The first phase, wherein ideomotor and ideosensory responses were taken as a manifestation of "special powers," began in ancient times and ended only tentatively in 1854, when Chevreul published his experimental critique of the exploratory pendulum and divination devices. In this critique he provided a correct interpretation of ideomotor movements as minute muscle responses set in motion by the unrecognized thoughts of the subject. We say that this first phase "ended only tentatively" because even today, of course, many people still hold an essentially magical view of these movements whether their source be from a special spiritual inspiration or an all-knowing and infallible "unconscious." From the time of Chevreul on, however, educated workers have understood that the mechanisms of ideomotor and ideosensory responses reside within the subject, though unrecognized because the responses are autonomous in their functioning.
This second period of our history of ideomotor movements is the classical period of mesmerism and early hypnosis in the 1800s. The work of Chevreul prepared the Zeitgeist for clinical investigators like Braid and Bernheim, who recognized that the essential nature of trance and suggestion could be explained as ideomotor and ideosensory action. Bernheim's formulation (1886/1957) is as follows (italics are ours).
The one thing certain is, that a peculiar aptitude for transforming the idea received into an act exists in hypnotized subjects who are susceptible to suggestion. In the normal condition, every formulated idea is questioned by the mind. After being perceived by the cortical centres, the impression extends to the cells of the adjacent convolutions; their peculiar activity is excited; the diverse faculties generated by the gray substance of the brain come into play; the impression is elaborated, registered, and analyzed, by means of a complex mental process, which ends in its acceptation or neutralization; if there is cause, the mind vetoes it. In the hypnotized subject, on the contrary, the transformation of thought into action, sensation, movement, or vision is so quickly and so actively accomplished, that the intellectual inhibition has not time to act. When the mind interposes, it is already an accomplished fact, which is often registered with surprise, and which is confirmed by the fact that it proves to be real, and no intervention can hamper it further. If I say to the hypnotized subject, "Your hand remains closed," the brain carries out the idea as soon as it is formulated. A reflex is immediately transmitted from the cortical centre, where this idea induced by the auditory nerve is perceived, to the motor centre, corresponding to the central origin of the flexion. There is, then, exaltation of the ideomotor reflex excitability, which effects the unconscious transformation of the thought into movement, unknown to the will.
The same thing occurs when I say to the hypnotized subject, "You have a tickling sensation in your nose." The thought induced through hearing is reflected upon the centre of olfactory sensibility, where it awakens the sensitive memory-image of the nasal itching, as former impressions have created it and left it imprinted and latent. This memory sensation thus resuscitated, may be intense enough to cause the reflex act of sneezing.(This passage contains the essence of the senior author's utilization theory of hypnotic suggestion,) There is also, then, exaltation of the ideo-sensorial reflex excitability, which effects the unconscious transformation of the thought into sensation, or into a sensory image.
In the same way the visual, acoustic, and gustatory images succeed the suggested idea. . . .
The mechanism of suggestion in general, may then be summed up in the following formula: increase of the reflex ideo-motor, ideo-sensitive, and ideo-sensorial excitability The ideo-reflex excitability is increased in the brain, so that any idea received is immediately transformed into an act, without the controlling portion of the brain, the higher centres, being able to prevent the transformation (1957, pp. 137-139).
In his De la Baquette Divinatorie (1854) Chevreul documented many forms of ideomotor phenomena, but it is difficult to say where they all originated. It is said, for instance, that in the Black Forest of Germany, during the Middle Ages, it was traditional to detect the sex of a child in utero by having the expectant mother hold her wedding ring suspended on a string over her abdomen. An apparently spontaneous movement in one direction indicated one sex, while a movement in another direction indicated the opposite sex. This, of course, was a precursor of what we today know as the Chevreul pendulum.
