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Who doesn’t love a toy that lets you communicate with ghosts? What if it could offer you a window into the spirit world via a piece of wood with letters and numbers on it? We of course are talking about the “mystical” Ouija Board. Although I am too young to remember its introduction, I am very familiar with its pseudoscience. This board must surely be one of the first mass-marketed examples of profit-by-scientific-illiteracy.

I would hope that something as old and as debunked as this novelty toy would have lost its pull in a more modern and scientific society, but sadly, its ability to spook still draws people to fall victim to pseudoscience.

So, once again, let’s debunk!

Spooky Indeed

So for those of you that are under 40, some background might be helpful.

Spooky Bulls***

An Ouija board (pronounced WEE-jə, and possibly derived from the French and German words for “yes”, oui and ja), also known as a spirit/fire key board or talking board, is a flat board marked with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0-9, the words ‘yes’ ‘no’ and ‘goodbye’, and other symbols and words are sometimes also added to help personalize the board. Similarly pronounced Hindi word Ojha means the ones who deal with spirits. The Ouija board can supposedly be used to communicate with spirits of the dead. Although nobody knows where the idea for such a device came from, there are records of Ouija-like instruments being used in ancient China, Greece, Rome and many other countries. It uses a planchette (small heart-shaped piece of wood) or movable indicator to indicate the spirit’s message by spelling it out on the board during a séance. The fingers of the séance participants are placed on the planchette, which then moves about the board to spell out words or become physically manifested. It has become a trademark that is often used generically to refer to any talking board.

Following its commercial introduction by businessman Elijah Bond in the late 1890s, the Ouija board was regarded as a harmless parlor game unrelated to the occult until American Spiritualist Pearl Curran popularized its use as a divining tool during World War I. Mainstream Christian religions and some occultists have associated use of the Ouija board with the threat of demonic possession and some have cautioned their followers not to use Ouija boards.

What Does it Do?

Alright then, what we are dealing with is a tool of the occult. But this was only popular back in the day right? Nope, it’s still just as spook-inducing as when it was first introduced as such. I have taken a blog testimonial from a well-educated, appropriately aged woman who used a Ouija board just a few days ago to illustrate.

She writes:

I placed my fingers so lightly on the pointer that they almost weren’t touching. And I kept closing my eyes. I wanted to have zero input on the outcome. My cousin did the same. I’ll skip over the first five minutes, when the pointer refused to move. No matter what we asked, it just sat there. My cousin finally said “Well, nothing’s happening this evening.” At that moment, the pointer started to move. Let’s write this again: The pointer started to move.

For the next two hours, we asked questions, and the pointer zipped all over the board, answering. After about an hour, it even identified itself: my deceased cousin Ben…it was pretty astonishing.

In her post she points out to readers that before reading, one must set aside preconceptions of the paranormal, and must “keep an open mind” about these “unexplainable” events.

So science can’t debunk this sort of nonsense? Hardly!

“Unexplainable”? Science Doesn’t Think So

There is a much more reasonable explanation to these “messages” from beyond, and they are firmly rooted in an explainable world.

The Ouija board relies on something called the ideomotor effect, which is the effect that nuanced and even subconscious thoughts have on muscle movement. The concept is that you can never really stop your muscles from moving completely, and that subconscious thoughts can influence subtle movements in said muscles, even when you think that you are remaining still.

As in reflexive responses to pain, the body sometimes reacts reflexively to ideas alone without the person consciously deciding to take action. For instance, tears are produced by the body unconsciously in reaction to the emotion of sadness.

In the case of the Ouija board, this effect leads the user to personally determine where the indicator moves, whether he/she is aware of it or not.

A psychological tendency to want to see something “weird” or “spooky” happen, or to want to desperately talk with a deceased loved one influences this effect, and subsequently your hand moves to the letters appropriately, and again, users may not even be aware of this.

An experiment to prove this effect is easily done. Tie a thin piece of string to a metal hux nut, or something suitably small and relatively heavy. Now hold the string between your fingers and out stretch your arm in front of you (with the nut hanging down from the string). Now make your arm as still as possible, until you are satisfied that your arm is not moving. If you then imagine the hex nut moving in a circle, and concentrate, the nut will indeed begin to move in a circle, even though you do not consider your arm to be moving.

As ridiculous as this seems, you are, in effect, employing the same logic when using a Ouija board (the user has control over the outcome).

What is happening is that small, subconscious, movements in your arm, influenced by your intentions and the ideomotor effect, are being translated through the string and down to the hex nut. Once you get the idea of how this works, the same logic can be easily applied to the Ouija board.

The consequences of the ideomotor effect are these: because you want to see something happen, or want to speak with a deceased person, these subconscious thoughts will become realized by small, unnoticeable muscle movements. These movements are wholly determined by the user, and is a logical explanation for why users receive answers to specific questions.

Messages From Yourself

By definition, a natural explanation for a certain phenomenon is more likely than a supernatural one. The Ouija board is a great psychological comforter, or a great party trick, but it is certainly not other-worldly. We can appreciate the imagined commune it may give with deceased loved ones or spirits etc. but it is more intellectually honest to recognize what is really happening.

It is infinitely more likely that a physical explanation, namely the ideomotor effect, is the reason why Ouija boards can be so spooky. Contrast this with the alternate explanation, which is that a ghost is wading through the vastness of spirit-land to posses your hands so that you can speak to the dead, and the credibility of the Ouija board is dissolved.

And I think you can take something away from this alternate explanation. You may not be interacting with the spirit world via wooden board, but you are coming to terms with conflicts inside yourself that want to be resolved. A Ouija board may be facilitating this conflict resolution, but it is internal, and natural.

This kind of skepticism will surely be met with something close to “you’re not open-minded” or “it cannot be explained”. I disagree with both of those statements. You can still have an open mind while evaluating evidence that is in congruence with everything that we know about the world. The key is to not be so open-minded that you accept any idea or theory, to be so open-minded that your brain falls out. With the knowledge that our psychological tendencies can have unconscious effects on our muscle movements (confirmed by science), the Ouija board phenomena becomes thoroughly explainable.