Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There - Richard Wiseman (2011)
Chapter 4. TALKING WITH THE DEAD
In which we meet two young girls who created a
new religion, discover what happened when the world’s
greatest scientist confronted the Devil, learn how to
commune with non-existent spirits and unleash
the power of our unconscious minds.
It is 10 p.m. and we are just about to start the session. Ten unsuspecting members of the public and I are sitting around a wooden table in the front room of a house in London’s East End. The room is in near darkness, illuminated only by a couple of candles on the mantelpiece. I ask everyone to lean forward and place their fingertips lightly on the tabletop, take a deep breath and call upon the spirits to join us. Nothing happens. I tell everyone not to become dispirited and to suspend any scepticism that they might have. Once again I speak into the darkness and ask the spirits to make their presence known by moving the table. After a short time the table gives a small, but real, shudder. It is a good sign, and I have a hunch that we are all in for an interesting night.
Over the course of the next 30 minutes the table shudders several more times. A man in the group then says that he is going to have to nip to the toilet. As he stands up, the tabletop emits a tremendous creaking sound and suddenly tips up on two legs. It is a dramatic movement, and it feels as if someone has kicked the table from below. Several people in the group scream and the man decides that perhaps his trip to the toilet isn’t that important after all. All four legs of the table return to the ground and the table starts to skid from one side of the room to the other, sometimes pinning members of the group to the wall. After about an hour the movements suddenly cease and we solemnly thank the spirits for making their presence known. The candles are blown out, the lights are turned on, everyone discusses the strange events that they have just experienced, and the man finally gets to go to the toilet.
I have staged many such séances over the years and the results are always the same. Regardless of whether the group consists of believers or sceptics, the table always moves. Even if everyone takes turns removing their fingers from the table-top, the table continues to tip and shake.
Table-tipping was first practised in Victorian parlours throughout Britain, and the phenomenon is as puzzling to the modern-day mind as it was to those living then. But when it comes to talking with the dead, table-tipping is just the tip of the iceberg. In other types of séance, the Victorians asked the deceased to spell out messages by moving an upturned glass towards alphabet cards and even to scribble words directly onto pieces of paper. Investigations into these curious phenomena yielded surprising insights into the power of the unconscious mind, the fundamental nature of free will, and how to be a better golfer.
This remarkable story starts with two sisters who managed to fool the world.
Clever Like a Fox
Around the turn of the last century Thomas Hardy wrote a poem in which he described witnessing God’s funeral. Hardy’s verses vividly express the sadness experienced by the religious if they come to doubt the existence of a divine creator.
Throughout the nineteenth century more and more people came to experience the painful feelings described by Hardy as established religion came under a serious and sustained attack. The great Scottish thinker David Hume set the ball rolling by criticizing the then sacrosanct idea that alleged evidence of design in nature constituted compelling proof of God, with Hume eventually publishing his ideas in a blasphemous book entitled Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, originally considered so controversial that it was published anonymously and didn’t even carry the publisher’s name. Hot on his heels was the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who argued that the public were a fairly rational bunch, and so should be allowed to choose their religious beliefs, or not, without any interference from the state. And then along came Charles Darwin with his dangerous idea that men and beasts may not be quite so different after all.
Organized religion began to feel the pinch. For centuries priests and clergymen had fought the Devil, but now found themselves facing a new and far more daunting enemy - congregations that dared to demand evidence for their God. They proved a tough crowd. The Victorians were enjoying the benefits of unprecedented scientific advances, from steam engines to sewing machines, photography to petrol, telephones to tarmac, phonographs to paperclips, and jelly babies to ice cream. Suddenly, age-old stories about a man who could feed 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two small fish simply failed to cut the mustard. To many it seemed that the church had little to offer but blind faith and somewhere warm to sit on Sundays.
As religion rapidly lost ground to rationality, the endgame seemed inevitable. Indeed, some writers were happy to declare the battle already over, with perhaps the most unequivocal statement coming from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: ‘God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’ Predictably, believers were somewhat more optimistic. Although well aware that their creator was on the critical list they hoped that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.
Feeling increasingly under attack, the religious did what they had always done in difficult times. They put their heads down, placed their hands together and prayed for a miracle. On 31 March 1848 God appeared to answer their prayers.
Hydesville is an unassuming hamlet about 20 miles east of Rochester, New York.1 In December 1847, John and Margaret Fox moved into a small house on the edge of the hamlet with their two daughters, 11-year-old Kate and 14-year-old Margaretta. Within a few months the Fox family life was disturbed by a series of odd events. Bedsteads and chairs started to shake, ghostly footsteps were heard moving through the house, and on occasion the entire floor of the property vibrated like a giant drum skin. After John and Margaret’s investigations failed to provide an explanation for these apparently supernatural happenings, they found themselves forced to conclude that their new home was haunted by an ‘unhappy restless spirit’.
On 31 March 1848 the family had gone to bed early in an attempt to get a good night’s rest, without any ghostly shenanigans. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Within a few moments of them settling down, the disturbances started. Rather than simply enduring another night of endless shaking and knocking, young Kate decided to attempt to communicate with the spirit. Making the rather pessimistic assumption that their unwelcome guest might be the Devil himself, Kate spoke into the darkness and asked ‘Mr Splitfoot’, as she’d decided to name him, to copy her actions. She clapped her hands three times. A few seconds later three raps mysteriously emanated from the walls of the house. Contact had been made. Intrigued, Margaret Fox then nervously asked the entity to rap out the ages of her children. 11 knocks were heard for Kate. Pause. Then 14 knocks for Margaretta. Pause. Then three knocks. Three knocks? The entity was well informed - Margaret had had a third child who had died several years before, aged three.
