Ouija Boards Debunked (Maybe)

This is a combination psychology and paranormal post, written by Kassandra Lamb and Kirsten Weiss.

Kirsten here to start things off.

A few weeks ago I posted on the origins of Ouija boards. The post got some interesting reactions. Apparently there are quite a few people out there who have had very spooky experiences with them.

Ouija BoardIndeed, many psychics believe that this simple piece of wood with letters and numbers on it is a portal to the underworld. I’ll have more on that in a minute. First Kass Lamb (who’s a retired psychotherapist) is going to explain what makes the planchette move.

Take it away, Kass.  

When I was a teenager, a Ouija board was standard fare at sleep-overs and Halloween parties. We thought it could predict the future, so we’d ask it who we were going to marry. The third time it told me that the boy I was currently infatuated with would be my future husband (a different boy each time) I became a bit disenchanted with Ouija boards. But I still couldn’t explain how that little wooden planchette seemed to move on its own, spelling out the name of my current flame.

Forty some years and a couple of degrees in psychology later, I can explain it with a phenomenon called ideomotor response. This term refers to an idea (ideo) being able to cause minuscule muscular responses that can actually cause (motor) movement without the person consciously telling their muscles to move.

No, it is not magic, and no, I’m not making this up! This phenomenon was first described by William Benjamin Carpenter, M.D., F.R.S. (I’ve no idea what F.R.S. stands for). He presented his findings to the Royal Institution of Great Britain on March 12, 1852.

At the time no one had a clue how this worked, but today we know enough about the brain to attempt to explain it.

Freud speculated in the late 1800’s that only a small part of what’s going on in our minds at any given time is actually in our conscious awareness. He used the analogy of an iceberg, the tip of which is the conscious mind and the bulk is underneath the surface.

Freud's Id, Ego and Superego diagram on an iceberg

Freud’s iceberg, depicting the conscious vs. unconscious mind  (public domain)

Freud’s theories weren’t always right but with this one, he was spot on. There is a lot going on in our brains at any given time, most of which is not conscious. Part of our brains (the cerebellum) is moving our bodies around–walking, chewing gum, typing, etc.–without our having to pay attention to each little movement. Other parts of our brains (in the limbic system and parts of the cerebral cortex) are processing emotions, making connections between current events and past experiences, etc. while we are consciously thinking about other things (in another part of our cerebral cortex).

And it is indeed possible for a part of our brains, that we are not currently consciously controlling, to tell our muscles to move a certain way. You think the thought and the movement happens, without any specific signals to the muscles that you are aware of.

Let me demonstrate with a simple makeshift pendulum–a metal clip and two rubber bands.

Holding the top of the rubber bands between my index finger and thumb (relaxed but intentionally holding my hand as still as possible), I think the word “swing” while imagining the pendulum swinging back and forth. Lo and behold, it starts to swing. When I think “circle” (I say it out loud in the video so you know when I started thinking it), it changes directions, and when I think “stop” it comes slowly to a halt.

Click the video below and watch the pendulum do its thing, then watch a second time and keep your eye on my hand. (Note: my husband took this video with his digital camera. Every time I watch this I’m amazed myself that this works!)

Note: some of the related videos that come up at the end mention hypnosis; that is because ideomotor signals are sometimes used by hypnotherapists but it is NOT a hypnotic phenomenon. It is a purely physiological response. No hypnosis required, although the power of suggestion may be involved as we are about to see.

So back to the Ouija board. I’m fifteen and madly in love with a boy named Bobby. I’m at a sleep-over. The hostess whips out a Ouija board and we start fooling with it. My fingertips are on the planchette along with those of one or two other girls. I ask out loud who I’m going to marry. The other girls’ fingertips have no vested interest in the outcome but my fingertips are listening to my brain chanting, “Bobby, please let it be Bobby.”

I am NOT telling my fingertips to move, but they get that signal anyway and the planchette starts to slowly stutter across the board toward the B. Yay!!! Then I hold my breath as I think, “Make it an O, please make it an O.” But I’m being very careful not to intentionally move the planchette because I want the TRUTH. Sure enough, we slowly slide over to the O. Somewhere around the second B the planchette really picks up speed and whizzes over to the Y, and then flies right off the board as my excited nervous system goes into overload.

This is the explanation for what makes the Ouija board planchette move. Our own ideomotor response is doing this. Now the next question is, who is controlling the messages in our brains that are being sent to our fingertips, bypassing our conscious minds along the way?

When teenagers ask it stupid questions about who they’re going to marry someday, it’s their own wishful thinking controlling the planchette. But when we ask the Ouija board to allow us to contact spirits from beyond, what happens then?

Is it still our unconscious minds–our own wishful thinking or our own greatest fears–controlling the planchette? Or is it something else?

Back to Kirsten and what psychics say on the subject.

I don’t claim this to be a representative poll, but the psychics I’ve spoken with believe that yes, you can contact the “other side” with Ouija boards. But you don’t know who (or what) you’re inviting into your home.

Most psychics and magical practitioners will erect magical wards and protections before attempting any sort of contact with spirits (not just through a Ouija board). These are to keep out anything with negative intentions.

