Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

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Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#1  Postby jerome » Feb 08, 2011 12:21 am

I was just writing on my blog, and was struck by a deeply heretical thought -- here is what I have written so far - well the relevant bit

The first question is how is a Ouija board works. (I assume it is capitalised as a proper noun - the inventor is said to have taken the French "oui" and German "ja" to create the name, and the boards have long been popularly marketed as toys, despite their spooky connotations - it is currently still subject to a trademark by Parker Bros. If you don't know the history, the Wikipedia article is excellent. So how does it work? well as any sceptic will tell you - by ideomotor effect. This sounds dead scientific and impressive, till you learn it is an astonishing example of circular reasoning and sceptics promoting utter bullshit by either ignorance or deliberate sense of mischief. Why do I say this? Because the term was devised as a term for the unconscious muscular actions said to explain the motion of a Ouija board. When we mention the ideomotor effect we are not putting forward some established principle found in every physiology book, but a term that simply describes the phenomena. :) In short, I can find little in the way of a scientific literature on the ideomotor effect: everyone knows it is real and important, apart from it seems people who actually study the nervous system?

Now maybe it is in some way linked to mirror neurons, or similar. However an immense red flag is raised for me by the fact that while Fraday, a great chemist and physicist wrote a lot on how this explained table tipping back in the 1850's, I can find bugger all modern evidence outside of sceptics sites. I suspect the ideomotor effect, invoked to explain dowsing, Ouija and table tipping is a great sceptical myth - just speculation, but very few people are ever ready to question received sceptical wisdom. We believe debunks because they make us feel we have answers. Here i think the answer may be wrong.

So, armed with google, physiology or medical texts, can anyone find evidence for this ideomotor effect?
Yours sincerely, Jerome -- a threat to reason & science

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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#2  Postby jerome » Feb 08, 2011 12:57 am

Next part -- EDIT: missed first paragraph so added

Still, certainly we know we have an unconscious part of the nervous system -- the autonomic nervous system. However as I recall these systems connect to the spine, not the brain. We probably need something more like a reflex reaction like catching a dropped tea cup, which I'm guessing involves the CNS? Well I know too little to speculate: what I do know is that you can demonstrate some kind of unconscious muscular action like the "ideomotor" effect by getting people to hold a pendulum on a thread, and then telling them which way it will rotate. Usually with a room full of people most people will find the pendulum moving correctly -- I assume this is down to some kind of subliminal twitching, but actually I can't even prove that. So go on chaps, find a mechanism for the effect, it must be there.

Anyway, the idea that the sitters unconsciously push the glass seems pretty uncontroversial, even if not as straightforward as it initially sounds. (Building a table with pressure pads and a pc that models applied forces in real time would not be too hard I guess?) So I'm happy to call it the "ideomotor effect" for now, but I really want to know more about the physiology underlying it, and have some kind of proposed mechanism before invoking the term that sounds clever but is really just "your are unconsciously pushing the glass" in fancy language. How do I know the glass is moved by the sitters, not spirits? Well I don't, but the fact that the glass needs people to touch it to move makes me think it is moving because of the people.

Now no one is really denying this; that's what the word "medium" means, a means of transmission, is it not? (Though it was used in the Spiritualist sense before it's modern sense - the term "broadcast medium" for example is I believe an analogy drawn form the spirit mediums, not vice versa?) So I guess in theory the mediums, or sitter's brains pick up the messages, and then as everyone agrees (even if I think we have to describe the physiological mechanism yet and stop hiding behind pseudo-scientific terms) said sitters unconsciously push the glass or planchette or whatever.

So now we have stopped worrying about how the glass moves: it moves because of impulses unconsciously generated by the group of people with fingers on it, according to both sceptics and believers. They are pushing the glass, whether they realise it or not; but that fact does not reduce the "paranormality" of the phenomena. What is important is not the board, not the glass, but the content of the message delivered. It does not matter if my postman chain smokes, beats his wife and drinks like a fish if all I am interested in is the content of the letter from the company I have applied to a job for.