The spiritual chit-chat continued long into the night, with the family eventually developing the now infamous ‘one rap for yes, two raps for no’ code, and then using it to establish that the entity was a 31-year-old man who had been murdered in the house a few years before their arrival, and whose remains were currently buried in their cellar. The following night, John Fox attempted to dig up the cellar floor in search of bones, but was forced to abandon the work when he reached the water level.
Word of the strange happenings quickly spread to surrounding towns, resulting in hundreds of people coming to Hydesville to experience the raps for themselves. Many of them got to communicate with the spirit, which only served to further feed the ghostly gossip now rapidly moving across New York. Within a few months the constant stream of visitors and rapping took its toll, with Margaret Fox’s hair turning white through worry and her husband being unable to work. Eventually they decided that it was in everyone’s best interests to move their children away from the spirit-infested house. Kate was sent to nearby Auburn and Margaretta to Rochester. But the seeds had already been sown that would change the course of history.
The various spirits conjured up by Kate and Margaretta followed the two young girls, with rapping breaking out in their new locations. In Rochester, a long-standing family friend and committed Quaker named Isaac Post had an idea. The rapping code was proving a rather time-consuming, and sometimes confusing, way of eliciting information from the spirit world. Would it be possible, Isaac wondered, to create a more accurate type of communication? One evening he invited Margaretta to his house and asked whether she would mind experimenting with a new system. He drew the letters of the alphabet on pieces of paper, and explained to the spirits that he would ask a question and then point to each piece of paper in turn. To communicate whatever was going through their discarnate mind, the spirits simply needed to rap when he was pointing to an appropriate letter. Isaac’s instant messaging with the dead proved a hit and soon resulted in the first fully-formed communication from beyond the grave. Not one for small talk, the spirits issued a firm and frank directive:
Dear Friends, you must proclaim this truth to the world. This is the dawning of a new era. You must not try to conceal it any longer. When you do your duty God will protect you and good spirits will watch over you.
Convinced of the genuineness of the messages, Isaac enthusiastically embraced the new religion of ‘Spiritualism’ and set about converting his fellow Quakers.
From a psychological perspective, the creation of Spiritualism was a stroke of genius. Whereas the established churches had tried to combat the rise in rationality by stressing the importance of faith, Spiritualism changed the very nature of religion. In an age that was obsessed with science and technology, Spiritualism not only offered proof of an afterlife but, on a good night, allowed people to apparently communicate with their deceased loved ones.2 Other religions promised the tantalizing possibility of life after death. Spiritualism delivered the goods. This combination of rational and emotional appeal proved overwhelming and within just a few months the new religion was sweeping across America.
The Fox sisters quickly gained celebrity status and received invitations to demonstrate their amazing mediumistic abilities in public shows and private gatherings. They chatted with the spirits about any topic put to them, with newspaper reports describing how one moment they were being consulted on the weightiest of philosophical and religious issues while the next they were discussing railway stocks and love affairs.
From the very start, Spiritualism shared many of the central tenets of Quakerism, including support for the abolition of slavery, the temperance movement and women’s rights. The new religion also adopted the Quakers’ non-hierarchical structure. Out went the idea of high priests and untouchable clergymen, and in came the notion of spiritual democracy, with followers being encouraged to gather together and experiment with different ways of talking to the dead. And gather they did. In parlours across America and Europe small groups of Spiritualists would meet up and try to make contact with their deceased loved ones (or indeed any other spirit who might be kind enough to drop in).
When it proved difficult to replicate the raps produced in the presence of the Fox sisters, the groups started to experiment with more reliable forms of communication. By far the most popular technique to emerge was that of table-turning. In a typical session, people would sit around a small table, place their fingertips lightly on its surface, turn down the gaslight, sing a few hymns, and start to summon the spirits. After a while everyone would start to feel the wooden tabletop creak and shiver beneath their hands. A little more hymn singing and the table would suddenly start to tip and move, as if being pushed and pulled by spirits. According to reports from the time, on a good night the table appeared possessed, dancing around the room, climbing affectionately onto people’s laps, and sometimes even aggressively pinning them up against the wall. Table-turning spread like an epidemic and soon hundreds of thousands of people were passing their evenings transforming a common piece of household furniture into a conduit to the afterlife.
‘I was the First in the Field and I Have a Right to Expose it’
With the rapid growth in the number of mediums, the pressure of trying to make ends meet in an increasingly crowded market place eventually took its toll on Kate and Margaretta Fox. The two of them gradually formed a somewhat different kind of bond with the spirit world and by the late 1880s both were drinking heavily. In October 1888 they decided that enough was enough and travelled to New York City to make a dramatic announcement.
Selling her story to the New York World for an alleged $1,500, Margaretta came clean and confessed that the two of them had faked the entire affair.3 A new convert to the Catholic Church, she could take the guilt no longer. According to her, the strange noises initially experienced at Hydesville were actually due to nothing more than an apple, a piece of string and a naive belief in the honesty of children:
When we went to bed at night we used to tie an apple to a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound. Mother listened to this for a time. She would not understand it and did not suspect us as being capable of a trick because we were so young.
Margaretta went on to explain that the ‘apple on a string’ technique was only effective in darkness and so the sisters quickly devised a different way of creating raps in daylight:
The rappings are simply the result of a perfect control of the muscles of the leg below the knee, which govern the tendons of the foot and allow action of the toe and ankle bones that is not commonly known … With control of the muscles of the foot, the toes may be brought down to the floor without any movement that is perceptible to the eye. The whole foot, in fact, can be made to give rappings by the use only of the muscles below the knee. This, then, is the simple explanation of the whole method of the knocks and raps.
After reflecting on the stress that she had endured as a result of a life of deception, Margaretta provided an unequivocal statement about the nature of the new religion that she had helped create:
Spiritualism is a fraud of the worst description … I want to see the day when it is entirely done away with. After my sister Katie and I expose it I hope Spiritualism will be given a death blow.