Alexander Dowie was an itinerant preacher in the colonial days of America who would enter the major saloon of a town and offer to detect thieves and murders. He would have all present place their hands palm down on the bar. He would mention a recent local crime and then exhort them to the effect that the guilty one would not be able to keep his index finger flat on the bar. Or perhaps it would be the thumb or the little finger that would give away the guilty person. This procedure easily qualifies as the neatest early low-cost lie-detection device on record and, of course, is a precursor of the finger-signaling approaches we use today.
The "thought-reading" games of Victorian England, which are even today a part of the stock and trade of magicians and "psychics," also fit our category of ideomotor signaling. The "psychics" claim that they can read minds. One might ask all those present in a room to decide on an object to be concentrated upon. He then enters the room and selects one of those present to act as his guide. The "psychic" gently grasps the guide's wrist and lets himself be led about the room. By being sensitive to the involuntary ideomotor movement of the guide's wrist, hand, and arm, the "psychic" soon is able to establish the area of the object of his search. By weaving back and forth with the guide's involuntary micromovements (unrecognizable to the guide or any others present) as his detector, the "psychic" is soon able to make an accurate guess about the object. He claims to have read the thoughts of the group; actually, he read the ideomotor movements of his guide.
Ideomotor movements, of course, are responsible for such phenomena as the Ouija board. The operator's unconscious or partially conscious wishes are transmitted by unrecognizable ideomotor movements from the fingertips that are gently placed on the board's surface to the movable pointer that spells out a message by pointing to different letters or words written on the board. In a more arcane way the fall of yarrow sticks or the flip of coins are also ideomotor components; together with the process of psychological projection, they facilitate the use of ancient oracles such as the I Ching.
Such procedures have survived for hundreds and even thousands of years precisely because they can, under proper circumstances, facilitate the evocation of interesting and valuable ideas—Ideas that are unconscious or only partially understood, but which can be projected by such procedures into full conscious understanding. The problem with such procedures is that the responses obtained are sometimes accepted uncritically as some sort of ultimate "truth"—whether from God, the occult powers, or the modern notion of the creative unconscious. Ideomotor responses are in fact simply another response system of the individual. There is no a priori reason for regarding ideomotor responses as more valid than any other response system (such as logical thinking, intuition, feelings, dreaming, etc.). In many individuals, however, ideomotor responses can provide information that is "surprising" to that individual's consciousness. This simply means that the "surprising information" was within the individual's system but not fully recognized or considered by consciousness. The surprising ideomotor responses, therefore, provide individuals with access to sources of information within themselves that they were unaware of or blocking out for one reason or another. The ideomotor responses are not necessarily more valid than other response systems, but they represent another source of information that can lead some individuals to make a more educated choice on some important matter because they now have a more complete inventory of information from their systems.
Ideomotor signaling, then, cannot be used as the only source of information for important decisions. It is simply one of many sources of information that can contribute to a decision. When the individual does not know, however, or when the individual's consciousness is confused, ideomotor responses can make a more important contribution. When rational thinking, intuition, feelings, etc. all fail an individual, then ideomotor signaling may be the only clear and incisive source of information for decision-making. But even under these circumstances information from ideomotor responses should be checked and balanced by the common sense and overall understanding that a therapist has of the individual being questioned.
Just as rational thinking, intuition, feeling, dreaming, etc., may each have unique sources of information for response, so ideomotor signaling may come from sources within the individual that are not tapped by any other response system. We do not at present know exactly what these sources are, just as we obviously do not know all the sources contributing to other response systems (rational thinking, etc.). Because of the high probability that ideomotor responses have unique sources of information within the individual, however, it is important that we continue to explore them and develop new procedures for receiving them more sensitively and accurately and with adequate means of validating them.
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For anyone concerned that this is a report designed to teach readers how to convince crowds of people to act like chickens or dance to an unheard song just with a carefully placed keyword - relax. While hypnosis is often paraded in that form with large crowds visiting celebrity hypnosis experts to see what wonders they can perform, the majority of hypnosis used is to aid people seeking a solution to a problem they cannot resolve easily with any other method.