Mysteries of unconsciousness



Ouija boards and magic tricks may sound like unconventional science, but a pioneering team of UBC psychologists are using these tools to unlock the mysteries of the human mind.

“Most people think they have complete control of their minds, but they are wrong,” says Ron Rensink, an associate professor of computer science and psychology. “The truth is, we perform thousands of unconscious mental and physical tasks every day.”

These “mindless” acts range from such basics as breathing and dreaming to others with life or death implications, says Rensink, who joined UBC in 2000 after conducting post-doctoral research at Harvard’s Vision Sciences Laboratory.

“Driving is a perfect example,” he says. “In many cases, we are navigating through dangerous situations, thinking only about what we want for dinner. We get home and often remember very little about the trip.”

Rensink belongs to a team that recently received $1.25 million from Boeing to design visualization systems to help people quickly analyze large amounts of data. His ultimate goal is to advance our knowledge of unconscious cognition and perception to help make planes, cars, homes and consumer products safer and more intuitive to use.

But before that can happen, Rensink says researchers need more ways to study our unconscious processes. “As a field of research, the unconscious is still very much ‘terra incognita’— the iceberg largely beneath the surface,” he says. “One of the big challenges, I think, is that we need to develop more techniques for investigating it.”

With that in mind, Rensink and postdoctoral researcher Hélène Gauchou recently completed a study using Ouija boards. Their research, to be published in the June issue of Consciousness and Cognition, not only demonstrates the intellectual power lying beyond our consciousness, but also represents an important advance in identifying how to access and study people’s unconscious minds.

They found that, when asked to answer questions they think they don’t know, people give significantly better responses (65 per cent accuracy) when answering “yes” or “no” with a Ouija board compared to answering verbally (50 per cent accuracy). When participants believed they knew the answers, both types of response scored almost identically.

“These surprising findings suggest we have a powerful ‘second intelligence’ resting beyond our conscious minds that can be accessed under the right conditions,” says Gauchou, a native of France whose only previous exposure to Ouija boards was through American movies. “We may believe we don’t know an answer consciously, but actually have the answer right there in our subconscious. Maybe we heard it on the radio, but weren’t really paying attention.”

Study participants were paired with partners, blindfolded and instructed to simply follow the direction of the Ouija’s moving planchette. However, when questions were asked, their partners were instructed to remove their hands from the planchette, meaning that participants were playing alone.

According to Gauchou, the study triggered “ideomotor actions” in participants, movement unaccompanied by conscious thought—similar to driving or washing the dishes – which provides greater access to our unconsciousness. The research team, which also includes UBC Electrical and Computer Engineering Prof. Sid Fels, is now exploring how to improve upon the Ouija board by creating a computerized version.

In another study, recently published in Perception journal, Rensink and SFU researcher Jay Olson explored the psychology of card tricks to better understand unconscious thought processes. While people may think they have a free choice of any card, their study suggests otherwise.

For example, when asked to name a playing card, they found most people chose only one of four: the ace, queen or king of hearts, or the ace of spades. When asked to visualize a card, people are twice as likely to pick the ace of hearts, they found. “We hope these studies will help to give us a better understanding of memory, decision-making and awareness,” Rensink says.