Later that week Margaretta silenced those Spiritualists who had been sceptical about her confession by appearing before a packed auditorium at the New York Academy of Music and demonstrating her remarkable ability to produce raps at will. Did her dramatic confession have the desired effect? Did the estimated eight million Spiritualists in America alone throw up their hands in horror and desert their new-found faith? Sadly, the only real impact of the confession was to distance the sisters from their supporters. The vast majority of Spiritualists were eager to cling to the comforting thought that they might survive bodily death, and they were not going to let a couple of rambling alcoholics stand in the way of immortality. But although Margaretta tried to retract her remarks shortly after confessing all, for the Fox sisters at least, the damage had been done. Increasingly distanced from the movement that they helped to create, both sisters died in poverty a few years later and were buried in pauper’s graves. Neither made contact from the spirit world.
By now, the genie was out of the bottle. Tables were turning all across America and Britain. Even more impressively, some of them were starting to actually talk.
Interview with historian Peter Lamont
The Devil’s Mouthpiece
The idea was simple enough. If a table could be moved by spiritual energy, surely it could also be used as a way of actually getting a message from the other side? Initially people started asking questions during table-turning sessions and employing a variant on the Fox sisters’ code to interrogate the spirits - one tip for yes and two for no. When this proved somewhat time-consuming, people followed in the footsteps of Isaac Post, calling out the letters of the alphabet and asking the spirits to spell their message by tipping the table at appropriate points. Accounts suggest that these sessions could be highly emotionally charged affairs, as the following description from Edinburgh in 1871 shows:
At a particular stage of the proceedings the table began to make strange undulatory movements, and gave out a curious accompaniment of creaking sounds. Presently my friend remarked that the movement and sound together reminded him of a ship in distress, with its timbers straining in a heavy sea. This conclusion being come to, the table proceeded to rap out: ‘It is David.’ Instantly a lady burst into tears, and cried wildly: ‘Oh, that must be my poor, dear brother, David, who was lost at sea some time since’.4
Many were far from happy with the idea of talking furniture. Perhaps the most critical voices came from clergymen who became convinced that the Devil was lurking in tables throughout the land. In 1853 the Reverend N. S. Godfrey took it upon himself to prove this by getting information straight from the horse’s mouth. Presenting the work in his book, Table Turning: the Devil’s modern masterpiece, Godfrey described a remarkable episode in which he had a group of table-tippers chat with their four-legged friend, and then asked the table if it contained an evil spirit.5 The table indicated that it didn’t. Realizing that the Devil would be less than straight with his answers, Godfrey asked for the good book to be brought forth. While the table was vibrating, the Bible was placed on its surface, and the moment contact was made with the tabletop the shaking suddenly stopped. Godfrey took this as a sign that the table might be possessed. It would be nice to think that after an hour or so of intense cross-examination the table eventually broke down and admitted all. However, never one to jump to conclusions, Godfrey asked two of his ecclesiastical brethren, the Reverend Gillson and the Reverend Dibdin, to replicate his experiment with different tables. When they obtained the same result Godfrey went public, denounced the phenomenon as the Devil’s mouthpiece and warned the public to distance themselves from the potential wooden menace lurking in their parlours and dining rooms.
The rather tiresome procedure of having to list the alphabet and wait for a reply eventually spelled the death of talking tables. Rather than fade into the metaphorical ether, Spiritualism did what it always did. It bowed to market forces and quickly developed a new and improved procedure for talking to the dead. To speed things up, people wrote the letters of the alphabet on small pieces of paper and arranged them in a circle on a table. They would then place their fingertips on an upturned glass and question the spirits. An invisible force would then push the glass from one letter to another as the spirits spelled out their replies. This new method of communication spread like wildfire, quickly resulting in several manufacturers producing commercial versions of the system, referred to as Ouija boards (most probably derived from the French and German words for ‘yes’). For a relatively small amount of money people could abandon their scraps of paper and upturned glass for a professionally printed board and little wooden platform on casters (called a ‘planchette’). From its introduction in 1891 the Ouija board proved an instant hit and soon formed a mainstay of parlour entertainment across America and Europe.
But as the public began to look for faster ways of chatting with the dead, the need for speed soon overcame even the Ouija board. The front leg of the planchette was eventually replaced by a pencil, and a piece of paper took the place of the Ouija board. People would again place their hands on the planchette, but this time any movement would result in the pencil writing directly on the paper. Suddenly the spirits could dictate messages to the here and now. After further experimentation it was discovered that even this system was an unnecessary burden, and that a small number of people could simply hold a pen or pencil, open their hearts to the spirit world, and receive messages directly from the deceased. This small band of communicators claimed that they were not consciously controlling their own hands, with several writers using this new system to indulge in so-called ‘automatic writing’, allegedly channelling religious texts, poems and prose from the spirit world.
By the 1920s the world had moved on and belief in Spiritualism fell into decline. The advent of radio and cinema meant that people no longer felt the need to spend their evenings waiting for a message from the dearly departed. This decline continued throughout the twentieth century and nowadays the small number of Spiritualist churches still in operation are usually run by a handful of elderly people who appear only hours away from discovering the reality about life after death.
During the heyday of Spiritualism thousands of people claimed to have contacted the dead via table-turning, Ouija boards, and automatic writing. Did their testimony represent compelling evidence of life after death, or is there a scientific explanation for these apparent spiritual intrusions? A small number of Victorian scientists were eager to examine the curious phenomena and discover what was really going on. Perhaps the most insightful investigation was conducted by a man who is now widely acknowledged to be one of the world’s greatest scientists.
Enter Michael Faraday, champion of the invisible.
