How Ouija Boards Work

English_ouija_boardApparently determined to ruin the late night fun of stoned teenagers everywhere, BBC Future says ouija boards have nothing to do with departed souls:

The mystery isn’t a connection to the spirit world, but why we can make movements and yet not realise that we’re making them.

Ouija board cups and dowsing wands – just two examples of mystical items that seem to move of their own accord, when they are really being moved by the people holding them. The only mystery is not one of a connection to the spirit world, but of why we can make movements and yet not realise that we’re making them.

The phenomenon is called the ideomotor effect and you can witness it 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.

Magic? Only the ordinary everyday magic of consciousness. There’s no supernatural force at work, just tiny movements you are making without realising. The string allows these movements to be exaggerated, the inertia of the weight allows them to be conserved and built on until they form a regular swinging motion. The effect is known as Chevreul’s Pendulum, after the 19th Century French scientist who investigated it.

What is happening with Chevreul’s Pendulum is that you are witnessing a movement (of the weight) without “owning” that movement as being caused by you. The same basic phenomenon underlies dowsing – where small movements of the hands cause the dowsing wand to swing wildly – or the Ouija board, where multiple people hold a cup and it seems to move of its own accord to answer questions by spelling out letters.

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…

[continues at BBC Future]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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47 Comments on "How Ouija Boards Work"

  1. BuzzCoastin | Jul 30, 2013 at 5:12 pm |

    the synchronicity resulting from random movement
    is not explained by mechanics
    but the imagination is limited
    by holding a single simple explanation
    as THE explanation

    24. Fu / Return (The Turning Point)
    RETURN. Success.
    Going out and coming in without error.
    Friends come without blame.
    To and fro goes the way.
    On the seventh day comes return.
    It furthers one to have somewhere to go.

    • peace — is the hexagram half empty or half full

    • Calypso_1 | Jul 31, 2013 at 7:37 am |

      but it is explained by probability.

      • BuzzCoastin | Jul 31, 2013 at 2:12 pm |

        synchronicity is improbable

        • Calypso_1 | Jul 31, 2013 at 3:11 pm |

          In the sense that it is not causal yes.
          Probable in the sense that stochastic events are perceived through sampling bias as meaningful.

          • Calypso_1 | Jul 31, 2013 at 3:12 pm |

            (For example: it is completely random [or was it] that the above post had 23 words)

          • BuzzCoastin | Jul 31, 2013 at 4:14 pm |

            the is a tendency among rationally minded people
            to over simplify cause & effect & probability
            looking for the easy answer that sounds rational
            to the inexplicable, irrationl & random synchronicity

            the iChing is based upon the meaning
            found in random synchronicity
            the acausal connecting principle

          • Calypso_1 | Jul 31, 2013 at 10:38 pm |

            Acausal connections have probability distributions.

          • BuzzCoastin | Aug 1, 2013 at 12:27 am |

            Acausal connections are unique & improbable.

            He who does not expect the unexpected will not find it out.

          • Calypso_1 | Aug 1, 2013 at 1:28 pm |

            hardly, they are used all the time in signal processing and molecular dynamics transforms.

          • BuzzCoastin | Aug 1, 2013 at 1:45 pm |

            not the same meaning for the same word
            it was co-opted

  2. This is supposed to be news? I didn’t now there was anyone still gullible enough to believe such arrant BS. P.T. Barnum, is still right!

    • You’ve never been to Las Vegas, have you
      Or a voting booth
      most of what people believe is unreal…

      • I used to live near Las Vegas and have been there many times. I was voting probably before you were born. And yes, you are an arrogantly stupid asshole.

        • atlanticus | Jul 30, 2013 at 7:56 pm |

          Actually, he was agreeing with you, not insulting you.

          • Hard to tell, it was at least sarcastic.

          • atlanticus | Jul 30, 2013 at 8:05 pm |

            Certainly, but I read it as a generally sarcastic comment, not personal…more like he was just underlining the statement about people believing insane things.

            Of course, I could be wrong; I don’t know the dude after all. 😛

          • In the eternal immensity of the universe, what does it matter? 😉

          • Josh Webb | Jul 31, 2013 at 2:02 am |

            In the eternal immensity of the universe, why the fuck are you bothering to comment on a story that doesnt matter.

          • Then why are you replying to it? Is it because you are one of the willfully ignorant and stubbornly stupid?

          • Josh Webb | Aug 4, 2013 at 2:41 am |

            Why do you always phrase every one of your comments with a question? Is it because youre a complete and total dumbass?

        • UncleMeat | Jul 30, 2013 at 10:12 pm |

          WOW =) I think the dude was on your side =)

          • tibby trillz | Aug 1, 2013 at 7:03 pm |

            second comment section i read on disinfo today that trailed off into a one sided internet sass competition. people really just love to fight.

        • I admit to being an arrogant stupid asshole from time to time, but not all the time. You might be wrong about that age thing… my first vote was for McGovern against Nixon, after coming back from Vietnam.

          I was mostly agreeing with you, just pointing out that people’s belief in blatantly false things is far far far more extensive than you seem to think.

          How many people believe in the magic of ouija boards?
          How many people believe there is a free market?
          How many people voted for Obama a second time, after it was abundantly clear that hope and change was just the usual campaign BS? How many people bought Snookie’s biography, etc etc.

          I’ve been working for decades to try to get all the nonsense beliefs out of my own head, and I expect to die with the task unfinished. The magnitude of false belief among humans is huge. I’m sure you’ve got plenty of your own, so maybe you ought to rethink that arrogance statement.

