Ideomotor Effect

o1The human brain is a truly amazing organ. It can cause other body parts to perform tasks on command, such as closing the door (volition). It is also capable of so many things, some of which we are not even aware. Consider all the functions our brains performs without the slightest reminders from our consciousness (excitomotor actions): breathing, heartbeat, controlling body temperature and blood pressure, organ function. Similarly, survival instincts such as fight or flight, pulling your hand away from fire (sensorimotor actions) your brain does instinctively. [3] There are myriad other things our brains do on their own that are not life maintaining: blushing, tearing up, that silly grin you can’t suppress when that certain someone is around, fear responses. This article focuses on some other things our brains are up to in certain situations, without our conscious being aware. Let’s explore…the Ideomotor Effect.

In the Victorian Era, the paranormal had become all the rage…with that popularity came those who sought to make money from it. It was a time known for séances, Ouija, table tilting and others. The most noted and hotly debated (today, that is) is the Ouija. Let’s start there. At the Ouija’s height of popularity, the average life expectancy was 50; mothers died giving birth; people wanted to talk to their loved ones. Ouija was even consulted in solving crimes. In the 1920’s troubled financial times, Ouija was used to ask about prospects of an upturn. There was a board in nearly every house. [ibid] Later popularity waned, coinciding with the rising knowledge of the scientific data proving the game was just that – a game, not a valid means of speaking with the dead. The truth of the matter is that the science proving that Ouija is not paranormal was developed by physiologist William Carpenter in 1852, nearly 40 years before the Ouija was even patented in 1891, though used in Europe prior. Ouija remained a benign parlor game associated with nothing negative. [1,3,5]

02Today, the mere mention of Ouija boards sparks a firestorm of debate. Have you ever wondered where the idea that Ouija were evil originated? I certainly did. Hang onto your hats, folks! In 1973, the movie “The Exorcist” took the box office by storm; the story of a girl possessed after playing with Ouija. Almost immediately, the public began cries of Ouija is evil and summons demons. [5] Who knew? Funny how so many people put more stock in fictional movies and television shows than they do hard, proven science. My team has been called to ritualistically destroy Ouija boards for people – all because of a Hollywood created movie! Is it any wonder that National Paranormal Society does not discuss movies or television on the Facebook group?

The “forces” truly at work using an Ouija also apply to many other methods used by some in the paranormal world, including dowsing rods, pendula, automatic writing, and table tilting. Similarly the same principle applies to some methods used in days both ancient and modern to “cure” certain conditions. For the purposes of this article, we will not address the pseudo-medical end if the topic. These “forces” are known as the ideomotor effect.

03As I mentioned in the introduction, our brain does many things without our conscious mind telling it to do so. Using the Ouija again as an example, participants lightly place their fingertips on the planchette, and someone asks a question. Everyone is excited and nervous. The planchette glides seemingly on its own with its soft felt-tipped feet to letters or one of the words on the board. We have an answer! Or do we? Because of the ideomotor effect, a participant’s nervousness/excitement, coupled with their subconscious mind causes nearly imperceptible muscle twinges which start the planchette along its course. The other participants, startled and excited by its movement – “I didn’t do it – follow the movement. This is how the ideomotor effect works. Please note that with ideomotor effect, the participant is not faking (fakery is another issue altogether); they are not conscious of their actions. [1,3,4,5] Prove it, you say? Absolutely! Try having your participants wear blindfolds. [1,3,4] I have personally seen this done. A session is conducted with participants all able to see the table and what is happening. A person associated to a participant is selected and a question asked of their spirit. Question answered. Now, the blindfolds…wait, why is the planchette landing in blank space or between letters now? Even the subconscious mind cannot see the letters anymore. Debunked!

04So what does the ideomotor effect have to do with the other items mentioned? Let’s start with dowsing rods. Again, the user is hopeful of finding what they seek; with rods it can be water, oil, gems, buried pipes, etc. as well as spirits. Answers come with movement of the rods. Human error aside (shaky hands, not holding the rods straight, etc.), the effect is the same. How do we know? Try subtly hinting at a location where you know the target to be, then where you know it NOT to be. Studies show that the user will get movement in agreement with whichever spot is indicated. As in the Ouija experiment, blindfolding the dowser will lead to meaningless indications. [1,3, 4] Again, this is due to the subconscious mind triggering miniscule muscle movement, which in turn causes the rods to move/cross. Table tilting is debunked in precisely the same manner as the Ouija board. Similarly with using a pendulum, which directions the user is told will indicate yes or no will trigger the subconscious mind to move the user’s hand in that direction. Automatic writing and even the latest “Charlie Charlie” (created solely for a movie) are explained in the same way; “the ideomotor effect causes small, unconscious motor movements because of the person’s expectations, preconceptions or suggestibility.” [3] Unaware of their brain’s actions, the results with all of the items discussed are attributed to some paranormal activity, spirit or demon.

“Once a belief is formed and reinforced, the believer does not usually ever give it up.” [3] Each time the planchette moves, rods cross, etc., it serves as positive reinforcement (a behavior modification term that simply means that the behavior of moving the planchette, for example, is rewarded, making it far more likely to occur again). Despite continually failing at blindfold and other objective, scientific testing, users cling to the belief that supernatural forces are at work. This continues no matter how much empirical evidence is presented, proving this thought process incorrect. “The ideomotor effect is a classic example of how we can be fooled by our senses and ourselves. Many people believe in things because they have experienced them for themselves; they trust in the perceived infallibility of their senses.” [3]

Psychology Today [1]
National Institute of Health [2] [3]
The Skeptic’s Dictionary [4] [5] [image]

Lisa Shaner-Hilty

Lisa Shaner-Hilty

I am a supervisor for several programs assisting individuals with intellectual and mental challenges. I have 2 Masters Degrees from Penn State in Communication Disorders and Psychology. My first experiences with the paranormal were around age 5. I’ve been fascinated ever since. I have been an investigator for over 10 years (first 5 years with a team, then leaving to form my own more than 5 years ago, and have taught classes on investigation, evidence analysis (especially EVP) and debunking at local community college. I also have abilities, some of which began at age 5 and others around puberty. Therefore my fields of major interest are investigation and psychic and empath. While I am open to considering all aspect and viewpoints, I am dedicated to seeking natural explanations first before anything is considered evidence.
Lisa Shaner-Hilty

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