One Day Sir, You May Tax It
Born in South London in 1791 to a family of modest means, Michael Faraday became fascinated by all things scientific at an early age. His diligence and curiosity soon caught the attention of leading scientist Humphry Davy, resulting in Faraday being given a position at London’s prestigious Royal Institution aged just 21.
Faraday worked at the Institution throughout his life, investigating a wide and eclectic range of topics. He invented the world-famous Bunsen burner, discovered that coal dust was the major cause of mining explosions, advised the National Gallery on how best to clean its art collection, and gave a series of popular public lectures on the science of the burning candle (‘There is no more open door by which you can enter into the study of natural philosophy than by considering the physical phenomena of a candle’).
He is perhaps best known for his ground-breaking investigations into the relationship between the invisible and mysterious forces of electricity and magnetism. After investing hours of bench time tinkering with various apparatus, Faraday’s breakthrough came when he bent a piece of wire into a loop, moved a magnet through the centre of it and discovered that the movement of the magnet induced an electric current in the wire. This simple demonstration revealed a fundamental link between electricity and magnetism and paved the way for modern-day electromagnetic theory. Albert Einstein was so impressed with the work that he kept a photograph of Faraday on his study wall as a source of inspiration. Ever the practical man, Faraday immediately set about exploring possible applications for his discovery, eventually creating a forerunner of a modern power generator. When William Gladstone, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, heard about this newfangled device he quizzed Faraday about the practical value of electricity. Faraday famously replied, ‘One day sir, you may tax it.’
Faraday was also serious about his religion, serving as a lay preacher in an obscure offshoot of the Scottish Presbyterian Church known as the Sandemanians. His membership of the church caused him to refuse the presidency of the Royal Society and a knighthood on the grounds that he did not believe Jesus would accept such honours. He also turned down the government’s request to develop poison gases for the Crimean War on ethical grounds, and wouldn’t buy insurance as he believed it reflected a lack of faith. His religious beliefs may have also played an important role in his discovery of electromagnetism. Believing that one God was responsible for the world, Faraday was convinced that all of nature must be interconnected, including the apparently unlinked forces of electricity and magnetism.6
Given Faraday’s expertise in harnessing invisible forces and interest in matters spiritual, it is not surprising that he was drawn to table-turning. In 1852 he assembled a group of trustworthy and successful table-movers, and carried out a cunning three-stage plan that still stands as a textbook example of how to investigate the impossible.7
In the first stage of his investigation Faraday glued together a bizarre bundle of materials - including sandpaper, glass, moist clay, tinfoil, glue, cardboard, rubber and wood - and secured it to the top of a table. He then asked his participants to put their hands on top of the bundle and summon the spirits. The group had no problem moving the table, meaning that the materials used did not inhibit the work of the spirits. The experiment therefore gave Faraday a free hand to employ the bundle of materials during the second stage of the investigation.
Retreating to his laboratory, he set about constructing several strange bundles. Each consisted of five postcard-sized pieces of cardboard interleaved with small pellets of specially formulated glue that was ‘strong enough to maintain the cards in any new position that they might acquire, and yet weak enough to give way slowly to a continued force’. Faraday carefully positioned the bundles around the table, firmly attaching the bottom layer of each one to the tabletop, and drawing a fine pencil line down the edges of cardboard layers. Preparations over, the experiment began. His participants were each asked to place their hands on the top of a bundle, and then have the spirits move the table to the left. After a few moments the table started to shift. Simply by glancing at the bundles he’d prepared, Faraday was able to find the answer to the riddle of table-moving.
It was brilliantly simple. He had reasoned that if a mysterious force was truly acting on the table then the table would move before the hands of the sitters did. This would result in the lower layers of each bundle slipping under the upper layers, causing the displaced pencil line to slope from left to right. On the other hand, if the participants’ hands were responsible for the table movement then the upper layers of each bundle would move before the lower layers, creating lines that would slope from right to left. When Faraday examined the pencil lines the answer was obvious. Every line sloped from right to left, proving that the participants’ hands had moved before the table.
It seemed that Faraday’s participants were imagining the table moving and, without realizing it, producing the small hand and finger movements required to make their thoughts a reality. Because these movements were entirely unconscious the twists and turns of the table surprised them, and so were attributed to spirit agency.
Although convinced that he had solved the mystery of table-turning, Faraday realized that Spiritualists might argue that although the unconscious movements of the people around the table were responsible for some of the phenomenon, the spirits were playing a minor but still vitally important role in the movement. The only way of testing this idea would be to eliminate the movement of the hands and see whether the table still turned. Clearly, Faraday couldn’t simply ask his participants to stop pushing the table because they had no idea that they were moving it in the first place. A new experiment was required.
Faraday returned to his laboratory and created a second set of ingenious bundles. He now prepared two postcard-sized boards separated by four horizontally placed glass rods that allowed the top board to run freely. This ‘board - glass rods - board’ sandwich was held together with two large rubber bands. He attached the base of each bundle to the tabletop, and then pushed small metal pins into the sides of the top and bottom boards. Finally, a 15-inch-long stalk of hay was attached vertically to each bundle, with one pin in the lower board and another in the upper.
There was method to his madness. Faraday’s design meant that the stalk worked as a lever, with the top pin acting as a fulcrum. Any sideways movement of the top board, no matter how small, resulted in a large and obvious shift in the stalk. The bundles acted as a simple but highly effective way of amplifying the participants’ tiny hand movements, and so by asking them to keep the stalk vertical he could ensure that their hands were still.
Faraday brought his merry band of participants together again, and asked them to place their fingers on the top board and attempt to have the spirits move the table, but to try to ensure that the stalk remained vertical at all times. Try as they might, the group simply couldn’t budge the table. Faraday correctly concluded that their unconscious movements were completely responsible for the phenomenon, and any consideration of spirit energy was superfluous to requirements.
