What makes the ouija board move

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. The 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.

The interesting thing about the phenomenon is what it says about the mind. That we can make movements that we don’t realise we’re making suggests that we shouldn’t be so confident in our other judgements about what movements we think are ours. Sure enough, in the right circumstances, you can get people to believe they have caused things that actually come from a completely independent source (something which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has reflected on the madness of people who claim that it only started raining because they forget an umbrella).

You can read what this means for the nature of our minds in The Illusion of Conscious Will by psychologist Daniel Wegner, who sadly died last month. Wegner argued that our normal sense of owning an action is an illusion, or – if you will – a construction. The mental processes which directly control our movements are not connected to the same processes which figure out what caused what, he claimed. The situation is not that of a mental command-and-control structure like a disciplined army; whereby a general issues orders to the troops, they carry out the order and the general gets back a report saying “Sir! We did it. The right hand is moving into action!”. The situation is more akin to an organised collective, claims Wegner: the general can issue orders, and watch what happens, but he’s never sure exactly what caused what. Instead, just like with other people, our consciousness (the general in this metaphor) has to apply some principles to figure out when a movement is one we’ve made.

One of these principles is that cause has to be consistent with effect. If you think “I’ll move my hand” and your hand moves, you’re likely to automatically get the feeling that the movement was one you made. The principle is broken when the thought is different from the effect, such as with Chevreul’s Pendulum. If you think “I’m not moving my hand”, you are less inclined to connect any small movements you make with such large visual effects. This maybe explains why kids can shout “It wasn’t me!” after breaking something in plain sight. They thought to themselves “I’ll just give this a little push”, and when it falls off the table and breaks it doesn’t feel like something they did.

This is my column for BBC Future from a few weeks back. The original is here. It’s a Dan Wegner tribute column really - Rest in Peace, Dan

19 Comments

  1. Posted August 15, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    “I didn’t break it! The floor did!” — I used this line once when I was a kid. That and, “My brain made me do it.” That didn’t go over well, no matter how true it may have been. =P

  2. Dirk
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    That Wegner book is hilarious at times. This for example :

    However, the vocal sign by which they reported their awareness of the jump (saying “Pah”, which is apparently what you say in an experiment in France to signal something unexpected) did not occur on average until more than 300 milliseconds following the target jump.

    Many little gems like this. Thank you !

  3. Randy K
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Sorry. I am afraid I must disagree, The pendulum explanation does not address the ouija board. I understand the issue of a hand holding a pendulum. But the pointer on a ouija board is fixed on a flat surface. I have seen and heard of ouiji boards spelling out names of diseases that the operator never heard of. Also talked in languages (some ancient) that the operator has never heard of.

    Nice try but too pat. Like most scientist who are in denial, this is not an answer.

    • Posted August 19, 2013 at 6:46 am | Permalink

      Uhm… but what about the fact that if we are uncounscious about movements, we are also uncounscious about perceiving the disease, with being counscious on how it happend?
      What if we can *smell* the disease or see some signals in the body of the person?

      About ancient languages. How do you know that they were correctly spoken? here you see an italian actor making funny languages and imitating english speaking…

  4. Randy K
    Posted August 17, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Also the title of the article was “What makes ouija boards move?” and then you talk about pendulums. ????

  5. Zoran_D
    Posted August 18, 2013 at 2:58 am | Permalink

    When I first came upon this phenomena, as excited as I was with what I was seeing, my analytical nature had to test its validity. The one that really made a believer out of me was when I wrote a letter on a piece of paper and showed it to only 1 other person, as proof I wasn’t playing tricks, then without touching the board asked it to go to that letter and sure enough that’s exactly where it went. I did this on many occasions and it never failed. I have no explanation.

  6. Posted August 18, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    The dowser’s arms and hands may be moving the dowsing rod(or not)but how do you explain the dowser’s ability to locate water, minerals, etc?
    My grandmother’s brother had this ability, and supplemented his income from ranching by charging a small fee to find water for people in the county.
    He didn’t appreciate the term “Water Witch”, but that is how most people in rural Washington state
    referred to him in the early years of the 20th century.

  7. @tomstafford
    Posted August 18, 2013 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    @bobbie it’s a good point. While it is implausible that the Ouija board moves of its own accord (and the research described and the demonstration with the pendulum) provide a plausible alternative mechanism (alternative to the idea of “spirits” or somesuch), we have left untouched the investigation of what information, precisely, can filter into the movements of the cup/pendulum/rod without our conscious awareness. I regard it as plausible that the ideomotor effect allows individuals to access information that they are gathering (through their normal senses) but which they are not able to articulate (but I know of no research on this). This is what I would guess your grand-uncle was doing (and/or with a healthy dose of cold-reading).

