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MICHAEL HEAP

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MORE ON IDEOMOTOR SUGGESTION

In the Winter 2017 issue of the Skeptical Intelligencer (see 'Oh to be a dowser!' on this website) I discussed dowsing, or water-divining, using metal rods and mentioned the ideomotor effect whereby a seemingly involuntary movement occurs in response to the idea, suggestion or expectation of that movement. Ideomotor suggestion, though often cited as the explanation of the apparently spontaneous rotation of the dowsing rods is, as I stated, actually one of three possibilities, the others being deliberate movement of the rods and incidental movements that happen naturally as one is walking along holding the rods in the horizontal position. In all three cases the key movement is the lifting of the centre of gravity of the rods above their respective fulcrums at the hands and gravity will do the rest.

The ideomotor responses (IMR) is the primary explanation for several claims of paranormal phenomena that usually involve groups of participants; these include table turning, table tipping and the Ouija board. IMRs in responsive individuals can be demonstrated by the postural sway test, arm levitation, and 'hands drawn together'. In the first of these one stands in front of or behind the person and suggests that their body is gradually swaying more and more, backwards and forwards. One then emphasises one of these directions - e.g. 'Your body is swaying forward more and more … etc.' With arm levitation one suggests that one of the person's arms is getting lighter and lighter and will start to float up in the air. In the case of 'hands drawn together' it is suggested to the person that in each of their outstretched hands they have a powerful magnet and the magnets are pulling their arms and hands closer together.

I personally am not very responsive to any of the above three suggestions but there is another one that does work for me and that is the suggestion of pendulum movement (which, amongst other things is used by some as a dowsing method). For demonstration purposes at meetings I make my own pendulums but sometimes my wife lends me her pendants as well, on the condition that they are all returned. The suggestion is given to the person holding the pendulum that it will shortly begin to swing (the direction can be specified or not) and when this happens, suggestions are given that the movement will increase in amplitude. I believe this works well because it only requires a tiny movement of the hand or fingers to create a noticeable sway of the pendulum. In fact one may not even need to have someone else repeat the suggestions: self-suggestion works with me. (Don't give up if it doesn't work at first on yourself; after some familiarisation with the procedure I found it started to work for me.)

Now this is where the fun starts. Place a blank sheet of paper under the suspended pendulum and give the suggestion (or concentrate on it if you are doing it yourself) that as you are thinking of the message 'yes' the pendulum will begin to swing, all on its own, in one orientation (usually left-right, up-down, clockwise or counter-clockwise) to communicate that message 'yes'. If this happens, draw the direction on the paper. Then do the same for the message 'no' and mark the paper accordingly. If you feel inclined you can do likewise for the message 'I don't know' and even 'I don't want to tell you'. Now you can ask the pendulum any questions that require the answer 'yes' or 'no'. For demonstration purposes I usually start with factual questions about the person - 'Was Tracey born in England?', 'Has Tracey ever been to Japan?' and so on (note the use of the third person). Likes and dislikes may be the subject of further questioning - e.g. 'Does Tracey like pork sausages?'. If you are going to ask more personal questions you may first ask permission, thus: 'Do I have permission to ask if Tracey is happy in her current job?' Only if the response is 'yes' is the question asked.

If you are doing this on your own you are free to ask any questions you like. I once met a woman at a meeting who told me that she and her husband used pendulums when making decisions such as whether to move house or not. 'It doesn't always get it right' she informed me.

Pendulums were used by some psychotherapists (and maybe still are) as a way of 'communicating with the patient's unconscious mind'. 'Did something happen when Bill was a child that is still troubling him?' might be one question. If a 'yes' response is elicited a further question might be 'Did it happen before Bill's tenth birthday?' and so on. An important caveat is that this is not a method of establishing 'the truth', and its dangers are obvious (e.g. the creation of false memories).

Nowadays, the preference is to use ideomotor finger signals, usually in the form of slight twitching movements of the fingers (and sometimes the thumb) of one or both hands. The procedure is on the same lines as that for the pendulum (one finger for 'yes', another finger for 'no', etc.). With patients (in the past) and demonstration subjects I usually ask the person to support one arm on the table or arm of the chair with the hand hanging loosely. The movements may be difficult for some members of the audience to see.

I don't think there is anything wrong in telling the person that it is their 'unconscious mind' that is providing the answers. But this explanation is far too simplistic from the standpoint of a modern understanding of the human mind and smacks of magical thinking. The procedure may be better seen as a safe way in which patients can communicate with their therapist, and indeed with themselves, about complex and potentially very upsetting aspects of their life, while the normal means of communication - face-to-face verbal exchanges - allow them to maintain their usual psychological defences. The therapist may ask, 'How did you get on with your mother?' 'Great! She was marvellous' the patient, say Nita, may reply. But the relationship may have been more complex and troublesome than Nita's response would suggest. By assigning the answer to something as slight as the flicker of a finger, of which Nita might not even be aware, perhaps she can start to broach the possibility that sometimes things were not 'marvellous' and that maybe there were some feelings of hurt, anger and rejection along the way.

This way of understanding IMR signalling is not too far from everyday communication by unconscious 'body language' and other non-linguistic effects whereby one message is delivered consciously in speech form, while a contradictory message is discernible in more subtle physical cues. 'Had a good day at school?' a parent may ask their child on his or her arrival home. 'Yes' may be the reply, but that slight lowering of the head, averting of gaze, or whatever, may convey the opposite message.

There has been little research on the nature and therapeutic application of IMR signalling. I recently came across a paper published in 2012 (note 1) which reported a non-clinical laboratory experiment comparing verbal yes/ no responses with those indicated by a Ouija board. Briefly, in a yes/ no general knowledge test, when participants said they did not know the answer, verbal responses were, as expected, 50 per cent correct but Ouija-board answers were 6 per cent correct.

This experiment has been heavily criticised in the skeptical literature (note 2) and it certainly cries out for replication. But, just because a Ouija board was used, we skeptics shouldn't immediately feel obliged to go on the offensive. Maybe IMRs offer a more sensitive means of responding to uncertainty than a straight yes/ no verbal response. (Here I am reminded of experiments on 'perceptual defence' in which words presented on a screen too briefly to be identified may nevertheless evoke a physiological response when they have negative emotional valence). If I were researching this, I would prefer to use a pendulum or even IMR finger signals rather than a Ouija board.

Notes

1. Gauchou H.L., Rensink R.A. & Fels, S. (2012). Expression of nonconscious knowledge via ideomotor actions. Conscious Cognition, 21, 976-982. At: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22377138.

2. Dunning, B. (2017) Ouija Boards. At: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4591.