His findings, published in the Athenaeum magazine in 1853, met with a furious response from Spiritualists, with many claiming to be able to produce movement without touching the table at all. They were, however, strangely reluctant to travel to Faraday’s laboratory and demonstrate this under controlled conditions.
HOW TO TALK WITH THE DEAD: PART ONE
Running a successful table-turning session is a lesson in applied psychology. To ensure success, try the following ten-step procedure.
1. Choose the right table. Go for something that is about a foot square and two feet high. It doesn't really matter whether it has a round or square tabletop, or is supported by a leg at each corner or on a single pedestal. What does matter is that it tips easily. Test the table by placing your fingertips on the edge of the tabletop and deliberately trying to tilt it over. If it is difficult to budge, find another table.
2. Invite a group of between four and eight people to your house. It doesn't actually matter whether they believe in the afterlife, are agnostic, or completely sceptical. It is more important that they are out to have a good time together.
3. Arrange some chairs in a circle around the table. These seats need to be comfortable, and encourage people to sit forward rather than lean back.
4. Ask everyone in the group to take a seat and place their hands around the tabletop. Their hands do not need to touch their neighbours' hands, and they should rest their fingertips as lightly as possible on the table.
5. Lower the lights, turn on some music and try to establish a light-hearted atmosphere. Ask the group to avoid deliberately pushing the table but instead to focus on keeping their hands as still as possible. Try to get them to chat and joke rather than thinking about obtaining some kind of movement.
6. On a good night you will hear the table starting to creak after around 40 minutes. This is an initial signal that the effect is starting to work.
7. After another ten minutes or so you should get your first movements. If the table is unable to move because it is on thick carpet then it will tip violently and occasionally balance on one or more legs. The group should always try to keep their fingertips in contact with the table, but not prevent any movement. If the table can slide, it may well move around the room. Again, the group should maintain contact with the table and, if necessary, leave their seats and follow it.
8. Do not try to analyse the effect or figure out how it works. Instead, simply enjoy what is happening. Have people remove and replace their hands to see if one person is responsible for the effect. Feel free to ask the table questions and suggest that it answers by tilting or moving in a certain direction. Avoid any possible tears by not suggesting that you have contacted the spirit of someone who was known to a member of the group. Instead, go with contacting a famous, or even fictional, character.
9. If you don't get any creaking or movement after 40 minutes or so, ask everyone to try to will the table to move in a specified direction. It might also be helpful to get the group to try breathing in unison for a minute or so. If you still don't obtain any movement, secretly push the table. This often helps kick-start genuine unconscious movements.
10. At the end of the session, thank the group for participating and tell them that research has shown that the spirits may well follow them home and haunt their dreams for the rest of their lives.
Joseph Jastrow and His Amazing Automatograph
Faraday had shown that small unconscious movements were responsible for table-turning. Inspired by his findings, other researchers explored whether the same type of movements could also account for the curious behaviour associated with the Ouija board.
In my previous book, Quirkology, I described the work of one of my academic heroes, a turn of the century American psychologist named Joseph Jastrow. Jastrow carried out many unusual investigations during his career, including work into subliminal perception, the dreams of blind people, hypnosis, and the psychology of magic. However, Jastrow was especially fascinated by the supernatural, and in the 1890s conducted a series of ground-breaking experiments into the Ouija board using a rather strange piece of apparatus called an ‘automatograph’.8
The principal part of Jastrow’s automatograph consisted of two glass plates, each about a foot square, separated by three ‘well-turned brass balls’. The bottom plate was attached to the table while the top plate was free to move. Participants placed their hand on the top plate, where even the slightest of hand movements would cause the plate to roll on the balls. To record any movement a pen was attached to the top plate. A sheet of paper, blackened with lamp soot, was placed under the pen, so that any pen movement would be recorded. The paper was then ‘made permanent by bathing it in shellac and alcohol’. Like Faraday, Jastrow had constructed a system capable of recording the smallest of movements.
In a long series of experiments, Jastrow hid the recording pen and paper from participants and then asked them to imagine doing three things - making certain movements, looking at different objects around the room, or visualizing a specific part of the room itself. Although the participants didn’t realize it, just thinking about a certain direction or location was enough to produce an appropriate movement on Jastrow’s glass planchette. Just as Faraday had uncovered the mystery of table-turning, Jastrow had revealed that the same process could account for the movement of the Ouija board. People using such boards were not talking to the dead and communing with the Devil. They were chatting to themselves.
Subsequent research has revealed that these strange movements, known as ‘ideomotor’ actions, are not confined to table-turning and Ouija boards. In the 1930s, for example, American physician Edmund Jacobson wanted to discover how best to get people to relax.9 He asked volunteers to think about various subjects while sophisticated sensors monitored the electrical activity in their muscles. When Jacobson asked his participants to imagine lifting their arms the sensors revealed small but real activity in their biceps. Thoughts about lifting heavy weights produced even greater muscle activity. When they were asked to imagine jumping high into the air their leg muscles suddenly showed signs of responding. The phenomenon was not just confined to the body. When the participants imagined the Eiffel Tower their eyes moved up and when asked to recall a poem their tongues moved. Just like Faraday’s table-turners 70 years before, Jacobson’s participants had no idea that they were making these small movements.
More recent work has shown that these unconscious actions occur regularly.10 If you think about turning the page of a book, the muscles in your fingers start to move towards the edge of the book. You wonder what time it is and your head begins to look at the clock. You think about making a cup of tea, and your legs kick into action. Although there is some debate as to why these ideomotor actions exist, most researchers believe that they are due to your body preparing itself for the anticipated behaviour. Even a mere thought is enough to make your body put its foot gently on the accelerator and move so that it is better prepared to react when the moment comes.
