Brain and Body

How do Ouija Boards Really Work?

October 9, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Ouija board
Photo credit: Dave Winer/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The science behind them is even creepier than you’d think.

It’s the spookiest month of the year, so it’s time to break out the Ouija boards and channel some dead spirits to answer your most burning questions. As if communicating with ghosts isn’t creepy enough, you’ll probably get even more freaked out when you realize all of the answers are coming from within you.

To use an Ouija board, someone first asks the spirits a question and then places their fingers on the pointer, called a planchette. Then, the spirits supposedly guide their hands across the Ouija board, leading to letters or numbers that spell out the answer. Serious Ouija boarders usually switch off all electronics so they don’t disturb the supernatural signal, and they light candles and incense to create a spiritual aura.

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While some people are painstakingly sure that a supernatural entity compelled their answers, others say ghosts don’t exist and that the whole thing’s a hoax. Luckily, science has an explanation for the mysterious workings of the Ouija board, and while it doesn’t involve ghosts and spirits, it’s just as bizarre.

It turns out that what causes the Ouija board to move is all inside our minds. The phenomenon, called the Ideomotor Effect, occurs when someone moves themselves or an object without being consciously aware of it. This psychological effect, along with a strong subconscious desire to find an answer for your question, causes players to move the planchette across the boards themselves — but they have no knowledge that they’re, in fact, physically moving it.

But it gets stranger. In a 2012 study at the University of British Columbia, researchers explored the ideomotor effect by asking subjects factual yes or no questions, first verbally and then with a Ouija board. For the Ouija board questions, the subjects were blindfolded and told that a partner would be moving the planchette with them, but the partner quickly removed their hands once the experiment started. When the participants weren’t sure about the answer to a question, they only answered it correctly 50 percent of the time when asked verbally. But intriguingly, when they responded with the help of the Ouija board, their answers increased to a 65 percent accuracy rate.

Using something as mysterious as a Ouija board might help us tap into our “second intelligence,” according to the study. Basically, if someone asked you who the president was in 1982, you might have no idea off the top of your head. But your subconscious mind might be able to recall that information from when you heard it years ago in a high school history lesson.
You might be disappointed if you were hoping this article would confirm the existence of ghosts and supernatural spirits, but the fact that Ouija boards are essentially a psychological experiment that taps into our subconscious minds is still pretty mind-bending. Plus, it’s probably even more useful that way — you can discover your friend’s deepest secrets and dazzle them with the wit hiding in your subconscious mind.

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