Tricks of the subconscious

Edmonton Sun/April 19, 2006

The science that says we're frequently irrational may be easier to understand when you consider our subconscious may be to blame.

The survival instinct is wired deeply into the brain, as is the related fear of our own mortality. That can lead to the brain performing some interesting tricks on our perception. In Dr. Andrew Newberg's experiments, outlined earlier in this series, he demonstrated how the brain can be tricked into thinking our internal monologue - that little voice on our shoulder - is a disembodied voice talking to us, rather than emanating from us. Our bodies are just as susceptible.

A spiritual case in point? Ouija boards. Almost anyone who has tried them and successfully seen them spell out a message from spirits will have a hard time believing science has repeatedly disproven their value.

As with other "sciences" such as a "facilitated communication," "applied kinesiology" and "Toftness Radiation Detection," Ouija communication seems to work due to what is termed "ideomotor action": the brain subconsciously influencing human muscles to turn a belief into reality.

All of the above noted practices have been disproven using double-blind studies, where no participants were able to view the process as it happens. When no participants can see the board as they attempt to have spirits contact them, Ouija doesn't work. Ever. Anywhere. Yet hardcore believers will dismiss the science before the technique, demonstrating how a powerful belief can trump rationality.

"Under a variety of circumstances, our muscles will behave unconsciously in accordance with an implanted expectation," writes Dr. Ray Hyman of the University of Oregon, in his paper How People Are Fooled by Ideomotor Action. Hyman has used science to disprove everything from water divining to cold reading - the process of pretending to know about someone by reading their emotions and reactions.

"What makes this simple fact so important is that we are not aware that we ourselves are the source of the resulting action," he says.

One of the most striking "medical" failures disproven by double-blind experiments is applied kinesiology. As bogus as it is as a science, it does a credible job of demonstrating the power of belief. Thousands of North Americans still subscribe to the technique, which involves using muscular pressure and tongue sensation to allegedly diagnose illnesses and allergies. Nonetheless, even after demonstrating to a roomful of chiropractors that it doesn't work during double-blind studies, Hyman could not get them to admit defeat.

"When these results were announced, the head chiropractor turned to me and said, 'you see, that is why we never do double-blind testing anymore. It never works!'," Hyman writes. "At first, I thought he was joking. It turned out he was quite serious.

The man was so convinced going in that the neutral, controlled science had to be wrong, not applied kinesiology.

"Many pseudo- and fringe-scientists often react to the failure of science to confirm their prized beliefs, not by gracefully accepting the possibility that they were wrong, but by arguing that science is defective," he says.

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