The scientific study of table-turning and Ouija boards not only provided a solution to these curious phenomena but also resulted in the discovery of a new force of unconscious movement. For more than a hundred years after Faraday and Jastrow’s classic experiments researchers believed that talking to the dead was entirely answered by this means. Case closed. Mystery solved. But unbeknownst to them, there was a second, even more intriguing secret hidden within the tipping tables and alphabet cards.
HOW TO TALK WITH THE DEAD: PART TWO
The procedure for a Ouija board session is somewhat similar to table-turning, but has the added advantage of being able to incorporate a test to discover whether the spooky movements are the result of spirit communication or ideomotor action.
1. Choose the right kind of table. This time it needs to be something with a larger tabletop (around two feet square), of normal height but much more sturdy than in the previous experiment. Test the table by trying to deliberately tilt it over. If it is easy to budge, find another table.
2. Write the letters of the alphabet on separate pieces of paper and lay them out in a circle around the edge of the table. Write the word 'Yes' on another piece of paper and 'No' on a final piece. Place these inside the circle of letters.
3. Find a sturdy glass, turn it upside down, and place it in the centre of the circle of letters.
4. Ask everyone to sit around the table to place the first finger of their right hand lightly on the base of the glass.
5. Once again, lower the lights and establish a light-hearted atmosphere. Ask everyone to avoid deliberately pushing the glass and instead to keep their fingers as still as possible. Try to get them to chat and joke.
6. Ask the group to try to contact a spirit. Once again, avoid suggesting anyone known to the group, and instead go with contacting a famous or fictional character. When the glass begins to show signs of movement, ask the spirit to spell their name by moving the glass towards the upturned letters.
7. Once you have established contact and figured out who you are talking to, introduce the notion of a test. Collect the letters of the alphabet, shuffle the pieces of paper, and then deal them face down in a circle on the table.
8. Once again have the group ask the spirit to spell out its name. As the glass touches a piece of paper, turn it face up. If the movements of the glass are due to unconscious movement, the selected letters will be meaningless because the group no longer knows where the glass should be heading.
9. If any believers in the group complain that perhaps the message is only meaningless because the spirits can't see the letters either, turn the pieces of paper face up and blindfold the group. Once again, the message should be meaningless.
10. If the group does manage to spell out a name while the letters are face down or they are blindfolded, leave your house immediately and contact your local church for help.
On Trying Not to Think About White Bears
Many experienced table-turners and Ouija board users rejected the notion of ideomotor action, claiming that the messages from the dead continued to flow thick and fast even when they made a special attempt to keep their fingers completely still. In fact, many reported that they actually obtained even more spectacular results under these conditions. For years scientists attributed these reports to over-active imaginations and the desire to believe, but in the 1990s Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner decided to take a closer look at the claims.
Wegner is a man fascinated by white bears. Or, to be more accurate, he is a man fascinated by asking people not to think about bears. He conducted a series of well-known studies in which he asked participants not to imagine a white bear, and to ring a bell each time the unwanted bear sprang into their mind.11 The results revealed that people had a surprisingly hard time keeping their minds bare of bears, often ringing the bell every few seconds. Wegner had discovered a curious phenomenon known as the ‘rebound effect’, wherein trying not to think about something causes people to dwell on the forbidden topic. Under normal circumstances people are skilled at distracting themselves and pushing unwanted thoughts out of their minds. However, explicitly ask them not to think about a topic and they constantly think ‘hold on, am I thinking about the thing that I am not supposed to be thinking about?’ and thus are repeatedly reminded about the very thing that they are trying to forget. Wegner’s rebound effect operates in many different contexts. Ask people to actively repress unhappy life events and they can’t get such thoughts out of their heads. Ask them to kick stressful thoughts into touch and they end up becoming especially anxious, and ask insomniacs to forget about the things that are keeping them awake and they have an even harder time than usual falling asleep.12
Wegner wondered whether the same phenomenon might also explain why people were apparently obtaining messages from tipping tables and Ouija boards despite keeping their fingers as still as possible. Could the rebound effect also apply to movement? Could it mean that people who are trying their very best not to make a certain move are actually more likely to make the undesired motion?
Wegner decided to carry out an experiment using another classic example of ideomotor action - the pendulum. For centuries people have tied small weights to pieces of string and used the left-to-right or circular movement of the pendulum to try to determine the sex of unborn babies, predict the future and commune with the spirits. Inviting a group of participants to his laboratory one at a time, Wegner positioned a video camera pointing towards the ceiling, and asked each person to hold a pendulum above it. He asked half of the participants to make a special effort not to move the pendulum in a specified direction and the others to hold the pendulum as still as possible.13
The footage from the camera allowed Wegner to carefully measure the amount of movement in the pendulum. In the same way that being asked not to think about a white bear resulted in endless bears, so trying not to move the pendulum produced increased swinging. These unconscious movements were even more dramatic when Wegner occupied his participants’ minds by asking them to remember a six-digit number or count back from 1,000 in threes. These additional findings help explain another curious aspect of table-turning and Ouija boards. Spiritualist lore suggests that the dead are most likely to make their presence known if the people around the table or Ouija board sing hymns, chat or even tell jokes. All of these procedures will tax people’s minds and thus be far more likely to encourage people to make unconscious movements.
Wegner’s work showed that the rebound effect made table-tipping and Ouija boards especially deceptive. By trying to hold their hands as still as possible and distract themselves from what they were doing, people were creating the perfect conditions for increased ideomotor action and so were especially likely to obtain dramatic effects.
Other work has since shown that this behaviour-based rebound effect occurs in many different situations outside of the séance room. In another study Wegner asked golfers to try to putt a ball onto a spot, and discovered that asking participants not to overshoot the mark made them especially likely to hit the ball too hard. Eye-tracking experiments have revealed that telling football players to avoid kicking a penalty shot into a particular part of the goal resulted in them not being able to keep their eyes off the forbidden area.14 Athletes have noticed the same effect in real life with, for example, former major league baseball player Rick Ankiel sometimes producing wild throws when attempting to avoid such actions (Ankiel has named the phenomenon ‘the Creature’).15 The rebound effect can also affect those trying to change unwanted behaviours, with experiments showing that smokers who try to suppress thoughts about lighting up, and dieters who attempt not to think about fatty foods, find it especially difficult to kick the habit or eat healthily.
