“The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board” is an interesting article available at Smithsonian.com. Posted on October 28 no doubt intended to coincide with Hallowe’en, the piece provides interesting history of the spiritualistic device, which first appeared in spiritualistic camps during the heyday of American spiritualism in the late 19th century. The “talking board” was eventually patented in 1891, albeit that the patent does not explain how the device worked.
The Smithsonian piece draws on the work of Ouija historian Robert March, who has been studying its origins for more than twenty years. Another delightful resource for interested readers is The Mysterious Planchette. Murch points out that in 1973, the movie “The Exorcist” altered popular consciousness about the Ouija board. “Parker Brothers and later, Hasbro, after they acquired Parker Brothers in 1991, still sold hundreds of thousands of them, but the reasons why people were buying them had changed significantly: Ouija boards were spooky rather than spiritual, with a distinct frisson of danger.”
After recounting substantial details of the Ouija board’s history, including how it got its name, the Smithsonian piece then addresses how the board actually works. It gets the science right, explaining the well- and long-known workings of the ideomotor effect. In brief, the effect relies on the unconscious influence or control of the person operating the Ouija board’s planchette, providing the uncanny and convincing sensation that the sitter is not contributing to the action. This is the same mechanism that drives the function of dowsing rods and pendulums.
At this point the Smithsonian article dives into murkier waters, describing research conducted at the University of British Columbia’s Visual Cognition Lab, who “think that board may be a good way to examine how the mind processes information on various levels.” This is not quite as flaky as it might appear at first blush, since it is certainly true that, “The idea that the mind has multiple levels of information processing is by no means a new one, although exactly what to call those levels remains up for debate: Conscious, unconscious, subconscious, pre-conscious, zombie mind are all terms that have been or are currently used, and all have their supporters and detractors.”
According to the Smithsonian reporter, the UBC researchers have discovered some evidence, using the Ouija board, that people’s unconscious (for lack of a better term) minds are often “smarter” than their conscious minds. The researchers claim that in answering a series of commonplace questions, subjects obtained the right answer about 50 percent of the time – as predicted by chance – but if answering non-verbally via the Ouija board planchette – “believing that their answers were coming from someplace else” – their results consistently improved to 65 percent accuracy, a very significant result.
“You do much better with the Ouija on questions that you really don’t think you know, but actually something inside you does know and the Ouija can help you answer above chance,” says Fels (Dr. Sidney Fels, professor of electrical and computer engineering, who two years ago began studying the workings of the Ouija board along with his colleagues, Dr. Ron Rensink, professor of psychology and computer science, and psychology postdoctoral researcher Hélène Gauchou).
These claims are provocative to say the least, and currently represent the results of only a single preliminary study. The researchers are looking to refine the protocols (which are interesting in and of themselves) and refine their approach in a second study, but are so far having difficulty obtaining funding, probably understandably so. On the face of it, they do not seem to be making any paranormal claim about the board’s workings. Rather, they are interested in “rigorously investigating non-conscious thought processes.”
My initial thought is that while the subject matter is unarguably interesting, it is unfortunate that such work, if it holds up under further study, inadvertently contributes to popular pseudoscientific beliefs and paranormal claims long associated with the device. Rather, I would encourage the researchers to develop a device, perhaps of their own invention, that might operate free of the baggage that comes with the Ouija board. Freighted with more than 120 years of occult history, trying to conduct real science with the board might be doomed to misinterpretation and unwanted controversy. Why not invent their own mysterious black box – a device along the lines of the phony “ADE 651” bomb detector marketed by convicted fraudster James McCormick – that could be operated uncolored by the occult and paranormal implications of the Ouija board? In this way perhaps researchers could start with a clean slate – or board – wiped clear of its dubious history.
Postscript: And speaking of Ouija boards, if you are in reach of Los Angeles between now and at least December 22nd (it may yet be extended further into the new year), and you want to be amazed by a Ouija board, feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, and hear adult humans screaming in the dark (quite possibly along with your own cries of joyful fright), then by all means go see my skeptical magician and sideshow artist pal, the legendary Todd Robbins, in his fabulous spiritualism and spook show, “Play Dead!”, currently playing at the Geffen Playhouse in L.A., revived after its huge success Off Broadway in New York.
Those who have attended previous Amazing Meetings have seen Todd on stage there, including just last year as he closed our Magic, Mayhem & Mentalism show on Saturday night. “Play Dead!” was directed and co-written by Teller (of Penn & Teller), and it’s a spooky and skeptical collaboration that skeptics – and most anyone over the age of 18 – will be thrilled and delighted by.
Here’s a video trailer:
Here’s one of countless rave reviews the show has received, this one from the LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-play-dead-geffen-playhouse-20131121,0,2626881.story#axzz2lttCru93
And here is the website of the Geffen Playhouse for tickets:
And yes, there is a remarkable and amazingly spooky piece with a Ouija board too!
Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org.