When the movement of Modern Spiritualism first reached Europe from America in the winter of 1852–1853, the most popular method of consulting the spirits was for several persons to sit round a table, with their hands resting on it, and wait for the table to move. If the experiment was successful the table would rotate with considerable rapidity, and would occasionally rise in the air, or perform other movements.
In England table-turning became a fashionable diversion and was practised all over the country in the year 1853. Dr. John Elliotson and his followers attributed the phenomena to mesmerism.
The general public were content to find the explanation of the movements in spirits, animal magnetism, odic force, galvanism, electricity, or even the rotation of the earth.
William B. Carpenter, in 1852, wanted to show that a variety of currently popular phenomena had conventional scientific explanations rather than the widely believed supernatural ones. The phenomena he tackled included dowsing ("water witching"), the magic pendulum, certain aspects of mesmerism, spiritualists' "table turning," and Reichenbach's "Odylic force." Carpenter did not question the reality of the phenomena, nor the honesty of the people who were involved. He only disputed the explanation, arguing that, "All the phenomena of the 'biologized' state, when attentively examined, will be found to consist in the occupation of the mind by the ideas which have been suggested to it, and in the influence which these ideas exert upon the actions of the body." Thus Carpenter invoked ideomotor action as a nonparanormal explanation for various phenomena that were being credited to new physical forces, spiritual intervention, or other supernatural causes.
William James elaborated upon Carpenter's ideas, asserting that ideomotor activity was the basic process underlying all volitional behavior:
"Wherever a movement unhesitatingly and immediately follows upon the idea of it, we have ideomotor action. We are then aware of nothing between the conception and the execution. All sorts of neuromuscular responses come between, of course, but we know absolutely nothing of them. We think the act, and it is done; and that is all that introspection tells us of the matter."
Probably the first major scientist to become concerned about the mischief being created by ideomotor action, although he did not know the concept by this name, was the French chemist Michel Chevreul. Chevreul, who lived for one hundred three years, became interested in the experiments of some of his fellow chemists around the beginning of the nineteenth century. These colleagues were using what was known as "the exploring pendulum" to analyze chemical compounds.
As a budding scientist, Chevreul was intrigued, but he remained skeptical. He was surprised, however, to find that the pendulum worked as advertised when he tried it over a dish of mercury. He carried out more tests, however. To see if a physical force was responsible for the movement of the pendulum, he placed a glass plate between the iron ring and the mercury. To his surprise, the oscillations diminished and then stopped. When he removed the glass plate, the pendulum movements resumed. He next suspected that the pendulum moved because it was difficult to hold his arm steady. When he rested his arm on a support, the movements diminished but did not stop altogether.
Finally, Chevreul did what none of his predecessors had thought of doing. He conducted the equivalent of what we would call a double-blind trial. He blindfolded himself and then he had an assistant interpose or remove the glass plate between the pendulum and the mercury without his knowledge. Under these conditions, nothing happened. Chevreul concluded, "So long as I believed the movement possible, it took place; but after discovering the cause I could not reproduce it." His experiments with the pendulum show how easy it is "to mistake illusions for realities, whenever we are confronted by phenomena in which the human sense-organs are involved under conditions imperfectly analyzed." Chevreul used this principle of expectant attention to account for the phenomena of dowsing, movements of the exploring pendulum, and the then current fad among spiritualists, table-turning.
Chevreul was one of France's most prestigious scientists by the time he conducted these investigations.
The most publicized and carefully controlled study of table-turning was reported by Michael Faraday in 1853. Faraday obtained the cooperation of participants who he knew to be "very honorable" and who were also "successful table-movers." He found that the table would move in the expected direction, even when just one subject was seated at the table. Faraday first looked into the possibility that the movements were due to known forces such as electricity or magnetism. He showed that sandpaper, millboard, glue, glass, moist clay, tinfoil, cardboard, vulcanized rubber, and wood did not interfere with the table's movements. From these initial tests, he concluded that,
"No form of experiment or mode of observation that I could devise gave me the slightest indication of any peculiar force. No attraction, or repulsion . . . nor anything which could be referred to other than mere mechanical pressure exerted inadvertently by the turner."