Encouraged by his investigations with the pendulum, Wegner turned his attention to the most mysterious of all Spiritualist phenomena - automatic writing. His work was to provide a solution to one of the most taxing philosophical problems of all time.
Mark Twain and the Grand Illusion
Perhaps the most prolific and impressive of all automatic writers was Pearl Curran.16 Born in 1883 in St Louis, the first 30 years of Curran’s life were uneventful, and involved dropping out of high school, trying her hand at various jobs, getting married and teaching music. Then, on 8 July 1913 everything changed. While using a Ouija board to chat with the dead an unusually strong and dominant spirit emerged. The entity explained that her name was Patience Worth and that she had been born in the seventeenth century in Dorset, England, but in later life had taken a ship to America where she was eventually murdered by ‘Indians’. Trying her hand at automatic writing, Curran discovered that she could easily channel Ms Worth. In fact, the communications came thick and fast for the next 25 years, with Patience eventually ‘dictating’ over 5,000 poems, a play and several novels. The quality of the work was as impressive as the quantity. When reviewing Worth’s novel about the final days of Jesus, a reviewer at the New York Globe favourably compared it to Ben Hur while another critic believed it to be ‘the greatest story of Christ penned since the Gospels’.
Unfortunately for Spiritualism, Curran’s writings failed to provide convincing evidence of life after death. Try as they might, researchers were unable to find any evidence that Patience Worth actually existed, and linguistic analysis of the texts revealed that the language was not consistent with other works from the period. The case for authenticity was not helped by Patience writing a novel set in the Victorian times, some 200 years after her own death. Eventually even the most ardent believer was forced to conclude that Pearl Curran’s remarkable outpourings were more likely to have a natural, not supernatural, explanation.
Additional evidence against the spirit hypothesis came from those who claimed to be able to channel famous authors. There’s the rather bizarre case of Emily Grant Hutchings, a close friend of Curran, who claimed to be in touch with the spirit of Mark Twain (think ‘gravy train’). In 1917 she produced Jap Herron, a novel that Hutchings claimed had been dictated to her by the great man himself. Critics were deeply unimpressed, with one noting:
If this is the best that Mark Twain can do by reaching across the barrier, his admirers will all hope that he will hereafter respect that boundary.
Harper and Brothers, who owned the rights to the work produced by Mark Twain when he was earthbound, took legal action, claiming that the poor quality of Jap Herron damaged their sales. As part of their evidence, Harper and Brothers noted that Twain was deeply sceptical about the afterlife and so seemed an especially unlikely candidate as a spirit author. The media had a field day, noting that the Supreme Court would soon have to rule on the issue of immortality. Unfortunately, the case never made it into the courtroom, with Hutchings and her publisher agreeing to withdraw the book from sale prior to the trial.
Assuming that the dead do not have a hand in automatic writing, what are we to make of this curious phenomenon? Until the mid-1990s by far the most popular explanation involved some form of psychological dissociation. According to this argument, it is possible for some peoples’ consciousnesses to become divided into two, with each identity unaware of the other, despite them inhabiting the same brain. It is a strange idea, but nevertheless received widespread support, in part because at the time it was the only show in town. Suddenly everyone and their dog was seen as having multiple personalities and it wasn’t long before the idea made it into the world of psychiatry, with clinicians encouraging their patients to experiment with automatic writing as a way of accessing the issues that lay buried deep within their ‘subconscious’ self.
However, after studying various cases of this strange phenomenon it was again Dan Wegner who advanced a new and radical way of explaining automatic writing. Unlike previous explanations, his idea did not involve the existence of multiple identities trapped within the same skull. Moreover, if he’s correct, his work helps solve one of the most hotly debated issues in the history of science.
On the face of it, free will doesn’t seem especially contentious. You make a decision to move your wrist and your wrist moves. You decide to lift your leg and up it comes. So far, so what? However, this simple scenario has hidden depths.
Most scientists believe that all of your conscious mental life is the direct result of activity within your brain. For example, right at this moment you are reading the words on this page. Light enters your eyes and triggers cells at the back of your retina. These, in turn, send signals to the visual cortex in your brain, which sets about recognizing the letters and words, and then conveys the required information to the parts of the brain that are able to extract the meaning from the sentences. The process might be extremely complex and difficult to understand, but fundamentally it is all taking place in your eyes and brain.
But when making decisions suddenly, the model doesn’t feel quite right. I am going to ask you to make a decision. You can either continue to read this paragraph or go and make a cup of tea. Regardless of your choice, my guess is that it didn’t feel like your brain at work. You didn’t suddenly feel a rush of blood to the front of your brain, followed by a quick spurt in your left hemisphere. Instead, it felt as if it was ‘you’, and not a series of electrical impulses in the lump of meat between your ears, that made the decision.
Wegner’s neat and clever solution to this mystery involves positing that the sense of ‘you’ as decision maker is actually a grand illusion created by your brain.17 According to him, your brain makes every decision in your life including, for example, whether you should stand up, say something or wave your arms around. However, a split second after making each decision your brain does two things. First, it sends a signal to another part of the brain that creates the conscious experience of making the decision, and second, it delays the signal going to your legs, mouth or arms. As a result, ‘you’ experience the ‘I have just made this decision’ signal, see yourself act in a way that is consistent with that signal, and incorrectly conclude that ‘you’ are in the driving seat. In short, you are the ghost in the machine.
