Ideomotor Phenomenon



The ideomotor [id-ee-uh-moh-tereffect is a psychological phenomenon wherein a subject makes motions unconsciously; for example, the body produces tears in response to powerful emotions without the person consciously deciding to cry. As in involuntary responses to pain, the body sometimes reacts reflexively to ideas alone without the person consciously deciding to take action.

The effects of automatic writing (an alleged psychic ability allowing a person to produce written words without consciously writing), dowsing (a type of divination employed in attempts to locate ground water without the use of scientific tools), facilitated communication (a process by which a person supports the hand or arm of a communicatively impaired individual while using a keyboard), and Ouija boards have been attributed to the phenomenon. Mystics have often attributed these effects to paranormal or supernatural force. Many subjects are unconvinced that their actions are originating solely from within themselves.

The term was first used in a scientific paper discussing the means through which the Ouija board produced its results, by English physiologist William Benjamin Carpenter in 1852, hence the alternative term ‘Carpenter effect.’ He derived the word ‘ideomotor’ from the components ‘ideo,’ meaning ‘idea’ or ‘mental representation,’ and ‘motor,’ meaning ‘muscular action’). In the paper, Carpenter explained his theory that muscular movement can be independent of conscious desires or emotions.

Scientific tests by English chemist Michael Faraday, French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, and American psychologists William James and Ray Hyman have demonstrated that many phenomena attributed to spiritual or paranormal forces, or to mysterious ‘energies,’ are actually due to ideomotor action. Furthermore, these tests demonstrate that ‘honest, intelligent people can unconsciously engage in muscular activity that is consistent with their expectations.’ They also show that suggestions that guide behavior can be given by subtle clues.

A simple experiment to demonstrate the ideomotor effect is to allow a hand-held pendulum to hover over a sheet of paper. The paper has keywords such as ‘YES,’ ‘NO,’ and ‘MAYBE’ printed on it. Small movements in the hand, in response to questions, can cause the pendulum to move towards key words on the paper. This technique has been used for experiments in ESP, lie detection, in ouija boards, and was used by Kreskin and other illusionists such as Derren Brown to test the hypnotic suggestibility of audience volunteers that are called onto the stage.

The associated term ‘ideodynamic response’ (or ‘reflex’) applies to a wider domain, and extends to the description of all bodily reactions (including, but not limited to ideomotor and ideosensory responses) caused in a similar manner by certain ideas, e.g., the salivation often caused by imagining sucking a lemon, which is a secretory response. The notion of an ideodynamic response contributed to Manchester surgeon James Braid’s first neuropsychological explanation of the principle through which suggestion operated in hypnotism.

The ideomotor effect is strongly associated with the practice of analytical hypnotherapy based on ‘uncovering techniques’ such as Watkins’ ‘Affect Bridge,’ whereby a subject’s ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I don’t want to answer’ responses to an operator’s questions are indicated by physical movements (e.g. finger twitches) rather than verbal signals; and are produced per medium of a pre-determined (between operator and subject) and pre-calibrated set of responses. William Benjamin Carpenter was a friend and collaborator of James Braid, the founder of modern hypnotism, who readily adopted the IMR concept to facilitate the transmission of his most fundamental views, based upon those of his teacher, Scottish philosopher Thomas Brown, that the efficacy of hypnotic suggestion was contingent upon the subject’s concentration upon a single (thus, ‘dominant’) idea.

For example, if a person was asked to imagine tying their shoelaces as vividly as possible, their brain would consciously fixate on the task and work through it with as much detail as possible. The theory of IMR implies that muscle memories associated with their hands would then attempt the task physically. However, it would abort the process unless it was truly necessary, and curtail the events that would unfold if the individual were actually willing to send the complete information along their nervous system to their hands. This may therefore involve an involuntary ‘twitch’ or movement, as the associated digits are placed into preparation of function, processed against reality, and then given the signal not to actually act.

Body language may be considered the most commonly visible aspect of IMR, but may also include such unconscious activities as doodling or art – as the conscious thought is sublimated into a different type of activity in unconscious expression.

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