Ouija Boards Debunked, Maybe (an encore)

A couple of weeks ago, I thought, “Hey, I should do a blog post for Halloween about what really makes Ouija boards work.” Then I went browsing through our old posts and discovered we’d already done one, back in 2013! So here is an encore presentation of Ouija Boards Debunked, Maybe.

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

Kirsten here to start things off.

I’ve posted in the past on the origins of Ouija boards. That post got some interesting reactions. Apparently there are quite a few people out there who have had very spooky experiences with them.

Ouija Board

Indeed, 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.

But 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. 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. 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 theories weren’t always right, but this one is spot on.
Ouija Boards Debunked, Maybe. Freud's iceberg diagram of our minds
Freud’s iceberg, depicting the conscious vs. unconscious mind  (public domain)

There is a lot going on in our brains at any given time, most of which is not in our conscious awareness. 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 to tell our muscles to move a certain way, without conscious volition.

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 rubber bands.

Holding the top of the rubber band 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. It moves slightly, in response to the unconscious ideomotor message, but consciously I am trying hard to hold it still. (Note: my husband took this video with an older digital camera; not the best quality.)

Note: some of the related videos that come up at the end may 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. One of my friends whips out a Ouija board and we start fooling with it.

My fingertips are on the planchette along with those of 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, it, with our fingertips attached, slowly slides over to the O. Somewhere around the second B, the planchette really picks up speed and whizzes over to the Y. And then it flies right off the board, as my excited nervous system goes into overload.

This is what makes the Ouija board planchette move.

Our own ideomotor response is doing this. Now the next question is, who is controlling these 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 their future spouses, 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 greatest fears–controlling the planchette?

Or is it something else? Here is the “maybe” part of ouija boards debunked, maybe.

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.

If a spirit can indeed enter your mind, when you’ve invited it in via a Ouija board, that spirit would then be able to use the board to communicate. The spirit could influence your thoughts, consciously or unconsciously. And those thoughts then could move the planchette via ideomotor response.

So although we can say that the mysterious movements of Ouija boards are debunked by our current knowledge of ideomotor response, we cannot rule out influence from the spirit world.

Personally I don’t quite know what to believe about the supernatural. 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.)

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?


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Posted by Kirsten Weiss, author of paranormal mystery novels, including the Riga Hayworth Metaphysical Detective series, plus several cozy mystery series. And Kassandra Lamb, retired psychotherapist and author of the Kate Huntington mystery series and the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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