By then, Faraday suspected that his sitters were unconsciously pushing the table in the desired direction. However, his sitters firmly maintained that they were not the source of the table movements. And, as already mentioned, Faraday was satisfied that his sitters were "very honorable." So he devised an ingenious arrangement to pin down the cause of the movement. He placed four or five pieces of slippery cardboard, one on top of the other, upon the table. The sheets were attached to one another by little pellets of a soft cement. The bottommost sheet was attached to a piece of sandpaper that rested against the table top. This stack of cardboard sheets was approximately the size of the table top with the topmost layer being slightly larger than the table top. The edge of each layer in this cardboard sandwich slightly overlapped the one below. To mark their original positions, Faraday drew a pencil line across these exposed concentric borders of the cardboard sheets, on their under surface. The stack of cardboard sheets was secured to the table top by large rubber bands which insured that when the table moved, the sheets would move with it. However, the bands allowed sufficient play to permit the individual sheets of cardboard to move somewhat independently of one another. The sitter then placed his hands upon the surface of the top cardboard layer and waited for the table to move in the direction previously agreed upon. Faraday reasoned that if the table moved to the left, and the source of the movement was the table and not the sitter, the table would move first and drag the successive layers of cardboard along with it, sequentially, from bottom to top, but with a slight lag. If this were the case, the displaced pencil marks would reveal a staggered line sloping outwards from the left to the right. On the other hand, if the sitter was unwittingly moving the table, then his hands would push the top cardboard to the left and the remaining cardboards and the table would be dragged along successively, from top to bottom. This would result in displacement of the pencil marks in a staggered line sloping from right to left. Faraday observed that,
"It was easy to see by displacement of the parts of the line that the hand had moved further from the table, and that the latter had lagged behind -- that the hand, in fact, had pushed the upper card to the left and that the under cards and the table had followed and been dragged by it."
Faraday's report was sufficient to convince most scientists that table-turning and related phenomena did not stem from new physical forces or occult powers. Unfortunately, it inadvertently had the opposite effect upon a few prominent scientists such as Alfred Russel Wallace, the cofounder with Darwin of the theory of evolution by natural selection. He seized upon the differences between the table's behavior in Faraday's experiment and what he had witnessed to assert that what Faraday had explained and what Wallace had experienced were not the same thing.
The most striking, and saddest, example of loopholism is the story of the eminent American chemist, Robert Hare. Hare was professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania when he became involved with table-turning in 1853, at age 72. Hare firmly rejected the possibility that some exotic force could produce movement of wooden tables. He wrote,
"I recommend to your attention, and that of others interested in this hallucination, Faraday's observations and experiments, recently published in some of our respectable newspapers. I entirely concur in the conclusions of that distinguished expounder of Nature's riddles."
Invited to attend a table-turning session, Hare went. Hare attended a "circle" at a private house. He wrote of the experience and became interested in spirit communication.
Hare created a device "which, if spirits were actually concerned in the phenomena, would enable them to manifest their physical and intellectual power independently of control by any medium." The Spiritscope, as he called it, consisted of a pasteboard disk slightly larger than a foot in diameter. Around its circumference he attached the letters of the alphabet in a haphazard order. An arrow that swivelled at the center of the disk was used to select letters one at a time by pointing toward them.
Hare carried out several experiments. Apparently he never fully understood the key aspect of Faraday's results -- that honest, intelligent people can unconsciously engage in muscular activity that is consistent with their expectations. Although the medium sitting opposite him could not see the letters or the index on the disk, she was looking directly at Hare as he was observing the behavior of the index. We now know from many other investigations of ideomotor action -- such as Oskar Pfungst's classic investigation of the allegedly intelligent horse, Clever Hans [http://goalhypnosis.blogspot.com/2012/01/clever-hans-effect.html] -- that people frequently give clues about what they are thinking or observing without realizing it. These subtle clues can guide the behavior of other individuals -- or even animals. Sometimes these individuals consciously detect these clues and use them to deceive, but frequently the person being guided by the clues is just as unconscious of them as is the individual providing them.
Hare eventually found he could work alone, without the help of mediums, and still get meaningful communications from his Spiritscope. He had no inkling that he could be source of the messages being spelled out on his Spiritscope. Hare's example shows again that intelligence, professional accomplishment, and personal integrity offer no automatic protection against wishful thinking and self-delusion. Hare's Spiritscope served as the model for the later commercial development of the Ouija board -- another striking example of the power of ideomotor action.
Table tilting - a practical guide.