kryter expressed some' skepticism that ultrasonics are capable of inducing sudden shifts in mood states, noting that high-frequency sounds lose strength rapidly when traveling through the air, and that skin and hair block much of their remaining energy. He added that ultrasonics of a constant pitch seem not to affect human emotions.
But Dr. Kryter did leave the door open for a technical explanation of the incidents described in the article. If the ultrasonics were of high intensity and transmitted at close quarters, they could penetrate clothes, hair, and skin. And if the high-frequency waves were modulated to increase and decrease in intensity at a low rate, they might create resonances similar to those of infrasound-upsetting electro-chemical activity within the brain.
Because the agency in question has power over his livelihood, "Lee Victor" requested that we use a pseudonymous author's name and disguise the identity of the research facility, We have agreed to his request to remove the likelihood that he would face retaliation for his disclosures.The ad seemed innocuous enough: "Volunteers wanted for isolation study. Twenty day simulation of underwater habitat. Apply at Archer Facility."
The extended period of free time would give me a chance to catch up on a backlog of reading and writing. It would be a very simple experiment. I applied. After two months of interviews, 1 was accepted as one of a three- man crew to participate in a make-believe undersea voyage. My responsibility involved little more than being isolated in a land-based compartment with two other men, age 27 and 32, and to make changes to our captive environment as we saw fit. Every day, a psychiatric research technician would drop by to chat. The voyage would become one of the strangest experiences of my life.
As I walked into the test chamber at Archer, I became aware of a presence, a pervasive pressure which made me feel as if I was walking through layers of cobwebs. The cobwebs were only there subtly, and seemed to involve my mind more than any physical state of being. I shrugged the sensation off as being little more than first-day nerves in a new environment.
After meeting the other two participants, I was shown my cabin-a small room with a single bed. For the first five days of the voyage, we were to interact; the next 10 we would be isolated in our cabins; the final five we would again interact. Simple enough. A straightforward socio-environmental project-or so I thought.