Thursday, December 17, 2015
The Psychology of the Ouija Board by Hereward Carrington 1921
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE OUIJA BOARD by Hereward Carrington 1921
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Before we proceed to discuss the intelligence lying behind the Ouija Board, I must offer a few remarks upon the subject of automatic writing in general, passing in very brief review the various theories that have been advanced from time to time by way of explanation of the action of this extraordinary little device.
One of the sanest and most rational popular accounts of this instrument and its workings that I have so far come across (all things considered) is a little pamphlet entitled The Planchette Mystery, very little known, from which I shall quote in writing this review. Epes Sargent's book, Planchette: the Despair of Science, contains in reality very little on the planchette board, and the title is somewhat deceptive. Mr. Myers's articles on the subject (particularly in Proceedings of S.P.R., vol. ii. pp. 217-37; vol. iii. pp. 1-63; and vol. ix. pp. 26-128) are, of course, classical, but are involved and inaccessible for the general reader, even had he the time to read them carefully; so that perhaps the following resume may not be unnecessary or out of place.
It is to be presumed that every reader of this book knows what a Ouija Board is, and, roughly, what it does. How it does it is a more difficult question to answer; in fact, it may be said that no definite answer has even yet been forthcoming. All that has been done, or that we can do, is to examine the facts, and to advance an explanatory theory that is really explanatory and in accord, as nearly as possible, with accepted theories and teaching.
First, let us consider the movement of the board. There can be little doubt that the same force which propels the planchette board propels the ouija board also; and this is still further demonstrated by the fact that, in many experiments, the planchette board is used as a ouija, and points to the letters, which are written out on a large piece of paper, and the pencil point indicates the letter in the same manner as does the ouija. It certainly appears far easier for the board to point to letters than to write—and this is most suggestive and interesting when we consider it. It would seem to indicate that the controlling intelligence found it easier to convey its thoughts when the letters were before it, in plain sight—a very suggestive fact, taken in conjunction with certain mediumistic phenomena.'
Of course there is the alternative explanation of this fact—that a straight push-and-pull action is easier to accomplish than the more detailed and complicated action of forming words and letters. But that would not make plain to us why it is that no attempt at writing should be made, very often, until the letter-pointing system is adopted.
Presuming, then, that the movement or impelling force is the same in each instance, the question is: What is this force? In the great bulk of cases there can only be one answer to this question: unconscious muscular action. Whenever muscular contact is allowed, this may safely be assumed to be the explanation of the movements of the board—even if it shows an apparently independent will and movement of its own, and apparently drags the hands of the sitters with it. I have discussed this at some length in my Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism, pp. 66-72, and it is unnecessary to go into the question again here. Unconscious muscular action will account for so much that, even if it were not the true explanation of the facts, in reality, we should have to assume that it was.
It will be observed that I have said "in the great bulk of cases." Some of my readers may object to this limitation, and say that it is the true and sufficient explanation of all the cases, without exception. Personally I doubt that fact. There are numerous cases on record when the board has continued to write after the hands of all the sitters have been removed from it.
Now, if there be operative a force which has been in some way generated during the sitting, it is quite possible, of course, that this same force may be operative in those eases where contact is allowed, only it is difficult to prove that fact. Personally I have no difficulty in conceiving such a force or power, at least theoretically. This force may be the first glimmerings of the force whose more powerful manifestations we see in the movements of tables (witness Gasparin's experiments, e.g.), and ultimately in telekinetic phenomena, as, for example, in the Palladino case. This would seem to indicate that such forces and powers are possessed by every one in a limited degree, but that it is only in certain individuals that it becomes so marked and extraordinary that it produces the phenomena spoken of above.
Granting, then, for the sake of argument, that the board is moved by the sitter, either consciously or unconsciously; by unconscious muscular action or by some "fluid" emanating from his fingers (and we must remember that even were a spirit using the writer's organism to manifest through, it must use the muscular and motor system), the great and vital question still remains: What is the intelligence behind the board that directs the phenomena? Who does the writing? What is the source of the information so often given?