THE HELPING HANDS ILLUSION
Many years ago I performed magic on the streets of London's Covent Garden. My act involved selecting a man from the audience and placing a cloak completely around his body. I would then stand behind the man, have him place his hands behind his back, and poke my hands out of two slits in the front of the cloak. To the audience it looked as though the man's hands were poking through the front of the cloak. In reality, they were seeing my hands, not his, and so I could perform tricks and make the man appear to be an expert magician.
Psychologist Daniel Wegner has used exactly the same type of set-up to illustrate another curious aspect of free will. To carry out his demonstration you will need a mirror and a friend. Stand in front of the mirror and have your friend stand behind you. Next, place your hands behind your back and ask your friend to poke their arms under your arms. Now look in the mirror. All being well, your friend's arms will look like your arms (if you are struggling to create this illusion try both wearing black tops). Now have your friend read out the following instructions and then make the appropriate actions with their hands
Clench your right hand into a fist three times
Clench your left hand into a fist three times
Wave at the mirror with your right hand
Turn both of your hands palm up and then palm down
Clap your hands together twice
Because your brain finds visual feedback more compelling than movement-related feedback, you should feel as if your friend's hands belong to you and that you are in control of them.
All sorts of clever experiments are put forward by Wegner to support his idea that our feeling of free will is little more than a grand illusion, including one especially curious study conducted by physiologist Benjamin Libet from the University of California in San Francisco in the 1980s.18
Imagine travelling back through time and taking part in Libet’s experiment. After arriving at his laboratory and having a nice cup of tea, you are taken into a small room and have several small electrodes placed on your head and forearm. Next you are sat in front of a small screen displaying a dot moving in a circle, like the seconds hand of a clock. You are asked to flex your wrist whenever you like, but to report the position of the dot each time you make the decision to flex. After a few wrist flexes the experimenters remove the various electrodes and thank you for your participation.
Like Faraday’s study into table-turning, Libet’s experiment is as simple as it is ingenious. His experimental set-up measured participants’ brain activity, forearm activity and the precise moment that the person thought they decided to move their wrist, allowing him to plot the exact time that each event took place. Libet’s data showed a large amount of brain activity about a third of a second before each participant said that they made the decision to move their wrist. In short, exactly as predicted by Wegner, your brain appears to make a decision before you are conscious of it.
Libet’s experiment is not the only one to suggest that our brain operates before we are aware of it. In the early 1960s neurophysiologist and robotician William Grey Walter asked participants to look at a projection screen and press a button to advance a series of photographic slides one at a time.19 The participants were connected to various sensors that measured activity in the area of their brain associated with hand movements. Although the participants didn’t know it, Grey Walter had hooked the output from these sensors directly to the slide projector to ensure that it was the participant’s brain activity, not their button presses, that changed the slides. Exactly as predicted by Wegner’s theory of free will, the participants were amazed to discover that the slideshow seemed to predict their decisions.
How does all of this explain automatic writing? Wegner believes that in some people the ‘make a decision then create a conscious experience of that decision’ mechanism malfunctions. The brain makes the decision to act, and sends the right messages to the appropriate muscles, but fails to send the signals responsible for creating the conscious experience of ‘you’ making the decision. In automatic writing this results in people scribbling away but with no idea that they are responsible for their jottings. Wegner argues that the phenomenon provides a unique and important insight into the fundamental nature of free will. During such episodes the illusion suddenly breaks down and we are revealed to be the robots that we really are. Automatic writing is not some freak show oddity, but rather reflects the true nature of our everyday behaviour.
Spiritualists were convinced that their techniques for talking to the dead were pushing back the frontiers of science. They were right, albeit for completely the wrong reasons. These seemingly supernatural phenomena had nothing to do with contacting the spirits, but did yield important insights into the unconscious. Scientific investigations into table-turning and the Ouija board resulted in the discovery of ideomotor action, while similar work with pendulums revealed why people often indulge in the very behaviour that they are trying to avoid. The study of automatic writing played an important role in the development of Wegner’s ingenious solution to the age-old philosophical problem of free will. Together, this impressive body of work showed that the unconscious plays a far bigger role in determining behaviour than was previously thought. Merely thinking about any type of activity causes your unconscious mind to automatically and immediately prepare your body to act. By trying not to behave in a certain way you interfere with the usually efficient way that your unconscious controls your actions. And the feeling of free will that you are experiencing right now may well be nothing more than a grand illusion. Ideomotor movements allow you to act in the blink of an eye, the ‘rebound effect’ has helped explain why many people struggle to quit smoking and lose weight, and Wegner’s solution to the free will problem suggests that your brain makes up its mind a fraction of a second before you think that you have made a decision. And all because two young girls once tied an apple to a string, secretly bounced it on the floor, and fooled the world into thinking that it was possible to talk with the dead.
It would be nice to think that modern minds would not be fooled by the ideomotor effects behind table-tipping, Ouija boards and pendulums. Nice, but wrong. Several companies recently claimed to have developed a new form of bomb detector, stating that their product could be employed by the police and military to find concealed explosives, narcotics, and weapons. Operators use the device by inserting a substance-specific ‘detection card’ into a handheld unit and then walking around until the antenna swings towards the target substance. The Iraqi government spent millions of pounds on hundreds of the devices, deploying them at checkpoints to replace time-consuming physical inspections. As with any dowsing rod, the swinging of the antenna was due to unconscious muscle movements, and tests conducted by the American military revealed that the devices were unable to detect explosives. Unfortunately, by then the damage had been done, with hundreds of civilians being killed by bombs that had passed through the checkpoints undetected. In 1853 Michael Faraday concluded his investigation into the science of table-turning by noting that he was somewhat ashamed of his work, wishing that ‘in the present age … it ought not to have been required’. Over a hundred and fifty years later it seems that his research is as timely as ever.