Ideomotor 101: The Ouija Board


So, as part of our on-going look at basic skeptical topics, lets take a look at the Ouija board.

First things first: does it work? Actually, yes it does!

“OK, great, that’s settled then”, I hear you say, “Lets all go and commune with the devil and some demons or spirits, and find out what the future has in store.”  Well hold on, wait a moment there – it’s not that simple I’m afraid.  After all, this is a sceptical website. You didn’t think it was going to be that easy did you?

Before we talk about how it works (and of course how you can quite easily stop it from working) perhaps a little background might be useful.

During the 18th century planchettes – or pointers – were widely sold as a novelty and often used for automatic writing, where a pencil was attached to the pointer to spell out words. The Ouija Board, Spirit Board or Talking Board was first sold in its present form by two businessmen – Elijah Bond and Charles Kennard – who patented the sale of the a planchette sold with a board, printed with the alphabet. It’s Kennard who is often credited with originating the name “Ouija” – it’s said that it came to him during use of the board and was thought to be the Egyptian word for “good luck” (which it isn’t by the way).  Another explanation given for the name is a combination of the French and German words for yes – “Oui” plus “Ja”.  The truth has long been lost, but the name ‘Ouija’ is still a registered trademark and the Parker brothers – those of the ‘Monopoly’ fame – still sell a version Ouija board as a toy. Remember that people – it’s literally just a toy!

OK, so you’ve decided you just have to know next weeks lottery numbers or the name of your future sweetheart, and you’ve bought your magic glow-in-the-dark board – are you going to get the correct answers you need? Well, sorry, but no. If only it were that simple! You see while the Ouija board does indeed work – in the sense that it will spell out stuff and answer questions – it’s just that the answers and words come from those sat around the board, and not from the spirit world or demons. Remember, it’s just a toy!

So how does the Ouija board work, when the users are so adamant that they’re not influencing the planchette? Well, the human brain and nervous system are pretty amazing, and can do some things without you even being aware of them and without having to think about them: breathing, blinking and the beating of your heart, for example. Similarly, we also have the ideomotor effect – the process whereby normal, honest people can unconsciously engage in muscular activity that is consistent with their expectations and desires. In other words our subconscious mind and our muscles join in the fun and deceive us in to believing the marker is moving of its own volition, or via the will of spirits or demons. Tests by the English scientist Michael Faraday, the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, and the American psychologists William James and Ray Hyman have in the past demonstrated that many phenomena (including the Ouija board) attributed to paranormal forces, or to mysterious ‘energies’, are actually due to the ideomotor action. This work was first done around the 1850’s, so the real reason for that little shot glass spelling out “Wayne” or “Tracy” when you’re summoning up the name of your future lover has been known for a long time – but the truth is no fun and so it gets ignored or forgotten. Remember, its just a toy!

One last thing we need to address: what about all those stories of bad or nasty things happening after somebody’s used a Ouija board? Well, again, there’s a fairly easy and prosaic answer to this one too – consider this: have you ever actually witnessed someone getting their spiritual commuppence after summoning their spirits? Or even heard a reliable first hand account of such a consequence? Or, which is far more likely, was it a story from a friend of a friend? Just like most urban myths, it almost inevitably turns out to be the latter. Of course, this doesn’t mean that some people who have a very active imagination won’t have the odd bad dream, or ‘spooky’ feeling, or even see things that seem to fit the ‘predicitions’ made by the board, but this doesn’t prove that spirits are hanging around waiting for you to stop playing ‘Fuzzy Duck’ and get the Ouija board out. Secondly, we’ve evolved to like and to enjoy being scared or thrilled, and often seek out these and allow things which scare or thrill us. Being scared sets off our fight or flight response and that in turn releases hormones and adrenalin. Why do we watch horror movies or ride on roller coasters? Because they gives us a thrill and can scare us. Repeating and reinforcing the tales of woe surrounding the Ouija board mean that the whole experience is heightened, and the status of the TOY is elevated, creating a self-fulfilling loop! It’s a toy but we like to think of it as being a bit scary or having powers so we can enjoy all that lovely adrenaline!

Oh yes, I believe I said I share how to stop your Ouija séance from working or being the fun you hoped? Well, the answer, as ever, is pretty simple when you think about it critically – spirits are meant to be controlling the planchette, right? Not the people sat around looking at the board with their hands on it? So if you blindfold all those concerned, presumably the spirits will still be able to see, and so the board’s results will be unaffected. Try it – the resulting words are inevitably gibberish! Penn and Teller do just this in their excellent show “Bullshit” and the results are exactly as you’d expect. If your easily offended you’ll love it!

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  1. #1 by Colonel Molerat on July 28, 2009 - 12:56

    As the proud owner of a Ouija Board, I suggest a grand seance, to break open to doors of the eternal fiery abyss, allowing our undying daemon masters to sweep forth and cleanse this world of humanity’s petty, festering existence.
    Or something like that, anyway. Perhaps just a gentle haunting of those clowns who write my council tax bills?
    Also, remember that some people memorise the board layout, and so are unaffected by a blindfold. Spinning the Ouija Board once they’re blinded can prevent this.

  2. #2 by Colonel Molerat on July 28, 2009 - 12:59

    Ooh! I’ve just noticed that Pete wrote this. Lovely first post!

  3. #3 by Andy on July 30, 2009 - 18:01

    Ditto Molerat. Excellent first post Pete.

    My friend Simon and I were experimenting with one of these Ouija things one summers afternoon in his front room. We were about 15. So there’s this really heightened atmosphere with the curtains closed, sunlight pouring through the gaps, dust motes dancing, two 15 year olds sat at a table with a finger each on a glass on a table with pieces of hand written paper in a circle each denoting a letter or number.

    Simon is imploring the spirit to show himself, while keeping one eye on the lighter he will use to burn the spirit out of the glass should it turn nasty.

    Several attempts of “is there anyone there” or similar had evoked no response and we had filled with a level of expectation that was sure to make us burst.

    Then, suddenly BANG.

    We jumped out of our skins, he fell off his chair the table flew. It was his girlfriend, Ellen, bashing on the window because she couldn’t get an answer at the door!!!

    I think if I was a believer that story might read differently!!!

  4. #4 by Hayley on October 1, 2009 - 13:06

    Blindfolded ouija board sessions are the best. The ghosts always seem to be illiterate.

    One way to get around people memorising the board is to have them sit down to a square board set-up, put the blindfold on and then change it to a round board where the letters are in a circle.

    Very amusing.

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