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Psychologists Using Ouija Boards to “Probe Subconscious”

On the one hand this is yet another story that confirms my disdain for academia and validates my decision to flee the university system. On the other hand at least someone has found a use for those damn Parker Brothers (and now Hasbro) Ouija Boards. I don’t like the things, not because I have a Stoker Hunt like fear of Witchboard style terror befalling those that use them but I do think summoning spirits, even if they’re “ghosts” or your fragments of your subconscious, isn’t something that should be treated trivially. Certainly revelations from your subconscious are not best discovered over a board game.

Clearly I’m on the believer side of this debate – I think it’s possible to invite entities into your life through the psychic energy generated by the quasi-ritual activity that entails “playing” with a Ouija and the researchers don’t buy that at all. But even if they’re right and the Ouija is just a conduit for the subconscious what exactly does that prove? Are we to believe that disturbed individuals seeking psychological help should be using Ouija Boards as therapy?

From The New Scientist:

Beloved of spiritualists and bored teenagers on a dare, the Ouija board has long been a source of entertainment, mystery and sometimes downright spookiness. Now it could shine a light on the secrets of the unconscious mind.

The Ouija, also known as a talking board, is a wooden plaque marked with the words, “yes”, “no” and the letters of the alphabet. Typically a group of users place their hands on a movable pointer , or “planchette”, and ask questions out loud. Sometimes the planchette signals an answer, even when no one admits to moving it deliberately.

Believers think the answer comes through from the spirit world. In fact, all the evidence points to the real cause being the ideomotor effect, small muscle movements we generate unconsciously.

That’s why the Ouija board has attracted the attention of psychologists at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Growing evidence suggests the unconscious plays a role in cognitive functions we usually consider the preserve of the conscious mind.

Take driving your car along a familiar route while planning your day. On arrival, you realise you were not in conscious control of the car, it was your “inner zombie”, said Hélène Gauchou at the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness conference in Brighton, UK, this week. “How can we communicate with that unconscious intelligence?”

Gauchou’s approach is to turn to the Ouija board. To keep things simple her team has just one person with their finger on the planchette at a time. But the ideomotor effect is maximised if you believe you are not responsible for any movements – that’s why Ouija board sessions are most successful when used by a group. So the subject is told they will be using the board with a partner. The subject is blindfolded and what they don’t know is that their so-called partner removes their hands from the planchette when the experiment begins.

The technique worked, at least with 21 out of 27 volunteers tested, reports Gauchou. “The planchette does not move randomly around the board; it moves to yes or no. It seems to move almost magically. None of them felt responsible for the movement.” In fact some subjects suspected that their partner was really an actor – but they thought the actor was deliberately moving the planchette, never suspecting they themselves were the only ones touching it.

Goucher’s team has not yet used the technique to get new information about the unconscious, but they have established that it seems to work, in principle. They asked subjects to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to general knowledge questions using the Ouija board, and also asked them to answer the same questions using the more orthodox method of typing on a computer (unblindfolded). Participants were also asked whether they knew the answer or were just guessing.

Sounds more like they’re trying to disprove the supernatural than study anything useful but no one gets grant money these days for doing useful research.

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