5X5 Episode 39

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5X5 Episode 39
Ideomotor Effect
1st October 2008

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5X5 38 5X5 40
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
M: Mike Lacelle
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Skepticism 101 - The Ideomotor Effect[edit]

Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5x5 and we're talking about the Ideomotor effect in our continuing series of Skepticism 101. The Ideomotor effect is the subconscious movement—subtle movement of muscles, in order to achieve a subconsciously desired end. For example, the most common, or prominent manifestation of an ideomotor effect is in dowsing. People hold either a stick, or two rods, or something that can easily move in their hands, and then, when they think it should move, it moves. The rods move because they're not aware—they're not consciously aware that they are actually subconsciously subtly moving their hands to make the movement occur and match their expectations.

R: And the thing is, it's so easy to show, but a lot of people don't—a lot of dowswers, for instance, don't take the time to do a proper experiment. They just dowse and they assume that they have these special powers, until, for instance, they try out for Randi's million dollar challenge, at which point, they fail miserably.

M: Yeah, and the term "Ideomotor effect" was first used in 1852 by William Benjamin Carpenter. In a paper that discussed how the Ouija board produced its results. In that paper he explained his theory that muscular movement can be independent of conscious desires or emotions. And in 1999, Ray Hyman conducted scientific tests of the Ideomotor effect and wrote, "honest, intelligent people can unconsciously engage in muscular activity that is consistent with their expectations."[1]

E: So we've seen the Ideomotor effect in action, up close, and we've done testing on it. The Ideomotor effect also applies to Ouija boards, and the planchette that people rest their hands upon to move the glass around the board to spell out the letters. And there's a very easy thing you can do to test if it's really working or not is that you blindfold the people who have their hands on the planchette; let them spell out their letters. Then switch the board around on them. Turn it upside down, turn it around. Don't tell them that you've done that, and then see what happens. They start to just subconsciously move it in random dirctions, and it winds up spelling absolutely nothing.

S: Not even reaching letters.

E: That's right.

S: Not only are the letters meaningless, they don't even land on letters if they're not looking at the board. We attended a psychic fair where a woman demonstrated the pendulum—dowsing with a pendulum to us, and she was clearly moving her hand to make it go back and forth, but insisted that she wasn't.

E: That's right. But boy, she had that wrist moving pretty well. I don't know what she was thinking or feeling, but we saw that wrist definitly move. It wasn't subtle at all.

S: Yeah, that might have been not-so-unconscious Ideomotor effect

E: Yeah, or the women was just so out of it and unaware.

B: Guys, have you heard of this one? This surprised me. 180 degrees away from the Ouija boards and facilitated communication are some alternative medicine practitioners that openly claim to use the Ideomotor effect to communicate with a patient's unconscious using physical signals like finger movements to indicate yes, no, or whatever. So they're actually using the whole idea of the Ideomotor effect and say that's how they do their thing. And it's not just some explanation, like the Ouija board, but they actually claim it's one of the tools in their toolbag. They actually take advantage of the Ideomotor effect

S: Is that kinda like treating somebody with a placebo effect?

B: Well I think there's also some cold reading in there. You know, trying to use these weird physical movements to figure out what's going on inside a person's head. You know, why they might be sick and things. So I think there's a little bit of cold reading in there as well.

S: Of course the most pernicious example of the Ideomotor effect is facilitated communication. In the 1980s and 90s, speech therapists and those working with children who either had severe autism, or were mentally retarded, or developmentally delayed, couldn't communicate, thought they had opened a window of communication into many of these children by having a facilitator support the hand of the child, who would then either type on a computer or typewriter, or point to letters on a board in order to communicate. And children started to write poetry and tell their parents that they loved them and communicate at a very sophisticated level, convincing the facilitators that they were communicating with these children. That they had intellectual capacity that was previously unimagined. It was really thought to be almost miraculous, until again, blinded studies were conducted. The blinding makes the Ideomotor effect apparent; makes the effect go away, and it was demonstrated over and over again that the facilitators were doing all of the communication subconsciously through the Ideomotor effect. They were devastated to find out that it was them doing the communication, and not the child at all. Again, the Ideomotor effect. It's subconscious; it can be very compelling. If you're not aware of this phenomenon you can be fooled with all these phenomenon.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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