I’ve always been a fan of all things paranormal. I’ve seen basically every decent scary movie, and as a kid I grew up watching the old show Ghost Hunters. I’ve never really answered the question of “do you think ghosts are real?” in the fear of sounding ignorant. I usually just say “I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not…” In my sophomore year of high school, my friends and I decided to mess around with an Ouija board. The board is pretty easy to maneuver: two or more people place their fingers lightly on the planchette in the middle of the board. Then you ask a question and let the spirits guide the planchette around the board, spelling out words and answering yes or no questions. There are other precautions you can take that can supposedly make the spirits “more active” such as sitting in a circle, lighting candles, and taking the entire thing seriously (no giggling and joking around with your friends). And of course, the most important rule: don’t take your fingers off of the planchette before you move it to the “goodbye” spot on the board; otherwise you can potentially release spirits into the room.
I remember my Ouija experience very vividly. We sat in a dark room with a circle of lit candles around us – we took the process very seriously. My friend Brianna and I were the two brave souls to put our fingers on the board, and that was a moment I will never forget. When we asked a question our hands began to slide. We both freaked out: “IS THAT YOU MOVING IT” “NO I SWEAR IS IT YOU” “NO SHUT UP ITS TOTALLY YOU”. I knew for a fact that I wasn’t the one moving it, and seeing Brianna’s reaction, I was pretty sure she wasn’t moving it either. It genuinely felt as if an outside force was pulling and pushing on my hands. 3 years later, I decided to look into the science behind this creepy game.
As it turns out, there is perfectly reasonable explanation to this supposedly paranormal action. The movement of the planchette is due to a phenomenon called the ideomotor effect. The nerdist explains that “The ideomotor effect says that people can move or move something without their conscious mind realizing it.” So it’s not a ghost guiding our hands. We are making movements so subtly and unconsciously that our brain genuinely doesn’t believe it is us physically doing it. In fact, there’s a way to test the ideomotor effect yourself. BBC.com describes a little at home experiment: “you can witness the phenomenon 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.” And this is true! I remember one day my sister came home with what she called “a magic pendulum” which was a crystal attached to a string. I hung it from my hand as she told me to ask it yes or no questions that I knew the answer to. If the crystal swung clockwise it meant “yes” and vice versa. Lo and behold, that crystal got every answer right and I was freaked out, when in actuality, I was the one answering my own questions all along. While I thought I was holding the pendulum completely still, I was actually making small, unconscious movements in order to get the right answers. You may wonder, “how can you actually believe you’re moving?” Well I challenge you all to try this some day because it does actually work.
Dr. Sid Fels and Dr. Ron Rensink conducted an experiment with the Ouija board to demonstrate just how clever the idemotor effect it. “In one experiment people were asked a number of yes or no, fact based questions, with and without the Ouija Board. Participants sat down to the Ouija Board with a confederate and then were blindfolded. The confederate quickly removed their hands from the planchette. Once again, the responses in the Ouija Board condition, when particpants did not think they were in conscious control, were much better. Answering the questions verbally people got about 50% of the questions right, but with a Ouija Board they got 65% of the questions right.” As you can see, our unconscious actions play a much stronger roll in life than we expect.
This site also explains how the ideomotor effect has harmed us in the past. “This effect also underlies the sad case of “facilitated communication”, a fad whereby carers believed they could help severely disabled children communicate by guiding their fingers around a keyboard. Research showed that the carers – completely innocently – were typing the messages themselves, rather than interpreting movements from their charges.” What these studies show about the human mind’s capability is absolutely amazing. So next time you and your friends bust out the Ouija board, let them think the ghost is in control, when in reality, your unconscious mind is playing for you.