    It’s an example of how a “skeptical” take on a phenomenon solidly knocks down one part of the phenomenon – the claim which contradicts the physics – but leaves untouched the psychologically more interesting part.

  8. Posted August 18, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    How about when the planchette moves WITHOUT BEING TOUCHED?

    BAWAHAHAHAHA!

  9. @tomstafford
    Posted August 18, 2013 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    Forgot that I had this paper in my “to read” pile: Expression of nonconscious knowledge via ideomotor actions http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810012000402

  10. Posted August 19, 2013 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    Are you inconsciously saying that since
    > Daniel Wegner, who sadly died last month.
    you needed to post an article about Ouija to confirm yourself that it’s impossible to get in contact with him now? ;)

  11. furzymouse
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 12:55 am | Permalink

    Have had the great fortune to build 2 houses with abundant wells located by dowsers…as well as grew up in the farmlands of MD…I’ve watched dowsers at work, and when they “hit” an accessible underwater current, the bifurcated stick – dowsing rod – almost yanks them down to the ground..no flick of the wrist here!

    Also, I have seen the pendulum correctly answer questions when the questioner was a different person from the one holding the pendulum..?!

  12. Coriolis
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    The “button or ring on a string” experiment you describe: look up the Coriolis force in Northern and Southern Hemispheres of the Earth.

  13. ungakhan
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 3:51 am | Permalink

    “The situation is more akin to an organised collective, claims Wegner: the general can issue orders, and watch what happens, but he’s never sure exactly what caused what. Instead, just like with other people, our consciousness (the general in this metaphor) has to apply some principles to figure out when a movement is one we’ve made.”

    Along these same lines, you may be interested in something called alien hand syndrome, a neurological disorder where a hand/arm makes purposeful and complex movements that the patient perceives as not being of his own control or volition, as if the limb has a mind of its own. The patient then comes to psychologically disown the affected limb. Though rare, it can be caused by a number of brain lesions. An interesting example from the Wikipedia article:

    ‘The callosal variant includes advanced willed motor acts by the non-dominant hand, where patients frequently exhibit intermanual conflict in which one hand acts at cross-purposes with the other ‘‘good hand’’.[13] For example, one patient was observed putting a cigarette into her mouth with her intact, ‘controlled’ hand (her right, dominant hand), following which her alien, non-dominant, left hand came up to grasp the cigarette, pull the cigarette out of her mouth, and toss it away before it could be lit by the controlled, dominant, right hand. The patient then surmised that “I guess ‘he’ doesn’t want me to smoke that cigarette.”‘

  14. ungakhan
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 3:59 am | Permalink

    “The situation is more akin to an organised collective, claims Wegner: the general can issue orders, and watch what happens, but he’s never sure exactly what caused what. Instead, just like with other people, our consciousness (the general in this metaphor) has to apply some principles to figure out when a movement is one we’ve made.”

    Along these same lines of conscious recognition of our own movements, if you haven’t heard of it already you may be interested in something called alien hand syndrome. It’s a neurological disorder where one of a person’s hands/limbs performs purposeful and complex actions that the sufferer does not interpret as being under his own mental control or volition – as if the limb has a mind of its own. Eventually the person comes to psychologically disown the affected limb. Though rare, it can be caused by a number of brain lesions. The Wikipedia article has some interesting examples:

    “The callosal variant includes advanced willed motor acts by the non-dominant hand, where patients frequently exhibit intermanual conflict in which one hand acts at cross-purposes with the other ‘‘good hand’’.[13] For example, one patient was observed putting a cigarette into her mouth with her intact, ‘controlled’ hand (her right, dominant hand), following which her alien, non-dominant, left hand came up to grasp the cigarette, pull the cigarette out of her mouth, and toss it away before it could be lit by the controlled, dominant, right hand. The patient then surmised that “I guess ‘he’ doesn’t want me to smoke that cigarette. Another patient was observed to be buttoning up her blouse with her controlled dominant hand while the alien non-dominant hand, at the same time, was unbuttoning her blouse.”

  15. Posted August 20, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on AlmostHumor By BlotterMonkey.

  16. Posted August 20, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    USGS, god bless ‘em, actually has a PDF on water dowsing. It’s sort of like when NOAA wrote a statement on mermaids. The USGS document confirmed what I always figured, which is simply that in some parts of the country water is really hard to miss and a dowser is more likely than not to guess right at some point. Anyway, really interesting document if anyone’s interested.

    pubs.usgs.gov/gip/water_dowsing/pdf/water_dowsing.pdf‎

  17. Brandon
    Posted August 27, 2013 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    Oh thanks for the explanation…now what about when it moves without being touched? Lol


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