You know the drill, you find a spooky old box in the attic, knock the lock off with a mallet and there’s a dusty ouija board inside, so you grab all your mates and do a light-hearted seance in your bedroom. Before you know it, there’s a sodding great ghost popping up in the mirror behind you and punching your eyes off.
Don’t bother with ouija boards, basically, you have seen enough movies to know this.
But actually, really, literally, is there anything to worry about? Are you contacting the dead or are you simply the victim of an elaborate and perhaps involuntary collective hoax? Is it even a hoax if you all believe?
It’s a weird one, but we’re going to have a go at explaining exactly what’s happening should you ever decide to have a go on one. Because whilst evil ghost possession may not be fun, science certainly is.
Firstly, in case you’re sat there completely confused it’s probably best to give you a quick primer on what exactly a ouija board actually is. Essentially, it’s a board with letters and numbers on it, as well as the odd “yes” or “no”. On top of this is placed a “vessel”, which could be a glass, a piece of wood or if you’ve got an official cool-kids one, a plinth called a planchette with a hole in the middle.
So that’s the equipment, here’s how it works.
You and your ghost-kissing mates all stick a finger on the planchette, ask your ghost (anyone will do) a question and the planchette will mysteriously move around the board to spell out the answer. And then that’s when the board sets on fire and everyone starts dying. In the films.
A bit like this:
But hey, let’s think straight for a minute, and get to the bottom of what’s happening here.
How do Ouija boards really work?
What we’re actually looking at is a phenomenon called theideomotor effect, and it completely explains how a group of impressionable young ghost-hunters are able to spell out a bunch of creepy answers without any of them thinking they’re actually guiding the planchette or ‘haunted glass’.
The ideomotor effect refers to unconscious and involuntary physical movement: you may not be trying or even thinking that you want to move, but you are.
Your brain is signalling for you to move, but you’re not aware it’s coming (a bit like when you jolt awake because you fell off your damn roller skates again in a dream, but also, not really. But kinda). So when you ask the ouija board a question, your brain is coming up with an unconscious answer and willing your hands towards the letters you want.
But how do Ouija boards work with everyone at the same time?
It’s a good question: how does everyone seem to come to the same answer? Well, a recent study went a good way to finding out. Marc Andersen, a postdoc from the Interactive Minds Centre at Aarhus University conducted some research at a ouija board conference (these exist).
The experiment involved placing eye-tracking devices on a number of believers before they carried out a seance. Andersen then asked them to purposefully move the vessel to spell out “Baltimore”, and then he asked them to do their usual thang and get involved in a proper no-holds-barred past-your-bedtime ouija board “sesh”.
What he found out was that most participants were looking ahead at the letter to which the planchette was about to head. This appeared to match up with most people involved - whereas the first few letters appeared to be random, once everyone had a collective idea of a word in their heads, it all came pretty easily and smoothly.
Simply put - everyone’s brain begins to complete the puzzle. If you’re spelling a name and the first letter is ‘J’ for example, everyone’s brain will attempt to make sense of that letter and place it in context. It’s possible the next letter could be ‘O’ and could be turned into Joe or John, or Jonathon. At that point all it takes is a majority of sitters to land more or less upon the same possible solution and subconscious mob mentality takes over.
It’s for the same reason that the pace of the planchette’s movement can often also speed up as the answers become clearer. This is the ideomotor effect becoming intensified by the group pushing towards a commonly decided (albeit undisclosed) outcome.
How to try it yourself
Want a non-Spooky way to try this out? Take a chain with a pendant, or a heavy ring on a chain or piece of string and dangle it between your fingers in front of you to create a crude pendulum. Allow the ‘pendulum’ to spin in a circle, actually do this with your hand.
Once it’s spinning concentrate on the pendulum changing direction without moving your hand. Eventually you’ll see it actually happen. Then try making it swing in a straight line instead of a circle.
How’d you get on?
This is your ideomotor responses kicking in and guiding the pendulum and is also similar to whats happening with the Ouija board on a smaller scale. Both methods have been and indeed still are popular with fraudulent mediums, used to deceive punters into believing that they’ve conjured up the spirits for a bit of the ol’seance ghost hunting. It is however, as you now know, not ghost. It is you, because… science.
“What is so fascinating about this phenomenon is that individual participants exhibit great difficulties in predicting what the “spirit” is trying to tell them, but as soon as we look at the participants as a collective entity, we see how meaningful responses are still able to emerge out of their interaction with each other.
“Our study solves the apparent paradox that participants on the one hand are producing the Ouija responses themselves, while they on the other hand are unable to predict those very same responses at an individual level. In that sense, you could say that the “spirit” is actually a representation of the collective ‘we’.”
It all comes together when you consider the following video, detailing what happens when a ouija board is used with and without a blindfold - you can probably guess the outcome:
Essentially, if you’re a believer and you really want to see an answer, then you’ll most likely see one - the chance of this increases when the other participants are also open to the possibility of a ghost deciding that yes, it wants to take time out of its day to faff about moving a wooden triangle around an alphabet board just so that it can tell a bunch of snotty kids exactly where it hid the money.
Andersen also did previous experimental research which found that as participants walked through a virtual reality forest, the ghost-fans were way more likely to experience seeing something untoward than those who poo-poo the very notion of ectoplasm. So playing ouija with skeptics is not a good bet and is unlikely to work.
To sum it up - you’re all having a bit of an unconscious episode, almost like a dissociative state (which is creepy enough on its own) and it’s making you all manipulate the board at the same time and in the same direction.
In fact, research has even found that using a ouija board has the power to unlock subconscious areas of the brain - a 2012 study found that participants were able to recall factual info with more accuracy when they were using the board. Participants were asked to rate how confident they were in the answers to specific yes or no questions and in cases where they reckoned they didn’t know the answer, they gave more correct answers using a ouija board than when they were guessing on their own. Of course, this relied on the participant being a believer, but still, spoooooooky.
So yeah, probably no ghosts then, but the board still holds a modicum of untapped power, and that’s enough reason to probably leave it in the locked case in the attic, yeah?
We’re not saying that ghosts aren’t real, though - you ever said “Candyman” in a mirror five times? We did it once and a year later our boiler broke down. No explanation. NO EXPLANATION.