If the message delivered is nonsense, then we can disregard the whole phenomena, unless we are interested like Breton and some early Surrealists in exploring our "unconscious minds". (the problems with that term can wait for another article).
Yours sincerely, Jerome -- a threat to reason & science

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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#3  Postby Mr.Samsa » Feb 08, 2011 1:34 am

I don't think your review of the ideomotor effect is entirely fair, Jerome. Yes, it appears as if it's a simple description that tells us nothing and seems to be circular, but it's not - it's actually much more informative than that. It tells us that the resulting movement is a direct product of the person touching the object, and not some external force. This may seem straightforward, and even trivial for people who don't believe in ghosts or spirits, but it can have hugely important ramifications.

For example, take one of the classic debunking takedowns in recent scientific history, which was essentially a demonstration of the ideomotor effect: Facilitated communication. The basic premise behind this was that people with severe autism (or other similar disorders) were fully functional people who were just "locked into" a failing body, but by assisting them in front of a keyboard, they were able to type out fully coherent messages and it gave them a means to express themselves.

Now obviously we know this is bullshit - for starters, many of the children that used this technique had never been to school, nor learned how to read or write, and yet they were able to type out full messages with perfect grammar. However, since the technique became so popular (and because it led to a number of court cases where these children 'accused' their parents or caregivers of abusing them), science had to step in and fully debunk it. It turned out, as we expected, that the messages that the client could type were limited exclusively to the knowledge that the helper had - so if the helper had not seen where an object was hidden in a room, but the autistic child had, the child "inexplicably" was not able to identify its location.

This was a clear demonstration of the ideomotor effect and shows the importance of the simple claim that the movements of an object, like the child's arm in FC or the ouiji board piece, is the product of the person touching it. This is an explanation for the phenomenon. If you wanted to look further into the physiology of it, then that's great, but there's no need to do so (in terms of the validity of the explanation) as the theory stands on its own. If I come up with a behavioral theory that certain environmental factors produce a certain behavioral change in organisms, then that's a valid scientific claim - I don't need to explain the physiology behind it (and if I explained the physiology, I wouldn't need to explain the chemistry, and if I explained the chemistry I wouldn't need to explain the physics, etc).

As for the claim about "unconscious reflexes", I don't think there's any need to specifically limit it to the autonomic nervous system, as it seems clear that there is an element of neural activity that affects this phenomenon; that is, there is a clear effect of expectations on the behavior. Now we notice that we're describing a behavior similar to the placebo effect, where our beliefs and expectations regarding an outcome can affect our perceptions and biological responses to stimuli. As such, there should be some commonalities between the explanation for the mechanism behind the ideomotor effect, and the placebo effect. Since I think the strongest explanation for the placebo effect is classical conditioning, then I see no reason why we can't use the same explanation here - it allows room for expectations to play a role, it has a clear causal role that has been described in the literature, and it explains the lack of awareness on the subject's part.
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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#4  Postby jerome » Feb 08, 2011 2:13 am

Mr.Samsa wrote:I don't think your review of the ideomotor effect is entirely fair, Jerome. Yes, it appears as if it's a simple description that tells us nothing and seems to be circular, but it's not - it's actually much more informative than that. It tells us that the resulting movement is a direct product of the person touching the object, and not some external force. This may seem straightforward, and even trivial for people who don't believe in ghosts or spirits, but it can have hugely important ramifications.

For example, take one of the classic debunking takedowns in recent scientific history, which was essentially a demonstration of the ideomotor effect: Facilitated communication. The basic premise behind this was that people with severe autism (or other similar disorders) were fully functional people who were just "locked into" a failing body, but by assisting them in front of a keyboard, they were able to type out fully coherent messages and it gave them a means to express themselves.


the problems with the analogy is that FC seemed to have the facilitator "intuit" what the child was meant to be saying as far as I got? or did tehy really believe they were not in nay way pushing the kids hand? I'll have to look at this - I remember it well, as I have a number of friends working here in autism research, and two more in autism care. FC is just one of many shall we say "controversial" therapies -- actually that is rather too kind!

