Freud and Jung theorized about the unconscious; UBC researchers try to prove its existence
Most people would never associate a Ouija board with science. In the modern game created by Parker Brothers, two players place their hands on a small piece of wood known as a planchette. Some believe that ghosts move the planchette across letters, spelling out messages from the beyond.
According to the on-line Museum of Talking Boards, Ouija was developed in the 19th century to communicate with spirits. But the board’s past association with the supernatural—including its use in countless séances—didn’t stop three UBC researchers from relying on Ouija in a recent scientific experiment. And the results may represent a breakthrough in our understanding of how the nonconscious mind can recall what the conscious mind is incapable of retrieving.
During an interview in the Georgia Straight office, UBC psychology and computer science professor Ron Rensink described how a group of research subjects were asked a set of general-knowledge yes-or-no questions. If the subjects did not know the right responses or even have an inkling, they were instructed to guess.
It turned out that they were able to answer significantly more of these questions accurately using a Ouija board than when they took a stab at the answers in an on-line questionnaire. Rensink emphasized that there was an extremely low probability of this variation occurring by chance.
“It was not like a borderline thing,” the UBC professor said. “It was really a big effect.”
He likened the questions to a game of Trivial Pursuit. Examples included “Is Buenos Aires the capital of Brazil?” and “Were the 2000 Summer Olympics held in Sydney?”
The subjects were able to answer only 50.7 percent of the questions when they consciously guessed in the questionnaire. However, when asked to rely on the Ouija board for answers to the same questions—in effect, accessing part of their nonconscious minds—the subjects managed to retrieve the correct responses 62.7 percent of the time.
If people can retrieve information without awareness, as the results of this experiment suggest, it could reinforce the arguments of some educators that more attention needs to be paid to the ideas of early-20th-century Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. He’s noteworthy for exploring the relationship between the conscious and unconscious minds, and how they integrate later in life through a process he called “individuation”.
According to UBC postdoctoral researcher Hélí¨ne Gauchou, the Ouija experiment also demonstrates the existence of the ideomotor effect, in which decisive movements are triggered by the nonconscious mind. In an interview at her UBC office, she told the Straight that prior to this experiment, nobody had studied whether nonconscious thoughts can trigger movements.
“That’s the novelty of this study, because it showed that even unconscious processes can produce this result where you see something moving,” Gauchou said.
In June, Rensink, Gauchou, and electrical and computer engineering professor Sidney Fels presented a summary of their research at a conference held by the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. Gauchou said she hopes to complete a paper by the end of the month so it can be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
In the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, psychiatric pioneers such as Sigmund Freud and Jung maintained that hidden memories and unconscious drives greatly influence human behaviour. To Rensink, it’s clear that people have a “nonconscious intelligence”, which operates independently of the conscious mind. He cited the everyday example of drivers “zoning out”: they’re still able to travel safely through traffic, even though they’ve tuned out their conscious minds.
“You have to ask yourself who is driving,” Rensink said. “There is this inner zombie. It’s sometimes called this: nonconscious intelligence.”
However, he said, it wasn’t easy to demonstrate this hidden intelligence in a scientific experiment, because the conscious mind wants to exert control. That’s where the Ouija board entered the picture. Noting that players often believe they are not voluntarily moving the planchette, the UBC researchers wondered if this perception would be sufficient to bypass the subjects’ conscious mind and reveal knowledge stored nonconsciously.
In the first phase of the study, subjects were asked 78 yes-or-no questions, which they answered in an on-line questionnaire. This was a test of their conscious knowledge. Gauchou said that if they were certain that they didn’t know the answer, they were instructed to guess. The group of 17 subjects accurately answered approximately half of the on-line questions that required guessing.
Next, each subject was paired up with another person who, unbeknownst to them, was a confederate of the experimenters. Gauchou explained that the subjects were then shown how to use a Ouija board and where the planchette would go to indicate a “yes” or “no” answer.
“The training phase was very important for the real participants to experience what it feels like when it moves, because most of our participants never played Ouija before,” Gauchou explained.
She pointed out that because they were resting their hands on the planchette with their respective partners, they didn’t believe they were directing the answers. However, the researchers threw in a twist. Gauchou blindfolded each subject, and then the confederate removed his hands from the planchette, so that only the unwitting subject was responsible for the movement.
