New study reveals the science behind Ouija boards

It's not demons. It's not the undead. The explanation is actually way more boring that you'll ever guess.

Ouija boards. You either love 'em or hate 'em... or you're one of the undead and someone with one keeps calling you back up to chat, sort of like the paranormal equivalent of butt-dialing. Either way, it's been immensely popular since its invention by Elijah Bond in 1890 thanks to its supposed ability to "talk to the dead". Over a century later it's become quite the pop culture staple. Untold thousands of spooked-out kids have toyed with it at sleepovers—and dozens of supposed demonic possessions have allegedly (key word: allegedly!) occurred because of it.


But it turns out there's a far more pedantic explanation of why Ouija boards work. And it's a lot more boring than talking to dead people. Thanks to a landmark Danish study—available here—from the Interactive Minds Centre at Aarhus University, researchers have figured out what makes ouija boards actually work, all because they used what other studies haven't: eye-tracking devices and huge amounts of data analysis.

Note the camera overlooking the table, and the 2 pairs of camera-glasses. Picture of the study, c/o Aarhus University. 

40 people were asked to participate in the study and play 2 consecutive "games" on the Ouija board. All wore eye-tracking devices for both games: during the first game they were asked separately to spell the word 'Baltimore', and in the second they were asked to play as usual (i.e. without a set phrase in mind to spell). 

When the first experiment called for spelling the word 'Baltimore', the eyes of the people in the study flitted to the next letter based on familiarity with the alphabet (and their ability to spell the word). But when asked to conduct a session as usual, their tracked eyes showed that the word they eventually spelled was a combination of the efforts of the two parties. Basically: you're averaging out an answer with whomever you're "playing" with. And the supernatural part? That's just you being unsure of the next letter — 21.6% more unsure, to be exact, according to the study — and the more likely you are to believe the board is possessed, the more control you assign yourself to lose (and thus be more swayed by the person on the other side of the board). 

Your mind already (hopefully) knows the alphabet, and is making subconscious movements towards certain letters just from looking at the board. In short: if you want the Ouija's answer to be "banana" really bad, unless the person you're playing with is a total alpha personality, you'll probably end up with "banana" as your answer. 

c/o Aarhus University

One of the most interesting takeaways from the study lies in the implementation of the study itself: it took a really, really long time to read all those eye movements. 

...coders were instructed that focal gaze had to fall on the exact letter that the planchette would subsequently reach. Any amount of time looking on the exact letter would qualify as a prediction. On average, it took around one and a half hours for the coders to annotate 1 min of video. The coders manually annotated 3–4 h of video in total.

That's about 315 hours of looking at eye movements. 

tl;dr? The Ouija board works because of the ideomotor phenomenon, and the study proved that using eye-capture devices and a ton of time analyzing the data. 

 


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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.