“It was one of things that we thought it probably won’t work, but if it did work, it’d be really freaking cool,” said Rensink.
Their initial experiments involved a Ouija-playing robot: Participants were told that they were playing with a person in another room via teleconferencing; the robot, they were told, mimicked the movements of the other person. In actuality, the robot’s movements simply amplified the participants’ motions and the person in the other room was just a ruse, a way to get the participant to think they weren’t in control. Participants were asked a series of yes or no, fact-based questions (“Is Buenos Aires the capital of Brazil? Were the 2000 Olympic Games held in Sydney?”) and expected to use the Ouija board to answer.
What the team found surprised them: When participants were asked, verbally, to guess the answers to the best of their ability, they were right only around 50 percent of the time, a typical result for guessing. But when they answered using the board, believing that the answers were coming from someplace else, they answered correctly upwards of 65 percent of the time. “It was so dramatic how much better they did on these questions than if they answered to the best of their ability that we were like, ‘This is just weird, how could they be that much better?’” recalled Fels. “It was so dramatic we couldn’t believe it.” The implication was, Fels explained, that one’s non-conscious was a lot smarter than anyone knew.
The robot, unfortunately, proved too delicate for further experiments, but the researchers were sufficiently intrigued to pursue further Ouija research. They divined another experiment: This time, rather than a robot, the participant actually played with a real human. At some point, the participant was blindfolded—and the other player, really a confederate, quietly took their hands off the planchette. This meant that the participant believed he or she wasn’t alone, enabling the kind of automatic pilot state the researchers were looking for, but still ensuring that the answers could only come from the participant.
It worked. Rensink says, “Some people were complaining about how the other person was moving the planchette around. That was a good sign that we really got this kind of condition that people were convinced that somebody else was there.” Their results replicated the findings of the experiment with the robot, that people knew more when they didn’t think they were controlling the answers (50 percent accuracy for vocal responses to 65 percent for Ouija responses). They reported their findings in February 2012 issue of Consciousness and Cognition.
“You do much better with the Ouija on questions that you really don’t think you know, but actually something inside you does know and the Ouija can help you answer above chance,” says Fels.
UBC’s experiments show that the Ouija could be a very useful tool in rigorously investigating non-conscious thought processes. “Now that we have some hypotheses in terms of what’s going on here, accessing knowledge and cognitive abilities that you don’t have conscious awareness of, [the Ouija board] would be an instrument to actually get at that,” Fels explains. “Now we can start using it to ask other types of questions.”
Those types of questions include how much and what the non-conscious mind knows, how fast it can learn, how it remembers, even how it amuses itself, if it does. This opens up even more avenues of exploration—for example, if there are two or more systems of information processes, which system is more impacted by neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s? If it impacted the non-conscious earlier, Rensink hypothesizes, indications of the illness could show up in Ouija manipulation, possibly even before being detected in conscious thought.
For the moment, the researchers are working on locking down their findings in a second study and firming up protocol around using the Ouija as a tool. However, they’re running up against a problem—funding. “The classic funding agencies don’t want to be associated with this, it seems a bit too out there,” said Rensink. All the work they’ve done to date has been volunteer, with Rensink himself paying for some of the experiment’s costs. To get around this issue, they’re looking to crowd-funding to make up the gap.
Even if they don’t succeed, the UBC team has managed to make good on one of the claims of the early Ouija advertisements: The board does offer a link between the known and the unknown. Just not the unknown that everyone wanted to believe it was.