She then asked 16 yes-or-no questions, including eight that had required guessing in the on-line questionnaire. This was designed to test whether subjects could come up with a more accurate set of answers from the Ouija board than when they were using their conscious mind. Gauchou said that each subject directed the planchette to a “yes” or “no” response, even though they didn’t believe they were in control.
In the third part, the subjects were asked another 16 yes-or-no questions, including eight that they had already heard while using the Ouija board. This was designed to see once again how their conscious guesses compared with their nonconscious answers elicited from the Ouija board.
Gauchou highlighted the 12-percent improvement in accuracy using the Ouija board, compared with guessing in the on-line questionnaire. “Statistically, it’s very significant,” she noted.
When asked if students should bring these objects into exams, she quipped: “Ouija boards are not forbidden.”
On a more serious note, she said the experiment suggests that the subjects were able to recall information outside of their conscious mind, which could be expressed through an ideomotor response. She referred to this retrieved information as “implicit memory”, indicating that it may be embedded in the mind without a person’s conscious knowledge of its existence.
Gauchou pointed out that the experiment did not explore how nonconscious intelligence might influence decision-making, movement, or other aspects of human behaviour. She stated that she is a cognitive psychologist, and therefore doesn’t feel qualified to comment in detail on whether this experiment confirms what Freud and Jung were proposing a century ago. However, she described Freud’s work as a “huge step forward” in psychology.
“It was not the first thinking and talking about this association between conscious and unconscious processes,” Gauchou noted. “But after [him], everybody heard about that.”
She declined to comment on Jung, who expanded on Freud’s concept of the unconscious in many areas. In addition to focusing on individuation, Jung explored different personality types, which have since been popularized in the Myers-Briggs personality test.
One person who has paid a great deal of attention to Jung’s work is retired Simon Fraser University dean of education Paul Shaker. He wrote his PhD thesis on the evolution of consciousness as it relates to education.
In a phone interview with the Straight, he said he was pleased to hear about the UBC study, and noted that “landmark experiments” can shake up the status quo.
Shaker described Jung as a “genius”, but suggested there is a stigma attached to him because some see him as a mystic. “That’s another way of saying he was ahead of his time,” he said. “And what looked to contemporaries as mystical eventually will become part of science.”
Shaker has continued studying this area over the years, and he included two chapters that rely heavily on Jung in his book Reclaiming Education for Democracy: Thinking Beyond No Child Left Behind (Routledge, 2008). He said Jung made three primary contributions to education.
The first is in the area of learning theory. According to Shaker, Jung’s insights into different psychological types have opened the door to shaping learning styles to suit different students. Jung maintained that some people are concerned with obtaining gratification outside the self, whereas others are oriented inward. Some are intuitive, whereas others could be called “sensates”, who focus on the present and are more realistic and practical. Then there are thinkers and feelers.
“Learning theory and learning styles are easily related to psychological type,” Shaker said.
Jung’s second major contribution to education, according to Shaker, relates to the development of consciousness. He pointed out that Jung believed that the mind becomes more conscious over time, first through the development of the ego and later in life through individuation. “The mind develops in parallel to the body and goes through similar stages, like we see the body go through,” Shaker said.
He added that Jung’s third contribution to education is in the area of motivation. Jung postulated that the ego, which is part of consciousness, is only one aspect of the entire psyche, which he called the “self”. According to Shaker, Jung asserted that human beings are hard-wired to realize this self, and educators who help students along this road will unlock their motivation.
“He thinks we’re motivated by this drive to fulfill our personality”¦beyond ego development,” Shaker stated. “The ego is useful, like any of the senses are useful, but you shouldn’t identify with the ego. You shouldn’t think that’s who you are.”
One of Jung’s more challenging ideas was his notion of the “collective unconscious”, which everyone possesses and is inherited. Jung claimed that this shared repository of ancestral experience as a species differs from individuals’ personal unconscious.
UBC’s Rensink acknowledged that he’s interested in designing experiments to determine if a “group unconscious intelligence” could be revealed. “The safecracker inside of me thinks this is the next Everest or K2,” he said, referring to the two tallest mountains in the world. “Right now, I am just happy to get the foot in the door with the individual nonconscious intelligence. Like I say, one of the next steps is going to do this at a group level. And my feeling is that it probably would work. It probably does exist.”
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.