Ideomotor phenomenon

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The ideomotor effect is a psychological phenomenon wherein a subject makes motions unconsciously; for example, the body produces tears in response to powerful emotions, without the person consciously deciding to cry.

Ideomotor effect[edit]

An example of table-turning in 19th century France. A circle of participants press their hands against a table, and the ideomotor effect causes the table to tilt in such a way as to produce a written message, in a manner similar to a ouija board.

As in reflexive responses to pain, the body sometimes reacts reflexively to ideas alone without the person consciously deciding to take action[citation needed]. For instance, tears are produced by the body unconsciously in reaction to powerful emotions[citation needed]. The effects of automatic writing, dowsing, facilitated communication, and Ouija boards have been attributed to the phenomenon. Mystics have often attributed these effects to paranormal or supernatural force. Many subjects are unconvinced that their actions are originating solely from within themselves.


The term was first used in a scientific paper discussing the means through which the Ouija board produced its results, by William Benjamin Carpenter in 1852,[1] hence the alternative term Carpenter effect. (Carpenter derived the word ideomotor from the components ideo, meaning "idea" or "mental representation", and motor, meaning "muscular action"). The terms "ideomotor effect" and "ideomotor response" were both introduced by William Benjamin Carpenter. In the paper, Carpenter explained his theory that muscular movement can be independent of conscious desires or emotions.

Scientific tests by the English scientist Michael Faraday, the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, and the American psychologists William James and Ray Hyman have demonstrated that many phenomena attributed to spiritual or paranormal forces, or to mysterious "energies," are actually due to ideomotor action. Furthermore, these tests demonstrate that "honest, intelligent people can unconsciously engage in muscular activity that is consistent with their expectations".[2] They also show that suggestions that can guide behavior can be given by subtle clues (Hyman 1977).

Some alternative medicine practitioners claim they can use the ideomotor effect to communicate with a patient's unconsciousness using a system of physical signals (such as finger movements) for the unconscious mind to indicate "yes", "no" or "I'm not ready to know that consciously"[citation needed].

A simple experiment to demonstrate the ideomotor effect is to allow a hand-held pendulum to hover over a sheet of paper. The paper has keywords such as YES, NO and MAYBE printed on it. Small movements in the hand, in response to questions, can cause the pendulum to move towards key words on the paper. This technique has been used for experiments in ESP, lie detection and ouija boards. The validity of these experiments has not been proven. This type of experiment was used by Kreskin[3] and has also been used by illusionists such as Derren Brown to test the hypnotic suggestibility of audience volunteers that are called onto the stage[citation needed].

Ideomotor response[edit]

The ideomotor response (or "ideomotor reflex"), often abbreviated to IMR, is a concept in hypnosis and psychological research[citation needed]. It is derived from the terms "ideo" (idea, or mental representation) and "motor" (muscular action). The phrase is most commonly used in reference to the process whereby a thought or mental image brings about a seemingly "reflexive" or automatic muscular reaction, often of minuscule degree, and potentially outside of the awareness of the subject[citation needed]. The cognate term "ideo-dynamic response" (or "reflex") extends to the description of all bodily reactions caused in a similar manner by certain ideas, e.g., the salivation often caused by imagining sucking a lemon, which is a secretory response. Here, "ideo-dynamic" means "the power of an idea (over the body)". In the Victorian psychological terminology from which this concept derives, an "idea" may include any mental representation, e.g., a mental image or memory, etc. The ideo-dynamic response became the original neuro-psychological theory of suggestion in hypnotism.


The term "ideomotor reflex" or "ideomotor response" was introduced in the 1840s by Victorian physiologist and psychologist William Benjamin Carpenter[citation needed]. Carpenter was a friend and collaborator of James Braid, the founder of hypnotism[citation needed].

Braid soon assimilated the ideomotor theory into hypnotism and it became the central theory of hypnotic suggestion. In The Physiology of Fascination (1855), Braid writes,

“In order that I may do full justice to two esteemed friends, I beg to state, in connection with this term monoideo-dynamics, that, several years ago, Dr. W. B. Carpenter introduced the term ideomotor to characterise the reflex or automatic muscular motions which arise merely from ideas associated with motion existing in the mind, without any conscious effort of volition. In 1853, in referring to this term, Dr. Noble said, “Ideo-dynamic would probably constitute a phraseology more appropriate, as applicable to a wider range of phenomena.” In this opinion I quite concurred, because I was well aware that an idea could arrest as well as excite motion automatically, not only in the muscles of voluntary motion, but also as regards the condition of every other function of the body. I have, therefore, adopted the term monoideo-dynamics, as still more comprehensive and characteristic as regards the true mental relations which subsist during all dynamic changes which take place, in every other function of the body, as well as in the muscles of voluntary motion."[4]

Braid coined the term "monoideo-dynamic" to express his theory that hypnotism functioned primarily by concentrating attention upon a single (mono) "dominant idea", which he believed amplified the ideo-dynamic or ideomotor response.



It is strongly associated with the practice of hypnosis, whereby 'yes' or 'no' answers may be given by indication of a physical manifestation rather than a verbal one; such results are produced by 'pre-suggesting' the correct response and attaching it to either the left or right hand side of the subject's body[citation needed].

