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Unbeliever: Are the spirits talking or just muscles?; You don't know you're moving it

This story originally appeared in the Wednesday,October 27, 2004 edition of The Kansas City Star Here's what the SKEPTIC says

Terence Hines, author of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (2003), is a psychology professor at Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y., as well as an adjunct neurology professor at New York Medical College. He describes himself as a skeptic.

Q. In your book you discuss how the Ouija pointer, or planchette, can move seemingly on its own. But you believe it's due to "unconscious muscle movement."

A. Right. We get feedback from our muscles when we make large movements, so we know where we are in space and don't fall down and embarrass ourselves. But small muscle movements just aren't big enough to generate the kind of neurofeedback to the brain that makes us aware. So what's happening with the planchette is when very tiny movements are made, we don't have any awareness of the feedback because there really isn't any. And so quite naturally, although incorrectly, people attribute the motion to the planchette itself.

So is our subconscious mind directing the planchette?

Well, I wouldn't say "subconscious" because that conjures up all kinds of Freudian stuff. I prefer "automatic." It just happens. The planchette kind of moves around and sometimes it'll spell out something that seems reasonable and we'll latch onto that. And sometimes it'll spell out nonsense. It's like when you have a hunch that something's going to happen and it happens, you remember it - and when it doesn't happen, you forget it.

Of course there are people who say, if there's anything to this, why aren't people using Ouija boards to make a fortune?

Yeah, exactly.

So in your view, can the spirit world ever be a factor? Do you think there is such a thing as a spirit world?

No, I don't.

Can Ouija boards ever be dangerous?

Well, I suppose only to the extent that any kind of belief system that isn't true can be dangerous if it encourages sloppy thinking. I could certainly imagine a scenario where somebody might base serious financial or medical decisions on the Ouija board.

Does it seem OK to you that Ouija boards are marketed as a game?

Yeah, I'd prefer it be marketed as a game and not claim that it really is a way of communicating with the dead.

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