They warn against the use of Ouija boards by the layperson who doesn’t know how to protect him/herself.

Kass here again.

Personally I don’t quite know what to believe about the spirit world but if Ouija boards can open a portal to the other side, I think it is very wise to avoid them. (Google “psychics and Ouija boards” if you don’t believe us.)

If a spirit can indeed enter your mind (when you’ve invited it in via the board), that spirit would then be able to use the board to communicate. The spirit could influences your thoughts (you would not necessarily be consciously aware of that influence nor even the thoughts themselves). Those thoughts then would move the planchette via ideomotor response.

I’m very grateful that my friends and I never asked to contact the spirit world with our Ouija boards.

Do any of you have cautionary tales you are willing to share about Ouija boards? Any thoughts or questions about ideomotor response?

Posted by Kirsten Weiss, author of paranormal mystery novels and the Riga Hayworth Metaphysical Detective series and Kassandra Lamb, retired psychotherapist and author of the Kate Huntington mystery series.

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  • Reply
    shannon esposito
    July 16, 2013 at 11:56 am

    Wow! That video is very cool! I didn’t know about the ideomotor response, thanks for that info. As far as contacting the other side with it, I don’t know. I have no problem with the paranormal and spirits, I would even welcome experiences of that nature. But, inviting them to use my own mind and body to communicate, that’s a different story. Great post, gals!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      July 16, 2013 at 4:41 pm

      I wouldn’t mind meeting a benevolent spirit either, Shannon. But after what Kirsten told me (and what I read about it) I think using a Ouija board to say ‘come on in’ should stay in the don’t-try-this-at-home category.

      • Reply
        Kim Terry
        July 17, 2013 at 12:40 am

        A group of us girls at a Halloween party used Ouija, but, it was mostly limited to light fortune-telling. (Who will I marry?) After that, when I learned what I might be inviting into my home? Forget Ouija!

        • Reply
          Kassandra Lamb
          July 17, 2013 at 1:02 am

          It’s scary that these are marketed as a game to kids.

          Thanks for stopping by, Kim!

          • Kirsten Weiss
            July 17, 2013 at 4:48 pm

            What’s interesting to me is that Parker Brothers doesn’t have a coven of witches muttering incantations over their boards. They’re mass produced, wood and paint. Which says to me that any “magic” they may have or portal opening abilities all come through the user.

  • Reply
    Renee A. Schuls-Jacobson
    July 16, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    Exactly this:

    “…if Ouija boards can open a portal to the other side, I think it is very wise to avoid them.”

    And that’s what I said on your FB page… before I even read the post. 😉

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      July 16, 2013 at 6:06 pm

      Yup, you did, Renee!

      We wanted to convey three things here. One, there is a physiological explanation for how the planchette moves; two, that doesn’t eliminate the possibility that someone or something other than yourself is moving it; three, don’t mess with them if you don’t know what you’re doing!!

  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    July 16, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    Fascinating stuff! I have a planchette in my second book. F.R.S., by the way, stands for “Fellow of the Royal Society,” an honorary title of membership into the science-based Royal Society in Britain.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      July 16, 2013 at 7:17 pm

      A big thank you to our resident history buff! I thought F.R.S. probably meant something along those lines. I can’t wait to read your next book, Kathy.

  • Reply
    Kirsten Weiss
    July 16, 2013 at 10:25 pm

    Oddly enough, I just finished interviewing a woman with ESP who organizes ghost hunts. We got to talking equipment, and she mentioned that she bans cell phones and Ouija boards, the first because it messes with the equipment, the second because in her experience, nothing good comes through a Ouija board.

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    July 17, 2013 at 8:20 pm

    Like you say, Kirsten, they’re just wood and board. I think it’s that they set the person up to invite spirits in. “Oh, a Ouija board. Cool! Let’s have a seance.” I suspect you’re right, the board doesn’t open the portal, the user does.

  • Reply
    Suzanne Vince
    July 18, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    I’ll be having major surgery soon and while I really am not consciously thinking about it during the day, I have found myself acting in ways that are very unlike me lately. I wonder if that can be attributed to the ideomotor response? Love the post, ladies. The Ouija board was part of my slumber party fun as a teenager too.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      July 18, 2013 at 2:28 pm

      Hmm, if it’s increased clumsiness or being more twitchy, could be ideomotor response. Or it could be other unconscious parts of your mind (that are thinking about the surgery or reacting to it emotionally) motivating the behavior. We only think we’re consciously in control of everything we do! (I just heard faint laughter in the back of my head. Was that my unconscious mind laughing at me? 😉 )

      I hope the surgery goes smoothly, Suzanne, and recuperation is short and sweet. Keep us posted!!

  • Reply
    August McLaughlin
    July 18, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    Fun post! My grandmother swore that she watched a table, toting a wooden ouija board, float across a room once. They’ve freaked me out a bit every since. 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      July 18, 2013 at 11:22 pm

      Whoa! I can see why, August!

      And I didn’t even notice the typo until you corrected it. Funny how our eyes see what they expect to be there. Another example of the power of suggestion!

  • Reply
    August McLaughlin
    July 18, 2013 at 10:40 pm

    *ever* since. Urgh. 😉

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