An example[edit]

If you were to be asked to imagine doing up your shoelaces as vividly as possible, your brain would consciously fixate on the task and work through it as vividly and as logically as possible. The theory of IMR would imply that your muscular memory associated with your hands, would then attempt the task physically, but abort the process unless it was truly necessary and curtail the events that would unfold if you were actually willing to send the complete information along your nervous system to your hands[citation needed]. This may therefore involve an involuntary 'twitch' or movement of the associated digits are placed into preparation of function, processed against reality and then given the signal to not actually act[citation needed].

In hypnosis, this may be circumvented by dissociating the particular thought-process-response-abort of a digit or entire limb; and therefore give control to the unconscious mind to enable (by suggestion) the route of conscious thought-unconscious process-conscious process (of the fact)-conscious response (do not act)- unconscious response (dissociate from conscious)- ignore abortive conscious attempt- unconscious unabort... Which would then display a reaction or response in a physical manner or behavioral context[citation needed].

Body language may be considered the most commonly visible aspect of IMR, but may also include such unconscious activities as doodling or art – as the conscious thought is sublimated into a different type of activity in unconscious expression[citation needed].

See also[edit]


  1. ^ William Benjamin Carpenter (March 12, 1852). On the influence of Suggestion in Modifying and directing Muscular Movement, independently of Volition. Retrieved 2010-02-27. 
  2. ^ Ray Hyman (1999). "The Mischief-Making of Ideomotor Action" (reproduced on web as How People Are Fooled by Ideomotor Action). The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine (Fall-Winter). Retrieved 2006-09-07. 
  3. ^ see how kreskin used this pendulum
  4. ^ Braid, J. (1855) The Physiology of Fascination.

External links[edit]

  • Anderson, J.W., "Defensive Maneuvers In Two Incidents Involving The Chevreul Pendulum: A Clinical Note", International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, Vol.XXV, No.1, (1977), pp. 4–6.
  • Carpenter, W.B., "On the Influence of Suggestion in Modifying and directing Muscular Movement, independently of Volition", Royal Institution of Great Britain, (Proceedings), 1852, (12 March 1852), pp. 147–153.
  • Carroll, R.T., "Ideomotor effect". The Skeptic's Dictionary. 2003. ISBN 0-471-27242-6
  • Cheek, D.B., "Some Applications of Hypnosis and Ideomotor Questioning Methods for Analysis and Therapy in Medicine", American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, Vol.5, No.2, (October 1962), pp. 92–104.
  • Cheuvrel. Michel E., De la Baguette Divinatoire et du Pendule Dit Explorateur (On the Divining Rod and the So-called Exploratory Pendulum), Maillet-Bachelier, Paris, 1854.
  • Easton, Randolph D.; Shor, Ronald E. (1976). "An Experimental Analysis of the Chevreul Pendulum Illusion". The Journal of General Psychology 95 (1st Half): 111–25. doi:10.1080/00221309.1976.9710871. PMID 956790. 
  • Easton, Randolph D.; Shor, Ronald E. (1977). "Augmented and Delayed Feedback in the Chevreul Pendulum Illusion". The Journal of General Psychology 97 (2): 167. doi:10.1080/00221309.1977.9920835. 
  • Easton, Randolph D.; Shor, Ronald E. (1975). "Information processing analysis of the Chevreul pendulum illusion". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 1 (3): 231. doi:10.1037/0096-1523.1.3.231. 
  • Erickson, Milton H. (1961). "Historical Note on the Hand Levitation and other Ideomotor Techniques". American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis 3 (3): 196. doi:10.1080/00029157.1961.10701715. 
  • Faraday, M., "Experimental Investigation of Table-Moving", Athenaeum, No.1340, (July 1853), pp. 801–803.
  • Faraday, M., "Table-Turning", The Times, No.21468, (30 June 1853), p. 8.
  • Le Baron, George I. (1962). "Ideomotor Signalling in Brief Psychotherapy". American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis 5 (2): 81. doi:10.1080/00029157.1962.10402270. 
  • Montgomery, Guy; Kirsch, Irving (1996). "The Effects of Subject Arm Position and Initial Experience on Chevreul Pendulum Responses". American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis 38 (3): 185–90. doi:10.1080/00029157.1996.10403336. PMID 8712161. 
  • Randi, J., "Ideomotor effect". An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. 1995. ISBN 0-312-15119-5
  • Reed, H. B. (1914). "Ideo-Motor Action". The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 11 (18): 477–91. doi:10.2307/2013141. JSTOR 2013141. 
  • Spitz, H.H. & Marcuard, Y., "Chevreul's Report on the Mysterious Oscillations of the Hand-Held Pendulum: A French Chemist's 1833 Open Letter to Ampère", The Skeptical Inquirer, (July/August 2001) Vol.25, No.4, pp. 35–39.
  • Stock, Armin; Stock, Claudia (2004). "A short history of ideo-motor action". Psychological Research 68 (2–3): 176–88. doi:10.1007/s00426-003-0154-5. PMID 14685855. 
  • Sudduth, W.X., "Suggestion as an Ideo-Dynamic Force", pp. 255–262 in Anon, Bulletin of the Medico-Legal Congress: Held at the Federal Building in the City of New York, September 4, 5th, and 6th, 1895, Medico-Legal Journal for Medico-Legal Society, (New York), 1895.