Let us first consider the theory held by a very large number of persons—that the board is moved by some kind of "electricity." We must suppose that the generally recognized electricity is meant, because, if not, the motive force would be electricity plus something, and the "something" would be the explanation. And yet, if the force moving the board be "electricity," how comes it that this "electricity" can answer back, and possess an individuality so independent from that of the writer; capable, too, of giving a vast mass of information to the sitters, on occasion, of which they knew nothing? Then, again, it must be remembered that a ouija or planchette is almost universally made of wood—not metal or any well-known good conductor of electricity, but of wood—which is generally recognized to be an exceedingly bad conductor. Obviously the theory is absurd. And when we come to remember those cases in which the board gave information previously unknown to the writer having his hands on the board at the time, the theory sinks into its proper place—oblivion.
Then there is the theory of a floating, ambient mentality. This theory is held by many, and it is contended by them that this mentality is clothed, by some mysterious process, with a force similar to that which it possessed in the living organism; and that, in its expression of the combined intelligence of the circle, it generally follows the strongest mind, or the mind that is best qualified or conditioned to give correctly the thought. This theory found its champion in the person of Dr. Joseph Maxwell (see his Metapsychical Phenomena), and must be taken into account seriously. But an objection, and to my mind a fatal objection, to this theory is the fact that the intelligence seems to possess, not a collective but a decidedly personal character—one which is sufficiently stable and individual to argue back and to maintain its own opinions and beliefs in the face of great opposition from all the members of the circle. Is there anything in all this that suggests a floating, compound mentality; or does it not rather bear the marks of being a theory made up for the occasion, in order to evade some alternative explanation, objectionable, perhaps, to the sitters or critics?
All that has been said above also applies to the theory of a spiritus mundi, or spirit of the universe, which formed so large a part in the cosmological theories of many ancient philosophers. It is supposed to be a sort of all-pervading nervous principle, having, however, a mind of its own, when occasion demands—for otherwise how are the results to be accounted for? I think this and the preceding theory can best be met, perhaps, by asking its supporters to produce one iota of evidence in its behalf. When this has been forthcoming it will be time enough to consider it seriously.
Then there is the theory that the unconscious muscular action of the sitters is the cause of the movement and writing. This has been considered before, and it was pointed out that, even granting for the sake of argument that the board was actually moved by this means, the question still remains: How are we to account for the mentality behind the movement—especially when facts are given unknown to all the members of the circle? (For an example of this see Proceedings, S.P.B., vol. ix. pp. 93-8.)
The question thus arises: What did the writing? The theory of unconscious muscular action has been considered, and found not to explain all the facts. Many might contend that the board was moved by a principle or force as yet unknown, and think the question settled in that way. Of course this is a mere begging of the question, for all practical purposes, because, if the explanation were known, there would be no mystery and no argument about it. But the mere statement that the board is operated by a force as yet unknown merely restates the problem, without in any way attempting to solve it, and hence leaves us precisely where we were. Certainly this theory will not do!
Undoubtedly, the simplest explanation—and the correct one—for the majority of the facts is that the subconscious mind is alone responsible for them. Thoughts, images, reflections, imaginations, tend to externalize or express themselves in this manner,—in motor avenues,— through the movement of the board. The vast majority of ouija board "communications" are to be accounted for in this way. But what of those other (relatively rare) cases in which supernormal information, unknown to the sitter, is obtained? Any theory which is advanced must explain these cases also, as well as the movement of the board, and pure subconscious activity does not. We should still have to account for this knowledge, unknown to the writer; so that we shall have to seek further yet, in order to discover the true cause of the intelligence doing the writing.
