Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ouija Board Explained, Magicians Unsurprised

BBC has an article up today explaining how it is that Ouija board planchettes seem to move on their own. As I in fact mentioned back in 2009 in my novel Arcana, the explanation is simple - the board picks up small, imperceptible motions in your fingers and transfers them to the planchette. This is an observation that surprises absolutely no practicing magicians. It's obvious if you spend any amount of time working with a board that it's your fingers doing the movement. After all, there are some crazy stories and 1980's movies about planchettes moving on their own but I've never met anyone who's actually observed it. The article compares the use of a Ouija board with the motion of a pendulum, another common divination tool, and dowsing, which operates according to the same principle.

The phenomenon is called the ideomotor effect and you can witness it yourself if you hang a small weight like a button or a ring from a string (ideally more than a foot long). Hold the end of the string with your arm out in front of you, so the weight hangs down freely. Try to hold your arm completely still. The weight will start to swing clockwise or anticlockwise in small circles. Do not start this motion yourself. Instead, just ask yourself a question – any question – and say that the weight will swing clockwise to answer "Yes" and anticlockwise for "No". Hold this thought in mind, and soon, even though you are trying not to make any motion, the weight will start to swing in answer to your question.

Magic? Only the ordinary everyday magic of consciousness. There's no supernatural force at work, just tiny movements you are making without realising. The string allows these movements to be exaggerated, the inertia of the weight allows them to be conserved and built on until they form a regular swinging motion. The effect is known as Chevreul's Pendulum, after the 19th Century French scientist who investigated it. What is happening with Chevreul's Pendulum is that you are witnessing a movement (of the weight) without "owning" that movement as being caused by you. The same basic phenomenon underlies dowsing – where small movements of the hands cause the dowsing wand to swing wildly – or the Ouija board, where multiple people hold a cup and it seems to move of its own accord to answer questions by spelling out letters.

It's really only naive observers and fundamentalists obsessed with "demonic forces" who think that the planchette moves on its own under some sort of occult power. A skeptic might argue that since it's really the user's fingers that make it move, the Ouija board is useless - but that attacks the entirely wrong part of the whole process. Both Ouija boards and pendulums can produce useful information if the user has some degree of psychic ability. The entire point of practice with one of these devices is to connect your psychic senses with the unconscious muscle movements of the hand. It is thus the user of the device who determines how well it works. A natural medium very well could connect with a spirit over a Ouija board, but it's the medium, not the tool, that would be making it happen.

The sense of not "owning" the motion of a planchette is enhanced by the number of people using the board, which I'm guessing is one reason that experts recommend using them in groups. The more people who are involved, the faster and more impressive the motion can be. And if the answers really are coming out of the minds of the participants, they are going to be more surprising to each individual because really, the motion is an amalgam of ideomotor activity from the entire group. Again, this doesn't make the tool useless, but it does mean that a group without any psychically talented individuals is almost certainly just going to get what it wants to hear, a sort of closed feedback loop.

Technorati Digg This Stumble Stumble


Anonymous said...

Indeed, the movement is produced by the fingers.

I have some questions regarding pendulum divination, since you brought it up:

The pendulum swings for Yes and No I'm certain directions which you program it to at first and since the movement is not consciously done, it means that your subconscious is providing the answers.

So, why does it give wrong answers? I received right answers, but I also received wrong ones. Does that mean that I might have some clots in my subconscious relating to the issues addressed to the pendulum that being wrong answers?

For example I asked if a certain event would happen sooner or later and I narrowed it down to a certain day, but when that day came, the event didn't happen. It is an event regarding some construction work in my building and I was interested because I needed to plan my actions in order to avoid the noise and mess.

Anonymous said...

sorry for the typos. new phone :)

Scott Stenwick said...

That would be because your unconscious psychic abilities are not perfectly reliable. Also, it is easy to get genuine psychic information mixed up with your own thoughts and expectations. That is one of those things where you will get better at it as you do more sustained magical practice, but even experienced magicians have trouble getting information with perfect accuracy.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I figured something has to do with me.

I use a method adapted from Franz Bardon's book Initiation into Hermetics and I retrieve my mental hand from my physical one and leave the physical one like an inanimate object.