Phobia of the Week: V2K Anxiety

V2K: Voice-to-Skull. ZEPHYR/Science Photo Library/Getty

Internet forums and online support groups help guide us through life's trails and tribulations -- even the delusional ones. Just consider V2K (voice to skull) anxiety, the stress associated with the belief that government entities are beaming thoughts, messages or subliminal programing directly into your skull.

Pad that out with typical conspiracy thinking and your know how the script reads: A shadowy agency busies itself beaming microwave signals into the brains of random individuals for the purposes of experimentation or some larger plot.

There's no truth to this, of course. It's all a matter of auditory hallucinations (often associated with psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia), delusional disorders and other mental maladies. Most infamously, the 2008 Washington Navy Yard shooter reportedly suffered from V2K delusions.

V2K simply provides a tempting script for the addled mind, in large part because there is some truth behind it. The microwave auditory effect is a reality.

Microwave Telepathy

To refresh, microwaves are a form of electromagnetic radiation. Microwave technology allows us to heat a burrito and transmit wireless power, but it also allows us to induce the perception of sound in both hearing and deaf individuals. Neuroscientist Allan H. Frey published the first paper on this microwave auditory effect back in 1962, stating the following:

"Using extremely low average power densities of electromagnetic energy, the perception of sounds was induced in normal and deaf humans. The effect was induced several hundred feet from the antenna the instant the transmitter was turned on, and is a function of carrier frequency and modulation. Attempts were made to match the sounds induced by electromagnetic energy and acoustic energy."

By this method, researchers were able to transmit the sound of a human voice into the heads of test subjects. The waves activated cochlear receptors in the same way normal hearing does. And so, what sounded like an electrically-modulated voice (which no one else could hear) spoke numbers or short words to the test subject. The messages were kept simple, however, lest the waves exceed minimal safe exposure limits.

The effect has largely remained a curio, though the U.S. Military has certainly looked into possible applications. According to WIRED Magazine, the term "the telepathic ray gun" came up in a 1998 U.S. Army study, while the U.S. Navy researched the technology in 2003.

The MEDUSA Device

Journalist David Hambling reported on the issue for both WIRED and New Scientist back in 2008, interviewing Lev Sadovnik, who worked on the MEDUSA (Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio) device for the Navy. Sadovnik stated that the technology was effective, but carried with it the risk of brain damage due to high-intensity shockwaves generated by the microwave pulse.

At worst, Hambling reported, such technology could constitute a brain-killing death ray. But it could also see use as a bird deterrent or a subliminal advertising transmitter.

And so, V2K technology is very possible, and the possible applications are certainly disconcerting. But here's the bottom line: You are not at the center of some black ops psychic experiment. You are not a targeted individual, as darkly seductive as the explanation may seem.

If you're hearing voices or unexplained sounds in your head, go see a doctor. It's a symptom of medical illness.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.