I had a discussion about magic props with my mother recently that completely caught me by surprise.
"I'm trying to find an old Ouija Board." (which, by the way, has a super-interesting history.)
"Are you out of your @#~!% mind?" was the response from my mom. (She probably didn’t ACTUALLY say that, but imagining a 72-year-old woman telling me I'm "out of my @#~!% mind" is hilarious, so we're gonna go with it. Sorry Mom.)
My family isn’t big into the supernatural. I would classify my family as barely religious, maybe mildly superstitious, but that's about it. Ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and the like were always more-or-less dismissed as nonsense used to scare kids or entertain adults. So, I was surprised when my mom started to take a guarded interest in me searching out a Ouija board.
Of course, I started to ask questions. My mom told me that when she was younger, she was at a sleepover with some girls from school, and one of them had brought a "talking board” with her.
Of course, the teenage girls attempted to see if they could make contact with...well, something. Mom said that they had some garbled half-words appear, but for the most part, it was a very uneventful teenage seance.
But after, when my mom started telling her family about the board (and how boring it was), things got weird. My mom’s aunt lectured them on how Ouija Boards are evil and they're vehicles for demons to take hold of you and use you for their bidding against the Holy Lord and Saviour. I realized that, as my mom told this story, this reaction from her aunt was more disturbing to her than the actual board itself.
She told me this story as a warning: not so much against the evils of the Ouija Board itself, but the responses from people when you associate yourself with one. But this reaction is understandable, right? Because a lot of people think Ouija boards can be used to receive messages from the Great Beyond.
But do Ouija boards actually send you messages?
Well, in a way, yes. But they don’t come from the spirit world.
The human brain, to most, is a miracle machine. It can do incredible things that we aren’t even aware of. Even some of the simplest day-to-day tasks we take for granted are incredibly complex calculations made by what is, essentially, a three-pound lump of gooey flesh.
But, as with most complex machines, there can be quirks. And one of those quirks is something called the ideomotor effect.
Let's imagine, for a second, that you're waving to a friend across the street. You see them, raise your hand, shake it back and forth, and slowly put it back down. Try and be vivid. Is it your right or left hand? What does it feel like? Is it a fast wave or a slow one? Is your hand relaxed or stiff? Is it just one quick shake, or is it a prolonged motion?
So, here's my question: during that little exercise, did you physically wave? Probably not. But, you could imagine it. You can imagine all the sensations that go along with waving. You could see it, feel it...almost like the real thing.
Here's the kicker. To parts of your brain, it was the real thing. All the nerves and muscles that are in charge of waving fired up, ready to execute the action until somewhere along the chain of command, your brain said, "Nope. No waving today."
And that's when your brain went from making your arm wave to just imagining it. But, on a small scale, your body made the movements to initiate the wave, and you had no idea.
You can see this in action by using something called Chevreul's Pendulum. Take a string that's about ten to twelve inches long, and tie a weight at the end of it (a necklace with a large pendant works great for this, but a washer on the end of a string is just as good). Hold it out in front of you with a straight arm, and let the weight dangle at the end of the string. Now, will that weight to swing back and forth. Imagine it as vividly as you can, and even scream at the pendulum in your mind to SWING.
Eventually, the pendulum will swing, apparently on its own. Now, will it to swing in a circle instead of back and forth, or in a direction perpendicular to the one before...and it will change direction.
So what's happening here? Is there some ghost poking at the pendulum? No. But thinking about the pendulum swinging causes your body unconsciously makes the movements to make it happen, but your conscious mind is completely unaware. The pendulum amplifies the movements.
A Ouija Board works in the exact same way.
Because a person (or people) touching the planchette has the expectation in their mind that the planchette will move, they will unknowingly push it to where it's supposed to go. It's even been tested; participants saw miraculous things while using a Ouija Board, but suddenly nothing came through when they were blindfolded. An episode of Penn and Teller's Bullshit took it one step further and turned a board backwards with blindfolded participants. Not only did no messages come through, the planchette moved to where the participants thought the correct answer should be.
However, another argument is that spirits use the participants as tools to move the planchette, so without the sight of the participants, the spirits can't see either. As you can probably guess, this has also been tested.
In 1853, Michael Faraday placed a series of linked paper disks on top of a planchette. If the planchette were moving on its own, the paper disks would slope away from the movement and be dragged along behind the planchette. If, however, the planchette was being pushed by the participants, the disks would slope toward the direction of movement, and the planchette would follow behind. To make it a little easier to visualize, you can see a clip of it here.
Add in a dark, candlelit room (possibly in a supposedly haunted location), the expectation of a spiritual experience, and the mythos behind the Ouija Board, and you've got yourself a great platform to put anyone in a highly suggestible state. And being suggestible makes for some crazy experiences. One doesn't have to look further than that of a stage hypnotist's show to see what the power of suggestion is capable of.
So yes, Ouija Boards do send us messages. They tell us how fascinating the human mind is; how we can see evidence of things that we didn't know were there, and how strong and powerful our beliefs can be. They can tell us about how effective the power of suggestion is and how with our minds alone, we can create experiences we will never forget. For such a simple contraption, it can crack the lid on one of the most complex machines mankind has ever tried to untangle.
Does this mean that the Ouija Board is a fascinating way to peek under the hood of our own minds? My planchette points to "Yes."