Mr.Samsa wrote:
Now obviously we know this is bullshit - for starters, many of the children that used this technique had never been to school, nor learned how to read or write, and yet they were able to type out full messages with perfect grammar. However, since the technique became so popular (and because it led to a number of court cases where these children 'accused' their parents or caregivers of abusing them), science had to step in and fully debunk it. It turned out, as we expected, that the messages that the client could type were limited exclusively to the knowledge that the helper had - so if the helper had not seen where an object was hidden in a room, but the autistic child had, the child "inexplicably" was not able to identify its location.


Yep, as one would expect.

Mr.Samsa wrote:
This was a clear demonstration of the ideomotor effect and shows the importance of the simple claim that the movements of an object, like the child's arm in FC or the ouiji board piece, is the product of the person touching it. This is an explanation for the phenomenon. If you wanted to look further into the physiology of it, then that's great, but there's no need to do so (in terms of the validity of the explanation) as the theory stands on its own. If I come up with a behavioral theory that certain environmental factors produce a certain behavioral change in organisms, then that's a valid scientific claim - I don't need to explain the physiology behind it (and if I explained the physiology, I wouldn't need to explain the chemistry, and if I explained the chemistry I wouldn't need to explain the physics, etc).


This is my problem - it's a placeholder. As I freely admit, I can demonstrate what appears to be the ideomotor effect in action - I can make a room full of folks with pendulums move them in accordance with my spoken commands (fun party trick, try it, you can do it, anyone can!) I agree that the effect works: the problem is I want a mechanism. It;s always my problem - I get annoyed when we lack an agreed mechanism, because all too often we stop looking. It was 1853 that Carpenter and faraday were writing on the ideomotor effect; it clearly has something to so with the part of the brain that visiualises intention and plans scenarios - or does it? is is mirror neurons? Lord alone knows: i'm almost willing to look to fMRI for answers, and hell that is rare for me. I don't mind partial answers (hell I'm a theist!), if they don't impede further enquiry

Mr.Samsa wrote:
As for the claim about "unconscious reflexes", I don't think there's any need to specifically limit it to the autonomic nervous system, as it seems clear that there is an element of neural activity that affects this phenomenon; that is, there is a clear effect of expectations on the behavior.


Nor do I. Sorry if I was not clear on that. The whole piece is here btw, you can see why cynisicm, tiredness and waeryness overcame me - http://polterwotsit.wordpress.com/2011/ ... never-was/

the first part is here - http://polterwotsit.wordpress.com/2011/ ... surrey-uk/

I think if you read them you will understand why anyone could be a little jaded. :yuk:


Mr.Samsa wrote:
Now we notice that we're describing a behavior similar to the placebo effect, where our beliefs and expectations regarding an outcome can affect our perceptions and biological responses to stimuli. As such, there should be some commonalities between the explanation for the mechanism behind the ideomotor effect, and the placebo effect. Since I think the strongest explanation for the placebo effect is classical conditioning, then I see no reason why we can't use the same explanation here - it allows room for expectations to play a role, it has a clear causal role that has been described in the literature, and it explains the lack of awareness on the subject's part.


And I still want to discuss the placebo effect with you, and your suggestion here has suddenly made me wake up, sit up and think "bloody hell". Yes I think you are really on to something: I want to discuss this. It's 2am here and I'm exhausted, and have a heavy day tomorrow, but try to keep working on this. I spent a few minutes trying to grasp how conditioning could move tables, but yes, I'm beginning to think now about how expectation effects muscles -- that I at least have covered well in my physiology textbooks; but yep, a psychological model might make a lot of sense. Clearly both have to be involved.

Hell I'm knackered, talk in morning. :cheers:

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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#5  Postby Thommo » Feb 08, 2011 2:14 am

Interesting, I'd always pretty much assumed that people did it consciously, but perhaps lied to themselves afterwards.

I know the one and only time I played on a Ouija board as a child I deliberately spelled a message saying "Im watching you" to scare the shit out of my friends and never admitted it to them, at least. I found it funny, though it was hard not having anyone to share the joke with.
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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#6  Postby Mr.Samsa » Feb 08, 2011 2:35 am

jerome wrote:the problems with the analogy is that FC seemed to have the facilitator "intuit" what the child was meant to be saying as far as I got? or did tehy really believe they were not in nay way pushing the kids hand? I'll have to look at this - I remember it well, as I have a number of friends working here in autism research, and two more in autism care. FC is just one of many shall we say "controversial" therapies -- actually that is rather too kind!


