Summoning the dead, determining the location of buried items without a metal detector, and making known the thoughts of the uncommunicative would all be remarkable traits. But while none of these disparate abilities exist, there are people who believe they possess them, and the explanation lies partly in the Ideomotor Response.
This refers to a physiological trait that is responsible for unconscious, unintentional physical movements. Examples would be unknowingly tapping your foot while music plays, spiking a non-existent football as your team needs to stop the clock, or aimlessly doodling during a boring meeting (perhaps a redundant phrase). Probably the most lucrative manifestation of the Ideomotor Response was when a man trying to dream up a way out of debt mindlessly twisted a piece of metal until he accidentally fashioned the first paper clip.
Dr. William Carpenter coined the phrase in the mid-19th Century as a portmanteau of “ideo” for ideas and “motor” for muscular movement. He linked Ideomotor Response to hypnotism, somnambulism, and what came to be known as the Placebo Effect. Since then, it has come to be associated with other things, and the person experiencing it may have no awareness of executing any movements. This leaves them potentially vulnerable to the suggestion that mystical forces are at work.
Consider dowsing and divining rods. Dowsing refers to trying to locate underground water, while divining rods can be used to look for anything a mind can come up with. The implement is usually a wishbone-shaped twig or a long, narrow piece of metal. More recent products feature ersatz electronics complete with beeping sounds and blinking lights. Operators hold the device in front of themselves and the rod’s point will allegedly start quivering when the person is standing at or near the desired object. When this happens, it might seem like magic or perhaps that some undiscovered geological feature is being tapped. It actuality, it’s just the Ideomotor Response doing its thing, occasionally aided by confirmation bias. It’s the person shaking, not the object or an unknown force.
This is one of the easier pseudoscientific ideas to test and dowsing has repeatedly flunked the exam. It was the most common method of attempting to win the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge and the grand old man of skeptics still has his money.
Spending a few bucks (or even few hundred bucks for the supposedly advanced models) in a futile attempt to find subterranean water is not that big of a deal. It’s another matter when such devices are touted as being able to find bombs. Despite exorbitant prices of up to $25,000, such products have been snagged by persons in war zones desperate for a solution, and there have been fatal results.
While not responsible for the loss of life, the Ideomotor Response has manifested itself in another tragic way, facilitated communication. This is the notion that an otherwise uncommunicative individual can make their thoughts known on a keyboard, via a second person holding the subject’s elbow or wrist in a certain way.
This was initially billed, incorrectly, as a miraculous way for parents to be able to know what their mute child was trying to tell them. It later became the avenue for false charges of child abuse, as the patient, though the facilitated communicator, seemed to type out molestation allegations against a caregiver.
However, even the most basic test of the purported abilities have shown facilitated communication to be without merit. When only the subject has been shown an image, then the communicator is brought in and asked to help the subject type in what they saw, the failure rate is 100 percent.
Returning now to harmless manifestations of the Ideomotor Response, we will address Ouija Boards. On such objects, tweens play an innocuous, if dull, game. Matt Walsh is the latest in a long string of panicked evangelicals who consider the boards to be a devastating demonic doorway. However, the only force in play is the Ideomotor Response. For as Neil Tyson has noted, the spirit controlling the planchette always uses the same vocabulary, idiosyncratic phrases, and spelling errors as the person they are co-piloting with.
This was best demonstrated on an episode of Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit!” Two persons playing with the board were asked to stop and were then blindfolded. The board was then stealthily turned 180 degrees and when play resumed, the duo moved the planchette to where it would have gone had the board never been turned. So either the Ideomotor Response is responsible or the demons have permanent residency in the players’ eyelashes.