Science of the seance: why speaking to spirits is talking to yourself
In the run up to Halloween , many of us are open to a frightening supernatural adventure. A good scare can be a bonding experience, and in this spirit many of us have dabbled with Ouija boards, either in earnest or jest - perhaps even getting slightly phased by the apparent disembodied messages, sometimes surreal and foreboding, emanating from the board. While there is no evidence that we can truly communicate with the dead, phenomena like the Ouija board and automatic writing can truly give us a fascinating insight into our own psychology, and serve as a reminder that we can all too easily fool ourselves.
Our fascination with words from beyond the grave is nothing new. In the mid- 19th century, the growing spiritualist movement had begun to experiment with ghostly messages transcribed by table-turning, a precursor to the modern Ouija board. In table turning, the alphabet was inscribed on a table, upon which all participants laid their hands. Seemingly ethereal whisperings would soon appear from the void as the table tilted towards the imprinted letters. Such demonstrations of spiritualism convinced many in high society that a new force, perhaps a mystical one, was behind the haunting messages.
Yet not everyone was so easily convinced: Michael Faraday, the prominent British scientist, was incredibly dubious on the claims of the spiritualists. To test the phenomenon, he set about eliminating variables and alternative explanations. Using wood and rubber to increase resistance to movement, he observed no effect on the table’s motion. His efforts showed that no special force was at play, and his continued investigations lead him to conclude that far from being some bizarre supernatural event, table tipping was nothing more than ‘a quasi-involuntary muscular action’. Faraday’s careful experiments had revealed there was no mysterious force at play, natural or supernatural – just a propensity for men and women to delude themselves.
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This conclusion was supported by the meticulous parallel experiments of French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul. Chevreul was steadfastly opposed to charlatanism. In his 1854 paper on the subject, he turned his attention to table-turning, divining rods and magic pendulums, demonstrating how involuntary and subconscious muscle reactions are the cause of ostensibly magic movements. More than this, Chevreul discovered that once the person holding the rod was made aware of this reaction, the movements ceased and could not be reproduced. That same year, the term “ideomotor” was introduced by physician William Carpenter to describe this very phenomenon.
The discovery of the ideomotor effect demonstrated that there was no mystery underpinning the eerie happenings of late 19th and early 20th century séances – merely the heady mixture of delusion and occasionally, outright fraud . Many of the popular trance mediums of the era used unadulterated showmanship to improve their audience numbers; famed medium Mina Crandon performed her séances nude, and allegedly secreted ectoplasm from her vagina before being debunked by renowned magician and escape artist Harry Houdini. Houdini had something of a passion for debunking frauds, and took a delight in exposing trickery using his expertise in the subject to detect bogus claims. This made him highly unpopular with spiritualists of the era, some of whom –such as Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle – believed that Houdini himself had spiritual powers, a claim which irked the proud professional Houdini no end.
Another individual not taken in by the passion for spiritualism was Charles Arthur Mercier, a psychiatrist with precious little time for nonsense. Mercier had spent a great deal of time debunking trance mediums, painstakingly dismantling their claims. His particular bugbear was automatic writing, the supposedly supernatural “channelling” of writing from a remote source. Mercier’s investigations showed that the only curious phenomena at play was yet another variant of the ideomotor effect. Summing up his findings for the British Medical journal in 1894, he robustly dismantled the spiritualist presumption that spirits were the cause of automatic writing by stating bluntly “there is no need nor room for the agency of spirits, and the invocation of such agency is the sign of a mind not merely unscientific, but uninformed.”
This should have spelt the end for everything from dowsing to Ouija boards, yet to this day they remain devoutly held beliefs for many. And despite the existence of ideomotor effect being known for almost two centuries, the infinite human capacity for re-invention and our seeming inability to learn from our mistakes means that we can still fall prey to the same illusions under different packaging. In 2013, businessman Jim McCormick was convicted of selling useless bomb dowsing kits to the Iraqi army: a modern twist on the divining rod. Another inglorious 2013 entry in the ideomotor catalogue was the C-Fast, a mechanical dowsing rod its inventors claim would detect liver disease - a claim which Síle Lane of Sense About Science dissected as “pushing hope and nothing more”.