Not really, the helper in FC is meant to simply support the arm of the client and to encourage any movement they make - i.e. to just "go with it", rather than to actively try to figure out what they're saying. The idea is that the autistic person has imperfect control over their body and the reason they haven't been able to communicate is that their movements are too weak and subtle to be interpretable by parents or caregivers, so the facilitator just "emphasises" the movements they make so that we can understand what they are trying to say.

But, as you say, this is just one of the many controversial 'treatments' in the autism world.

jerome wrote:
Mr.Samsa wrote:
This was a clear demonstration of the ideomotor effect and shows the importance of the simple claim that the movements of an object, like the child's arm in FC or the ouiji board piece, is the product of the person touching it. This is an explanation for the phenomenon. If you wanted to look further into the physiology of it, then that's great, but there's no need to do so (in terms of the validity of the explanation) as the theory stands on its own. If I come up with a behavioral theory that certain environmental factors produce a certain behavioral change in organisms, then that's a valid scientific claim - I don't need to explain the physiology behind it (and if I explained the physiology, I wouldn't need to explain the chemistry, and if I explained the chemistry I wouldn't need to explain the physics, etc).


This is my problem - it's a placeholder. As I freely admit, I can demonstrate what appears to be the ideomotor effect in action - I can make a room full of folks with pendulums move them in accordance with my spoken commands (fun party trick, try it, you can do it, anyone can!) I agree that the effect works: the problem is I want a mechanism. It;s always my problem - I get annoyed when we lack an agreed mechanism, because all too often we stop looking. It was 1853 that Carpenter and faraday were writing on the ideomotor effect; it clearly has something to so with the part of the brain that visiualises intention and plans scenarios - or does it? is is mirror neurons? Lord alone knows: i'm almost willing to look to fMRI for answers, and hell that is rare for me. I don't mind partial answers (hell I'm a theist!), if they don't impede further enquiry


:lol: It's not a placeholder though, it's just an explanation on a different level to the one you want. Almost all of the research in my field makes no reference to physiological mechanisms (although obviously there is research linking it all together), but these theories aren't placeholders.

I don't think the answers will be found in fMRI studies, and they certainly won't be found in mirror neurons (not least until we can demonstrate that mirror neurons actually exist, but that's another topic...).

jerome wrote:
Mr.Samsa wrote:
As for the claim about "unconscious reflexes", I don't think there's any need to specifically limit it to the autonomic nervous system, as it seems clear that there is an element of neural activity that affects this phenomenon; that is, there is a clear effect of expectations on the behavior.


Nor do I. Sorry if I was not clear on that. The whole piece is here btw, you can see why cynisicm, tiredness and waeryness overcame me - http://polterwotsit.wordpress.com/2011/ ... never-was/

the first part is here - http://polterwotsit.wordpress.com/2011/ ... surrey-uk/

I think if you read them you will understand why anyone could be a little jaded. :yuk:


Ah, you were clear enough, that was my fault for rushing through your comments and trying to do a million things at once. I'll try to have a read through when I get the chance, but your comments make me unwilling to look at them.. :tongue:


jerome wrote:And I still want to discuss the placebo effect with you, and your suggestion here has suddenly made me wake up, sit up and think "bloody hell". Yes I think you are really on to something: I want to discuss this. It's 2am here and I'm exhausted, and have a heavy day tomorrow, but try to keep working on this. I spent a few minutes trying to grasp how conditioning could move tables, but yes, I'm beginning to think now about how expectation effects muscles -- that I at least have covered well in my physiology textbooks; but yep, a psychological model might make a lot of sense. Clearly both have to be involved.

Hell I'm knackered, talk in morning. :cheers:

j x


:nod: I'm still waiting for your placebo thread! But no problem, get some sleep and we can discuss it when you wake up.

:cheers:

Thommo wrote:Interesting, I'd always pretty much assumed that people did it consciously, but perhaps lied to themselves afterwards.