          • After becoming atheist at age 13, I have spent my life eliminating the BS from my mind and marveling at the willful ignorance and stubborn stupidity of most of the human race.

            No, I will not rethink the arrogance statement. Now will I retract a single word of anything I have ever said unless shown undeniable proof it was not true.

          • howiebledsoe | Jul 31, 2013 at 7:15 am |

            Pretty arrogant statement.

          • Thank you for reinforcing my statement that most people are stubbornly stupid.

          • Suit yourself, but that attitude isn’t the sort of thing I’m hoping to engage here. I started hanging around here because I saw a lot of intelligent people actually paying attention to what was being posted, sharing knowledge and viewpoints in a friendly manner with some wit and openness… and not too many jerks and trolls and so forth, you know, the kind of people who fuck up so many forums and comment threads and drive all the interesting people away.

          • are you related to Agent Smith?

          • Probably. What’s it to you?

          • well, then, this is probably just an ancient-future blood-feud sort of thing and we are both being driven by powerful evolutionary forces that exist deep below the conscious level and their greatest power is that we refuse to admit they exist.

          • You really are a BS artist.

            Evolutionary forces? Yes arrant, as opposed to arrogant, nonsense. I’ve wasted more than enough time with you. Apparently, you have a sub-conscious force that demands you have the last word to satisfy your ego.

            Have at it. Who am I to deny you what may be one of the few pleasures you get from life?

          • atlanticus | Jul 31, 2013 at 9:04 pm |

            Personally, I side with Socrates: “τούτου μὲν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐγὼ σοφώτερός
            εἰμι· κινδυνεύει μὲν γὰρ ἡμῶν οὐδέτερος οὐδὲν καλὸν κἀγαθὸν εἰδέναι,
            ἀλλ’ οὗτος μὲν οἴεται τι εἰδέναι οὐκ εἰδώς, ἐγὼ δέ, ὥσπερ οὖν οὐκ οἶδα,
            οὐδὲ οὄιμαι· ἔοικα γοῦν τούτου γε σμικρῷ τινι αὐτῷ τούτῳ σοφώτερος
            εἶναι, ὅτι ἃ μή οἶδα οὐδὲ οἴομαι εἰδέναι”

          • dang. I always thought it was Sergeant Schultz who said that.


          • say charlotte, how do you say “I think, therefore I think I am” in Greek?

          • atlanticus | Aug 3, 2013 at 10:12 am |

            Why would I say it in Greek? It was said in Latin…

            (However, according to Wikipedia, Descartes actually first said it in French, then later in Latin.)

          • Personally, Socrates has always been all Greek to me. 😉

  3. Yep, just more bullshit that sheeple believe. People are sooooooo stupid.

  4. Spasmodius | Jul 31, 2013 at 4:28 am |

    Wonder when BBC Future are gonna “explain” the work of Professor TC Lethbridge. Not any time soon, I shouldn’t wonder.

  5. VaudeVillain | Aug 1, 2013 at 4:17 pm |

    Sometimes there is value in asking your subconscious a question. Obviously not so helpful if it is a question of objective fact or something which you truly cannot answer, but on questions of opinion where you can’t seem to make up your mind… yeah.

    No magic necessary.

  6. wow

  7. Yes, it’s done with small movements. The cause of it is your subconsciousness- same movement can be done consciously.
    Considering ouija board, pendulum or automatic writing is using your own body (has it ever been claimed otherwise?) as a medium of transmission, of course it passes through your subconsciousness.

  8. Roy Anderson | Dec 18, 2013 at 11:49 pm |

    The real question is not what moves the planchette, but whether one can obtain meaningful information, via a Ouija board, against chance expectation. Perhaps the ideomotor effect, in being a product of our “unconcious mind,” can provide access to some variety of memory which direct, concious intention does not have access to. In pursuing knowledge we must never exclude the possibility of unknown unknowns; modern science, being founded on the strictly illogical (not necessarily false, just not strictly certain) premise of an humanly intelligible cosmos, will always have its limitations with regard to the question of WHY, therefore all things outside the norm, that is the paranormal, will continue to draw our attention on the idle hours us more open-minded scholars have now and then. Ouija is the rogue scientist’s shot-in-the-dark, if you will.

    • Roy Anderson | Dec 19, 2013 at 12:14 am |

      Maybe said memory is not only shared by but the cause of the entire cosmos, and neurobiology/physics is but the veneer of an enormous complexity which the scientific method cannot hope to approach. Perhaps maybe, just maybe, the sado-masochistic teacher-student dichotomy of modern science rewards anti-spiritual dogma? We wouldn’t want those students to think that their mind plays an active role in the outcome of experiments, because that would make them happy. Those students must suffer as us professors have suffered, spending ungodly long hours in laboratories so we can get our name published in as many journals as possible before we too are cold, stiff, and in a box. It’s a cycle of abuse, this thing called science. It’s like Christianity, only even worse because not only do you have lots of strict laws that can’t be changed, but the laws are the cold and unfeeling output of some random jumble of mathematical equations which just happen, against all reason, to produce human life in all of its order, such that you are an absurd nothing in a world without any underlying purpose. It’s such a nihilistic, painful philosophy that its no wonder big pharma is doing everything it can to squeeze every last dime out of you. You’re just this accident of molecules, the result of an evolutionary process with no intrinsic goals, and they would just love to patent the bejesus out of every gene in that big, beautiful, cash-cow of a body you have there. Modern science doesn’t have a spiritual disease, only because it’s already dead. I am the maggot.

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