We seem to be driven, then, into one of two alternatives: (1) that unconscious muscular action pushed the board, and that the supernormal information given was obtained by telepathy, clairvoyance, etc.; or (2) that spirits did the writing. Let us examine each of these hypotheses in turn a little more carefully. It seems to me that the first theory is practically unable to account in any satisfactory way for many communications that have been received. On the other hand, it would be perfectly absurd to invoke the agency of "spirits" for every one of the messages that have been written out— I mean supernormal messages. On the contrary, there are many experiments that point to clairvoyance or telepathy as the true explanation. It is highly probable, it seems to me, that the same agency is not involved on every occasion, but that there may be spirits (granting such to exist) on some occasions; telepathy and clairvoyance on other occasions; and purely unconscious muscular action on most occasions, when no supernormal is involved. It is only the prevailing tendency to cover all facts by a single explanation that has led to the difficulty. If we were willing to admit that there may be operative many different influences and causes, on different occasions, it seems to me that much of the difficulty would vanish.
There can be no doubt as to the fact that the ouija board is a far more mysterious little instrument than the majority of persons suppose—or rather, the forces and the mentalities behind the movement of the board are exceedingly complex, and but little understood. As the author of The Planchette Mystery said: "A wonderful jumble of mental and moral possibilities is this little piece of dead matter, now giving utterance to childish drivel, now bandying jokes and badinage, now stirring the conscience by unexceptionable Christian admonitions, and now uttering the baldest infidelity or the most shocking profanity; and often discoursing gravely on science, philosophy, or theology." Any theory that is advanced to explain the facts must take all this into consideration, and much more. Let us turn for a few minutes to consider the automatic script, as frequently obtained.
There are, very frequently, answers to mental questions—questions, too, the answer to which none of those having their hands on the board could possibly know. Often, again, remarks are volunteered conveying information not possessed by any one of the writers. The distinct characterization of a personality is frequently seen,—and a personality of a very detestable sort. The language employed, frequently, is quite unprintable. The "ouija" lies as coolly and confidently as it tells the truth; in fact, it is dogmatically positive that its statements are correct in every case, even when they are glaringly incorrect at the very time they are written. This spirit of dogmatism is shown in many passages, and suggests to us the attempt at domineering on the part of an intelligence unused to such a position, and rejoicing in its supremacy.
I wish to insist primarily upon the action of the board itself, and its apparently human characteristics—quite apart from any information which it volunteers; and this will be of the greater interest, I fancy, for the reason that such observations have, to the best of my knowledge, rarely been made. I can perhaps best illustrate my point by giving a few concrete examples.
There can be no question that the board has moods. It gets angry on occasion, for example, and at such times will tear round the table like a living thing, pointing first to one letter and then to another, and accentuating its meaning or calling attention to certain letters that are important, or that have been omitted in the rapid spelling, by rapping impatiently on the latter with the point—the point being lifted off the board at such times half an inch or so, and the board remaining planted on its two hind legs. I have seen the front leg of the board rap a dozen or so times on a letter that had been omitted; and sometimes the board would get so violent that it had to be quieted—just as the hand in automatic writing has to be quieted. Then, again, the board gets a certain "technique" of its own, acting in certain ways on certain occasions, and in other ways on other occasions; and frequently assuming a perfectly definite form of movement with certain persons—a certain sweep or an erratic manner of pointing to letters which it maintains uniformly so long as that person has his or her hands on the board. Occasionally the ouija will assume a different personality, according to the communicating intelligence, and not according to the person having his hands on the board. Just as raps or tables assume distinct personalities (see Dr. Maxwell's book for examples of this), so the ouija board assumes a perfectly definite personality, on occasion, and moves and writes according to that personality's idiosyncrasies. And this becomes all the more marked when we take into account certain peculiarities of the board—for example, its unwillingness to give names and dates, or to furnish any definite information about itself. I have observed over and over again that, whenever the intelligence doing the writing is closely questioned about itself, it will become angry, and refuse to give this information—either sulking or swearing at the writers. On the other hand, the board has some good points. It refused to disclose secrets about other persons, and got angry in the same way when pressed. Another exceedingly interesting and suggestive thing is that the intelligence operating the board occasionally gets tired. "Give me a rest now" is an expression frequently observed, and would seem to indicate that the "intelligence" gets confused and fatigued by the very process of communicating its thoughts—just as the "controls" do in the Piper case.