I know the one and only time I played on a Ouija board as a child I deliberately spelled a message saying "Im watching you" to scare the shit out of my friends and never admitted it to them, at least. I found it funny, though it was hard not having anyone to share the joke with.


Indeed - a reinterpretation of events could certainly be at least part of the explanation for it, since people are notoriously bad at understanding why they perform certain behaviors when they do, and there's documented research showing how people will change their "stories" when presented with a behavioral response of theirs that they weren't expecting.
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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#7  Postby virphen » Feb 08, 2011 2:39 am

Jerome, by any chance have you read Derren Brown's book Tricks of the Mind?

It has quite an interesting section on ouija, table tipping and the like.
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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#8  Postby jerome » Feb 09, 2011 2:12 am

I have a copy I have half read, but obviously not that far! :) it's a really good book -- I'll dig it out and keep reading it now!
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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#9  Postby HPrice » Feb 09, 2011 10:40 am

I agree with Jerome that 'ideomotor effect' is simply a label. I, too, would like to know how it works. It could be to do with mirror neurons but I suspect not. When 'mirroring' we imitate someone else's actions but all the sitters at a ouija board will be moving in a slightly different way, according to their position relative to one another. I think the phenomenon is more likely related to proprioception - the body's sense of its position in space. This illusion* is produced by a combination of sight, touch and the vestibular system. If anyone starts pushing a glass, whether consciously or otherwise, others will feel their own hand is being moved by a force external to their body. They will therefore mentally 'disown' their own subsequent pushing of the glass. Just a few thoughts to get the ball rolling!

* Why illusion? Because it can be easily fooled by things like the rubber hand illusion. When the illusion of proprioception is disturbed it can produce effects like out of the body experiences.
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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#10  Postby Animavore » Feb 09, 2011 11:43 am

I can't do this to myself no matter what I try :(
I had a friend 'round the other week and I gave him a string with a heavy ring on the end and told him to dangle it and imagine pulling and pushing the ring with his mind and it only took him a couple of minutes to get it going. I don't know if it's because I know what's happening so it doesn't work like knowing you've got a placebo doesn't but I'm not sure that's the case because in Tricks of the Mind, Derren Brown says you should be able to just do this.
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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#11  Postby Thommo » Feb 09, 2011 11:40 pm

Animavore wrote:I can't do this to myself no matter what I try :(
I had a friend 'round the other week and I gave him a string with a heavy ring on the end and told him to dangle it and imagine pulling and pushing the ring with his mind and it only took him a couple of minutes to get it going. I don't know if it's because I know what's happening so it doesn't work like knowing you've got a placebo doesn't but I'm not sure that's the case because in Tricks of the Mind, Derren Brown says you should be able to just do this.


This is easy to explain. Unlike your friend you actually have psychic powers, consequently your subconscious desire for the experiment to fail (as you're a sceptic) is manifested via the sheep-goat effect, causing your psychic powers to cancel the slight movements imparted to the ring.

Clear enough, no? ;)
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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#12  Postby Animavore » Feb 09, 2011 11:45 pm

Thommo wrote:
Animavore wrote:I can't do this to myself no matter what I try :(
I had a friend 'round the other week and I gave him a string with a heavy ring on the end and told him to dangle it and imagine pulling and pushing the ring with his mind and it only took him a couple of minutes to get it going. I don't know if it's because I know what's happening so it doesn't work like knowing you've got a placebo doesn't but I'm not sure that's the case because in Tricks of the Mind, Derren Brown says you should be able to just do this.


This is easy to explain. Unlike your friend you actually have psychic powers, consequently your subconscious desire for the experiment to fail (as you're a sceptic) is manifested via the sheep-goat effect, causing your psychic powers to cancel the slight movements imparted to the ring.

Clear enough, no? ;)


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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#13  Postby The Inquisitor » Feb 14, 2011 1:50 pm

jerome wrote:I suspect the ideomotor effect, invoked to explain dowsing, Ouija and table tipping is a great sceptical myth


No, it's a genuine effect and a fair amount of research has been done on it over the last 20-30 years or so.

