With your team needing to stop the clock to set up a last-second field goal, you spike an imaginary football into the living room carpet. You sway your head back and forth to John Michael Montgomery (or preferably something better). You make a subtle chewing motion and lick your lips when someone mentions chocolate-covered cherries.
These are manifestations of the ideomotor response, a physiological phenomenon in which physical movements occur simultaneously with our thoughts, memories, and emotions. They are sometimes mostly conscious, such as the imaginary football spike, and other times semiconscious, such as with the music or cherries. It is the unconscious manifestations we will address, manifestations that are sometimes harmless, sometimes comic, and sometimes tragic.
In these instances, the person has no awareness they are executing the movements, which leaves them open to the suggestion that something magical, mystical, or sinister is in play.
Dr. William Carpenter discovered the phenomenon in 1852 and created the word, a portmanteau of idea and motor (for muscle movement). He deduced that the influence of suggestion or expectation led to involuntary and unconscious motor behavior. While Carpenter gave it a name, its use went back several centuries prior. Its most frequent appearance was in divining rods or dowsing tools. These were primarily used to locate water, but were also touted as being able to find oil, gold, golf balls, missing persons, or anything else a person was after.
It usually involved a wishbone shaped rod or twig, which the operator swept over an area. Eventually, the point would swivel, indicating the area where digging should commence. Advocates traditionally employed metallurgical mumbo-jumbo to explain how it worked, though today one is more likely to hear something mystic like Qi given as the magic power.
In actuality, the keys are involuntary muscle movements and motivated reasoning. It might fail once, twice, thrice, or a dozen times, but if it eventually unearths what one is looking for, the previous failures are overlooked and success declared. If all efforts fizzle, there are any number of justifications offered: Bad energy, crossed signals, too hot, too cold, static electricity, solar flares, or the operator’s poor body chemistry.
Divining rods have adapted for the 21st Century. The identifying factors of modem dowsing devices include technobabble, a sleek look, and an outrageous price. The most expensive ones run close to $10,000 despite featuring ersatz electronics and no success in independent testing.
It would be one thing if purveyors were just taking money, but they have also taken lives. In Iraq, dowsing rods were modernized for the War on Terror and rebranded as bomb detectors. Desperate and gullible militaries and governments gobbled them up.
The most infamous was the Alpha 6, which Sam and Joan Tree fastened together with cheap parts from China. The assembly was a plastic box without electronic components and a freely-rotating piece of metal passing as an antenna. The Trees had essentially reworked a $12 golf ball dowser, attributed life-saving properties to it, and sold it for $25,000. They raked in $3 million before being busted. It was sold to other audiences as a device for finding lost children. It must have been really good at locating juvenile suicide bombers.
Meanwhile, Paul Johnson offered the Sniffex explosives detector to the U.S. military and sold $50,000 worth. The Navy conducted double blind tests on the Sniffex and found it performed no better than chance. In a typical failure, a truck laden with a half-ton of explosives was driven next to a Sniffex without the combustibles being detected. Johnson offered the ad hoc reasoning that the testing area was polluted with explosive residue, throwing off the device. Rather bad trait for a bomb detector to have, being confused by too many explosives.
Another unfortunate consequence of the ideomotor response has occurred with facilitated communication. This is used to assist persons who have speech impairment due autism, cerebral palsy, or similar conditions. A facilitator supports an arm of the subject, and moves toward the place on the keyboard it feels drawn.
The technique has failed repeatedly in scientific testing. In every instance, the responses were those of the facilitator rather than the subject. For instance, a partition was placed between the two, and the facilitator would be shown a photo of crocodile and the subject a photo of a dog. Invariably, it was the amphibian that was typed in when the tester asked what animal was seen.
When more involved questions were asked, the same vernacular, phrases, and even misspellings of the facilitator were prevalent. Elementary school children were typing words like dissertation and ameliorate. This proved to be devastating for parents who thought their children had been able to communicate with them for the first time. The biggest victims were two fathers whose facilitators had typed in accusations of sexual assault against the men.
Perhaps the most well-known ideomotor responses are in conjunction with the Ouija Board. Though accused by some of being Satan’s spawn, the board is merely a game invented in the 1890s and manufactured today by Hasbro. Like facilitated communication, it relies on users to manually spell out words. One or two persons will hold a teardrop-shaped implement called a planchette and move it about the board. Of course, the contacted spirit always uses the same language, speaking style, and grammatical errors of the planchette operators.
That the Ouija Board was merely the ideomotor response in action was best demonstrated by Penn & Teller. The illusionist duo had a couple use the Ouija Board, then blindfolded them before stealthily turning the board 180 degrees. Subsequent responses had the couple moving the planchette to the opposite side of the board from where the letters had been previously.
I’ve been addressing alternative medicine with enough frequency that I was hoping to get away from it for a while. But alas, it rears its unscientific head here. For the ideomotor response figures prominently in radionics and applied kinesiology.
Radionics is the purported ability to detect radiation in people. Devices allegedly measure radiation (or vibrations or Qi) in order to diagnose disease. This treatment is done by using an unproven energy said to be akin to radio waves. Radionics is inconsistent with biology and physics and has no scientific basis. The practitioner does little more than wave a box with protrusions around a client until he feel pulled in one direction. The boxes may produce measurable readings, but there’s no connection between these measurements and disease or tissue damage.
Onto applied kinesiology, which is the claimed ability to diagnose and treat illnesses by gauging muscular strength. Its methodology is to assess how a client’s muscles respond to being pushed against, with this somehow revealing what ails him. Testing relies on subjective assessment, so different practitioners could decide the same patient is at high risk, medium risk, or no risk. Or one advocate could find that the client has strained quadriceps, while another thinks the trouble is bloating.
When put to a scientific test, the field has never scored better than chance. It has this in common with all other ideomotor response-driven fields, where spooky tales and uncontrolled, unscientific experiments are given more credence than empirical evidence.
In personal experience, I have found the ideomotor response to be of mixed value. The last time I utilized the spike motion, the Chiefs stopped the clock, but missed the field goal.