Since its invention in the late 19th century, the Ouija board has become a hallmark of popular culture.
The decorated planchette conjures images of scared kids staying up late, Halloween horror movies, or TV shows old and new, such as Charmed or Stranger Things.
Ouija boards may have “haunted” most of our childhoods, but some people are Ouija enthusiasts well into their adulthood — and understandably so. The appeal of a device that supposedly helps you communicate with the dead is undeniable.
However, what if there was a simple scientific explanation for why Ouija boards work? Researchers led by Marc Andersen at Aarhus University in Denmark set out to demystify the Ouija board experience.
Using eye-tracking devices and data analysis, Andersen and colleagues examined the behavior of 40 experienced Ouija board users at a Ouija board conference.
The scientists’ findings were published in the journal Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences.
Using eye trackers to study ‘spooky’ feelings
The participants were equipped with eye tracking devices so that the researchers could study their — largely unconscious — predictive eye movements. That is, the researchers wanted to see if the participants first glanced at the letters they would later move the planchette to.
As the scientists explain, a person’s sense of agency, or the feeling that one has control over their actions, arises primarily from the brain’s ability to predict “the sensory consequences of an action, and then [compare] this prediction [with] the actual consequences. When prediction and consequence match, the result is the feeling that ‘I did that.'”
Andersen and team examined the participants’ eye movements in two different conditions: the “voluntary action condition” and the “Ouija condition.”
In the first condition, the participants — who worked in pairs — were asked to move the planchette deliberately to spell the word “Baltimore” or to point to “Yes” and “No,” respectively. In the Ouija condition, the participants were asked to use the board as they normally would.
The researchers then analyzed the recordings of the participants’ eye movements. When analyzing the data, they examined both the individual eye movements and the eye movements on a “pair level.”
Additionally, the researchers administered questionnaires to the participants that enquired about how strongly they believed in the “abilities” of the Ouija board, as well as their overall level of religiosity and spirituality.
One Ouija board user always predicts letters
As expected, the data analysis revealed that participants made more predictive eye movements in the voluntary condition than they did in the regular one.
Unsurprisingly, given the underlying mechanisms of the sense of agency, the participants reported feeling much less in control in the Ouija condition than they did in the voluntary one.
However, when the researchers looked to see whether at least one participant in each pair made a predictive eye movement, they found some interesting results.
“[W]hen we look at the pair level, we see that pairs in the ‘Ouija condition’ on average predict the letters of meaningful responses as well as isolated individuals do when purposely spelling responses in the ‘voluntary action condition.'”
“In other words, a pair that moves the Ouija planchette in a predominantly non-deliberate way collectively predict letters as well as an individual seen in isolation that is moving the planchette on purpose.”
So, when the Ouija board was used as usual, at least one participant knew where the planchette was going.
“Our study suggests,” say its authors, “that successful Ouija board sessions critically depend on joint action.” The “spooky” or “paranormal” feeling that Ouija boards induce is due to the fact that participants take turns in predicting the next letter.
In addition, they say, “it appears that participants in the ‘Ouija condition’ generally underestimate their own contribution to the joint interaction.”
This is supported by previous research on force escalation that showed that “self-generated forces are generally perceived as weaker than external forces of the same magnitude,” explain Andersen and colleagues.
Finally, in addition to the joint predictive effort and the underestimation of one’s movements, belief in the Ouija board’s abilities also added to the “spooky” feeling. Participants who said that they thought the board can facilitate communication with spirits were more likely to report that the planchette had moved on its own.
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