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White light is the presence of all of the visible light waves. White noise is the presence of all of the sound waves within the range of human hearing.


Because our sensory systems are optimized to detect change, noises at night are likely to jar us awake. White noise machines or smartphone apps (or fans) mask other noises. The frequencies from those other noises blend into the white noise as long as the loudness of the other noises is the same or lower than the white noise. If they blend in well enough, our brains won’t detect them, and we sleep right through the sound. (Mileage varies. Some people are more sensitive to other noises when presented inside of white noise.)


Side note: Pink noise is like white noise in that all of the frequencies are there, but with pink noise, the higher frequencies have decreased loudness. LiveScience has a nice explanation of the difference. Why is it called pink noise? In light, the higher frequencies are on the blue end of the spectrum. If those higher frequencies in white light are reduced, the light would appear more pink. Some people prefer pink noise over white because white noise sounds too high-pitched.


World War II (source: 99 Percent Invisible, Episode 208: Vox Ex Machina)


The 1939 World’s Fair in New York debuted the first voice synthesizer, created by sound engineer Homer Dudley of Bell Labs. After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the US called on Dudley to solve a serious communication problem. For allied military leaders to talk with each other, they had to use shortwave radio – that anyone could listen in on. They had been using a scrambling technique that would switch the frequencies of the voices, so that high frequency sounds would transmit as low frequency and vice versa. Decoding those transmissions was as easy as it appears – for anyone listening in.


Homer Dudley created a 2,000 square foot, 50-ton computer that compressed and digitized voices then masked them in white noise, on the fly. The trick? Two identical vinyl records of recorded white noise – for each conversation. At least 3,000 pairs of these records were made – each with a different white noise pattern. One set stayed in Washington, DC; the other set was sent to London. Each pair had a codename, such as wild dog.


Before a call, the communication officers would decide which record to use. At the Pentagon in Washington, DC, the communication officers would open a short wave radio connection to London. At the designated time, each side would start their records. The voice from, say Truman, would be sent from his microphone, through the machine that digitized his voice, then mixed his digitized voice with the white noise from the record, and finally sent it out over the shortwave radio frequency. To anyone listening in on that radio frequency, they would hear only white noise since Truman’s voice would blend into the white noise. Across the pond in London, the signal would be intercepted, run through the machine where the white noise playing on the vinyl record would be subtracted, and Churchill would hear Truman’s digitized voice. After the call, the records were destroyed. For the next call, a new pair was used.


This device “was involved in virtually every major military operation after 1942. It was even critical in the planning of the Manhattan Project and the dropping of the atomic bombs over Japan.”


Another side note: When this technology was declassified in the 1970s, researchers put it to good use. It’s digital compression that smooshes our voices enough to be sent through cell phone towers. Our MP3 audio files and streaming video files use this same compression technology.




This Memorial Day weekend, when you turn on your white noise generator, give a special nod to those fought in World War II.

Sue Frantz

Buy the World a Coke

Posted by Sue Frantz May 18, 2016

The 1960s and early 1970s was a rough time in the United States – 1968 alone gave us the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Vietnam War protests were occurring on college campuses across the country – 1970 brought the Kent State University shootings.


Out of this mayhem rose Bill Backer (born June 9, 1926 – died May 13, 2016). In 1971, his flight to London was forced to land in Ireland thanks to fog at his destination airport. “The next morning, Mr. Backer was stunned to see the diverse group of passengers who had been angry the night before cheerfully conversing in the coffee shop… ‘People from all over the world, forced by circumstance, were having a Coke – or a cup of coffee or tea – together.’” (Roberts, 2016). Bill Backer was the adman who brought us this commercial, introduced to a new generation in the final episode of Madmen.



In this one-minute commercial – music video, really – Backer tells us that while we all may be different in so many ways, by sharing a Coke, we are all part of a single ingroup. During such a fractious time period, what a wonderful message: Hey everyone, let’s just have a Coke and sing as one – if only just for a minute.


In 2016, on the eve of a U.S. presidential election, with the country feeling as divided as ever, I would love to see someone, including an advertiser, step forward and offer a unifying message. I tell my students that what would bring about world peace is being attacked by aliens from outer space (one heck of a superordinate goal), but I much prefer the ingroupiness invoked by a serene image of all of us on a hilltop, singing together with a Coke in hand.  