The very movements of the board frequently showed great skill and intelligence also; for instance, if the ouija encountered a rough or uneven place in the paper on one occasion it would always avoid crossing that spot in the future, and would go carefully round it, so as to avoid catching its legs in the hole or rough place in the paper. Still more striking was the manner in which the board pointed to certain letters on occasion. Many times the board was unable to point to a certain letter because the point of the ouija was in an awkward position, or on the edge of the table, or for some other reason. On such occasions the board backed one of its hind legs around until one of these legs pointed to the desired letter! Those having their hands on the board had many a hearty laugh over these antics, and particularly this one, which always reminded them of a horse backing itself round in this ludicrous way. It was always entirely unexpected, and was the source of great amusement. But what was the intelligence guiding the board when the only person having her hands upon it was not looking at its antics, or paying attention to what it was spelling out? Was it a spirit? If so, how did it manage to move the board? Did it act directly upon the matter of the board, and push it with its hands, as a material being would push it, or did it act in some more mysterious manner? Granting, for the sake of argument, that a spirit of some sort was involved in the production of the writing, how are we to assume its interaction with the matter of the board and its movements?
Two theories will at once present themselves to the reader: (1) that the spirit acts directly upon the matter of the ouija board, and pushes it as any mortal would push it; and (2) that the spirit acts only through the brain and nervous and muscular system of the person or persons having their hands on the board. I leave these for the present, because they have been discussed so often before. The following is the ouija board's own theory of such action—so we can at least listen to it with interest. In the course of some writing obtained, the following explanation of the action of the board was given by the "spirits" controlling it. I quote from the record:
"... Two spirits can always, when it is in divine order, readily communicate with each other, because they can always bring themselves into direct rapport at some one or more points. Though matter is widely discreted from spirit, in that the one is dead and the other is alive, yet there is a certain correspondence between the two, and between the degrees of the one and the degrees of the other; and according to this correspondence, relation, or rapport, spirit may act upon matter. Thus your spirit, in all its degrees and faculties, is in the closest rapport with all the degrees of matter composing your body, and for this reason alone is able to move it as it does, which it will no longer be able to do when that rapport is destroyed by what you call death. Through your body it is en rapport with and is able to act upon surrounding matter. If, then, you are in a susceptible condition, a spirit can not only get into rapport with your spirit, and through it with your body, and control its motions, or even suspend your own proper action and external consciousness by entrancement; but if you are at the same time en rapport with this little board it can, through contact of your hands, get into rapport with that, and move it without any conscious or volitional agency on your part. Furthermore, under certain favourable conditions, a spirit may, through your sphere and body combined, come into rapport even with the spheres of the ultimate particles of material bodies near you, and thence with the particles and the whole bodies themselves—and may thus, even without contact of your hands, move them or make sounds upon them as has often been witnessed. Its action, as before said, ceases where the rapport ceases; and if communications from really intelligent spirits have sometimes been defective as to the quality of the intelligence manifested, it is because there has been found nothing in the medium which could be brought into rapport or correspondence with the more elevated ideas of the spirit. The spirit, too, in frequent instances, is unable to prevent its energizing influences from being diverted by the reactive power of the medium into the channels of the imperfect types of thought and expression that are established in his mind, and it is for this simple reason that the communication is as you say often tinctured with the peculiarities of the medium, and even sometimes is nothing more than a reproduction of the mental states of the latter—perhaps greatly intensified."
Such is the theory originated by "ouija" itself—ingenious enough, if not very scientific. The majority of my readers will probably prefer to believe, either that some external intelligence moved the board directly; or that the sitter himself did so—from purely subconscious motives, or because he was thereby externalizing or acting as the channel for the expression of ideas imparted to him from without. In view of the reality of physical phenomena, I should be inclined to leave the question open as to which of these two interpretations is correct in any specific case. But there can be no doubt that, in most instances at least, the board is moved by the subconscious muscular activity of the sitter; and this is the most sane and rational view to take until definite proof to the contrary be forthcoming.
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