The type of ideomotor action that explains dowsing etc. is called intentional induction and involves movements being caused by a person's expectation that they will see it, mediated by sensory feedback when it does occur.

Much more complex than that obviously! I should have a paper or two on it so if you PM me your email address I'll send what I have on to you.
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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#14  Postby jerome » Feb 15, 2011 12:47 am

Excellent, yes I would very much like to see that. And I owe you a pm, so we can discuss it. http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/conten ... mptype=rss i sthe only paper I found (hence my comment on mirror neurons) but its not ideomotor in the classic sense. I'll have a good look round then, see what comes up on pubmed.

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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#15  Postby Will S » Feb 15, 2011 9:25 am

I should have thought that some of the ideas in, say, Daniel Dennett's 'Consciousness Explained' are relevant to this discussion.

We seem to revert like homing pigeons to a standard model in which the human personality is a single, unitary thing (what Dennett calls 'the observer in the Cartesian theatre'), and in which every part of us is constantly aware of what every other part of us is doing. One of these parts is seen as an entirely reliable memory which gives accurate and uncensored information about the past.

Clearly, that's, at best, a crude approximation of what's going on; in reality, the human personality isn't completely integrated in this way, nor is our memory totally reliable. Surely, the Ouija phenomenon gives an illustration of the truth of that; people find it baffling and impressive simply because it negates their, simplistic, assumptions about human minds and personalities.

Now what would be very interesting (nay, world-shattering!) would be something along these lines. Suppose a Ouija board session (recorded, of course, by video camera) produced information which none of the participants could possibly have, in the ordinary way of things, possessed. I mean something like next week's winning Lotto numbers, or the exact location of the small girl who disappeared in Spain some years ago, or excerpts from Lord Byron's autobiography (which Thomas Moore burnt). Then we really would be talking about paranormal phenomena.
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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#16  Postby jerome » Feb 15, 2011 1:11 pm

I'd have a look at Sue Blackmore's books on Conciousness: I only have two of them, but she is scathing about the conscious/unconscious divide, and its certainly well worth reading her thoughts, however much we disagree

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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#17  Postby Futtbuck » Feb 25, 2011 4:21 am

jerome wrote:So, armed with google, physiology or medical texts, can anyone find evidence for this ideomotor effect?


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eio4a7rldjA
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSmCvo04d8g#at=345

I think you should watch the whole show, it's quite amazing.
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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#18  Postby jerome » Feb 25, 2011 2:15 pm

Futtbuck wrote:
jerome wrote:So, armed with google, physiology or medical texts, can anyone find evidence for this ideomotor effect?


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eio4a7rldjA
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSmCvo04d8g#at=345

I think you should watch the whole show, it's quite amazing.


It says "This video contains content from Channel 4, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds." As I live in the UK this surprises me, but of you tell me the name fo the show I can probably get it either from C4 directly or a website? Thanks, look forward to seeing it

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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#19  Postby Futtbuck » Feb 25, 2011 2:58 pm

jerome wrote:
Futtbuck wrote:
jerome wrote:So, armed with google, physiology or medical texts, can anyone find evidence for this ideomotor effect?


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eio4a7rldjA
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSmCvo04d8g#at=345

I think you should watch the whole show, it's quite amazing.


It says "This video contains content from Channel 4, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds." As I live in the UK this surprises me, but of you tell me the name fo the show I can probably get it either from C4 directly or a website? Thanks, look forward to seeing it

j x



It's Seance by Derren Brown.
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Re: Ouija and the Ideomotor effect

#20  Postby Will S » Feb 25, 2011 4:20 pm

Futtbuck wrote:It's Seance by Derren Brown.

What an extraordinary programme! Certainly worth watching.

They said that the participants had been selected for their suggestibility, and, of course, Derren Brown is extremely skillful - but, even so, it was amazing.

I just wish that the programme had been a bit more didactic, and that there was more emphasis on how the faking was done. But, I suppose, somebody decided that it wouldn't be such 'good' television ... :(
'To a thinking person, a paradox is what the smell of burning rubber is to an electrical engineer' - Sir Peter Medawar (adapted)
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