Yet perhaps the most prominent – and damaging - modern offshoot of the ideomotor effect is the phenomenon of Facilitated Communication (FC). In this process, a facilitator helps move the arm of a patient to a screen or keyboard so that they may apparently communicate – an interaction heralded by believers as a breakthrough, allowing those with severe communication issues to express themselves. In the late 1980s, FC was at the zenith of its popularity, For parents and family of the non-verbal autistic and the severely intellectually disabled, it offered incredible promise. Wonderful stories of FC “unlocking” the minds of patients were shared far and wide, and anecdote became traded as evidence. Profoundly mentally handicapped children overnight became poets and savants, even publishing books with their facilitators. But while FC was wholeheartedly embraced by many, the warning signs of pseudoscience were clear from the offset. As early as 1991, over 40 empirical studies showed no evidence of efficacy but plenty for facilitator input.
The decline of FC pivoted on a number of unpleasant sexual abuse claims, and the media attention they spawned. The late 1980s and early 1990s had seen a string of bogus “recovered memory” cases alleging Satanic ritual abuse and subsequent of mass panic over claims which were shown to be baseless, created by those “recovering” the memories. Given this trend, it was perhaps inevitable that the messages “communicated” through FC would rapidly became darker. By the mid-1990s, FC practitioners had “revealed” hidden sexual abuse in scores of their clients, and a number of arrests based on this testimony took place. The case of 16-year-old non-verbal autistic Betsy Wheaton ignited interest when she ostensibly communicated that through her facilitator that her father ‘‘makes me hold his penissss”. Soon, she was detailing the most horrific abuse allegedly perpetrated by a wide cross-section of her family.
Speech pathologist Howard Shane was able to put together a simple yet ingenious test to determine the source of the messages, and the trials were conducted by psychologist Douglas Howler. The apparatus displayed pictures to both Betsy and her facilitator, Janyce Boynton, and Betsy was asked to identify the object she saw. Yet in some trials, she and Janyce were deliberately shown different pictures. In every instance, Betsy communicated only what Janyce saw: clear evidence the communication came from the communicator and not the individual. This same result was shown when similar experiments were repeated with others, all returning the same null result. The evidence was clear – FC was nothing more than self-delusion buttressed by the ubiquitous ideomotor effect. The facilitators weren’t unlocking the thoughts of profoundly disabled patients: they were subconsciously projecting their own.
The ensuing backlash should have been the final nail in the coffin for FC, but as with many pseudosciences it has simply refused to die. Howler himself, a former believer in FC, lamented that while the evidence is incontrovertible, it would take much more to shift the convictions of communicators; “... we had overwhelming evidence for facilitator control. It began to dawn on us that the impact on facilitators was going to be traumatic. FC had become an essential part of their belief system, an essential part of their personality.”
Howler’s warning has proven to be remarkably prescient: the heady promises of FC still hold sway with desperate parents, convinced they’re communicating with their child. For many, a delusion of communication is preferable to a sad reality that their child may not have the requisite cognitive function to be communicative, and so FC continues to enjoy support in many quarters. A recent review on the topic stated this with a weary brevity “... it is likely that FC will continue to reinforce the assumptions of efficacy among parents and practitioners ...”
Despite the fact that FC has no more scientific credibility than a Ouija board, its spectre haunts us even now. It is still reported uncritically in mainstream media; for example, in 2005, a book “written” by silent autistic teenager Naoki Higashida via his facilitated communicator was released in Japan. Translated into English in 2013, “The Reason I Jump” was released to rave reviews and heralded as an insight into the teenage autistic mind. Jon Stewart praised it as one of the most remarkable books he’d ever read. Yet with FC being utterly devoid of any even resembling corrorating evidence, several commentators have voiced concerns that the platitudes of the book give far more insight into the facilitator’s mind than Higashida’s. English translator David Mitchell dismisses this criticism by insisting the facilitator no longer touches Higashida, yet given the sheer paucity of peer-reviewed evidence for FC, this celebrated account remains deeply questionable despite its popularity.
More disturbing still is the recent case of Anna Stubblefield. Stubblefield, a devout believer in FC, practiced the technique on a severely disabled patient, referred to as D.J in court transcripts. In the process, she became convinced he was a savant who was confessing his unwavering love for her. This belief led to her sexually assaulting a man who was unable consent; D.J had been declared by the state to have the mental capacity of a toddler. Tragically, despite her conviction for assault, Stubblefield remains steadfast in her beliefs, rejecting the idea that D.J’s verbose expressions of love were nothing more than her projected fantasy, authored solely by her own subconscious. She, D.J and countless others are victims of the ideomotor effect.
Our ability to fool ourselves is unparalleled, and the ideomotor effect is just one persistent way our own curious psychology can push us towards erroneous conclusions. It serves as a reminder that no matter how compelling the anecdote, all claims must be scientifically evaluated to rule out our innate capacity to delude even ourselves. In the immortal words of Richard Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
by David Robert Grimes For The Guardian