For a quick classroom demonstration, show the video to your students. Ask students in pairs, small groups, or as a class, to posit some possible ingroups for the people on the hilltop before they gathered there (e.g., culture, country of origin), and then identify the dominant ingroup conveyed by the commercial (e.g., Coke drinkers). Conclude the exercise by saying, “And if you’re drinking a Coke, you’re part of that ingroup.”


Bonus tip: If you do buy the world a Coke, you'll probably feel happier -- "Doing good... makes us feel good" (Myers, 2014).


Myers, D. G., & DeWall, C. N. (2014). Psychology in everyday life (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Worth.

Roberts, S. (2016, May 16). Bill Backer, who taught the world (and Don Draper) to sing, dies at 89. Retrieved from

Whatever words researchers have chosen to use to refer to people with intellectual disability have been turned into pop culture insults, such as idiot, imbecile, and moron. In more recent decades when researchers favored the term mentally retarded, “retard” became the preferred insult. In fact I heard a student utter this in my class just a couple weeks ago.

The student, I am sure, did not intend to offend an entire group of people. Instead, she was using a word she learned to be a good stand-in for asinine. Personally, I’d like to see asinine make a comeback. It’s a good word. It nicely calls out asinine behavior without denigrating a group of people.


In the fall of 2012, after a presidential debate, Ann Coulter tweeted “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard” ( On the Special Olympics website the next day John Franklin Stephens responded. “I’m a 30 year old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow. I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you. In fact it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night.” His time was well-spent; he wrote a beautiful, well-crafted response. He closed with this, “Well, Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor. No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much. Come join us someday at Special Olympics. See if you can walk away with your heart unchanged.” He signed it, “A friend you haven’t made yet.”


More recently, a New York Times article (May 7, 2016) reflected on the use of the term intellectual disability, the favored term for the last decade. The article provides a nice historical summary of both the language used and how people with intellectual disabilities were treated. Michael Wehmeyer (director of the University of Kansas Beach Center on Disability) notes that intellectual disability is “the first term that doesn’t refer to the condition as a defective mental process – slow, weak, feeble… Intellectual disability conveys that it is not a problem within a person, but a lack of fit between that person’s capacities and the demands of the environment in which the person is functioning.” Although he personally prefers cognitive disability (and so do I, not that I really get to have an opinion on the matter).


It is difficult to imagine how “intellectual disability” could be twisted into an insult. While those who think of such things work on that, the rest of us can work on helping our students understand how offensive it is to casually toss around the word retarded as an insult. This is an easy topic to tackle when covering development, intelligence, or perhaps even better, stereotyping and prejudice.


We seem to have largely moved past “that’s so gay” as an insult. We can do the same with “that’s so retarded.”



The niece of a woman with an intellectual disability

While we can talk about auditory hallucinations in class, it’s difficult for students to understand how much of an impact this experience can have on the people who must cope with the hallucinations.


The free Hearing Voices app provides students with simulated auditory hallucinations (Android; may or may not be available for iOS – check iTunes). The app’s disclaimer statement notes that the audio simulations were “recorded by people who hear voices. The content is designed to reflect the variety of voices commonly experienced, as such some voices will be positive, providing support and encouragement, while others will be confusing or critical, perhaps repeating strange phrases or disparagements. It is vitally important that the recordings sufficiently mimic real-life and therefor the footage you will hear does contain profanities and explicit language which some people may find offensive.”


The app comes with two activities and three exercises. The activities ask the listener to do a memory task and a mental math task while listening to the simulated auditory hallucinations. The exercises ask the listener to engage in conversation with a friend or engage in some other everyday activity while listening to the audio.


If you would like to have students experience this in class, ask them to bring headphones (the iPhone users can plug their headphones into the Android phone of another student). One student can listen to the simulation while holding a conversation with the student next to them. And then have students switch roles so the other student can experience the simulated auditory hallucinations. Each activity and exercise comes with a “reflective prompt” that you may choose to use as a writing prompt for an out-of-class assignment.


If students would like to explore further, in the Podcasts section of the app, four people speak of their experiences with auditory hallucinations. In the Explanations section, students can explore sociocultural, psychological, and biological contributors to the experience of auditory hallucinations.

At the time of this writing, the app contains some glaring typos, but that doesn’t detract from the app’s value.


There are several auditory hallucination simulation videos available on YouTube, such as this one. If you don’t want to ask students to download an app, students can launch on of those videos instead, such as this one:



[Thank you to Dana Wallace for posting on May 4, 2016 a link to this Hearing Voices app on the Society for the Teaching of Psychology Facebook page!]