What do Ouija boards, highway hypnosis, pro athletes and meditation have in common?
March 4, 2014
It's been ages since we posted on this blog! But we haven’t been doing nothing with our time - in fact you probably have already noticed the spiffy new website our project now has! We decided a change of looks was a good idea before we began our second crowdfunding campaign, which we anticipate starting within the next month (people get ready!). In addition to our aesthetic overhaul, we've also been very busy running the Ouija experiment; we have already collected data on 26 participants of the total 30 we would like to run, meaning that we will soon begin our analysis and be able to share our results with everyone.
But this blog post isn’t all about the state of our project; rather, it is a very late follow-up to a past post discussing ideomotor actions and how they affect us in every day life. That was a great post, but today we are looking at a different side of ideomotor actions. In the last post, we talked mostly about ideomotor actions which were either useless (like yawns, who needs them?) or actually detrimental to us (like poker tells); today, we are looking at another side of this effect, and how ideomotor actions may actually be essential to all high level human activities (whoa!).
We start this discussion with a very relevant anecdote to our lab, and essentially the creation story for many of the experiments we run at the VisCog. That story is of Dr. Ronald Rensink's commute home. The story is actually pretty dull: Dr. Rensink arrived home after a long day and realized that he had absolutely no recollection of his drive home – a gap in memory existed between his departure from work and his arrival at home, almost as if he had been in auto-pilot mode for the entire trip (which was a trip that he had made many times before).
The story is pretty dull in and of itself, but then so was Newton being hit by an apple. In fact the idea that grew from that experience was a big one: Dr. Rensink had experienced something known as "highway hypnosis", a phenomenon which frequently happens to drivers on a regular commute. The commute becomes so familiar to the driver that they can “zone out” while still, somehow, being an effective driver. Dr. Rensink reflected that he had entered a "zombie-like" mindset and had totally disengaged from the events at hand, leaving some other force – an inner, nonconscious "zombie" – with complete and autonomous control over the very complicated task of driving.
This discussion about a driving "auto-pilot" mode is beginning to sound a lot like a set of ideomotor actions, which are movements which we unconsciously produce simply by thinking of some action or idea (in this case, our commute). So some sort of human auto-pilot exists, but what possible use could this have for us? Maybe examining some situations would help us understand this autopilot.
In our driving example then this autopilot may sound like a bad thing – akin to being absent-minded or not paying attention while driving. Well driving is often a fairly boring task, but there are lots of other more interesting tasks which people seem to be able to get lost in. tasks like playing sports, where often an athlete describes their mindset as “in the zone” or music where people can fit in a groove. In these situations, reducing our thoughts is almost synonymous with putting in a good performance.
Sports are a great example of how this "autopilot" state can be the ticket to peak human performance. There are plenty of great examples of player being totally immersed in their sport and putting in peak performances, but perhaps the most striking example of these flow states in sports is really when a player can't get in the zone, and struggles as a result.
The example I like to use is free-throws in basketball. Free-throws occur when a player is fouled, and rewards that player with an opportunity to stand on the free-throw line and shoot at the basket with nobody to defend them. Should be easy, right? Not exactly. There are some players who are able to hit nearly every free-throw they get, but others struggle heavily despite the fact that, when alone in the gym, most players are able to hit free-throws at a very high rate. What is it that changes for in game situations?
A similar thing happens in a sport very dear to those of us living in Vancouver, Canada: goalie meltdowns in hockey. When a goalie starts to struggle and lose their cool, it's really a tough thing to watch. Both of these situations are examples of professional athletes being unable to get in the right mindset to perform at a high level. What is it about their environment that causes these players to lose their ability to perform?
The answer must certainly be mental, and may be directly related to the manner of their thoughts. They are unable to "key in" to that autopilot which allows them to perform at their absolute best. That’s why playing on home turf can affect players so much, because as fans, we do everything we can to get the opposing team "off their game" – we prevent their auto-pilot functions from "taking over". It seems that if we can mess with a player's thoughts, then we can see a drastic reduction in their playing ability. These are really only two examples though, and there are many other examples in every sport of people getting "out of their groove" and overthinking their playing. The result of this is the often-disappointing sports meltdown. Alternatively, a player who is resilient in sticking to their auto-pilot, and refusing to bend under the pressure of performing, can be considered a "mentally strong” player.
You may have noticed a common theme to the ‘zoning in’ phenomenon: the less thinking the better! And another common exercise focuses on this mantra, and that is the act of meditation. Meditation challenges an individual to empty their head of all thoughts for a short while – a direct parallel to the flow state phenomenon. Meditation has been a well practiced activity by humans for thousands and thousands of years, and continues to play a major part in the lives of people across the world. But even for those who don’t go out of their way to fit meditation into their schedule, many people still reap the benefits of meditation by reaching this equivalent flow state in other activities. These can range from paper-writing to music-playing, and even playing video games: people instinctively seek out this flow state as an essential part of optimal human existence, and find it in any activity which can completely absorb an individual.
(if you are interested in flow states, let us know! We have actually run several experiments out of our lab focusing on this topic and would be happy to write a blog post on the topic)
And this finally brings us back to the purpose of this blog – the Ouija experiment! You knew it was coming, it took us this long to build it up but indeed Ouija too activates this autopilot and allows us a brief glance into the mechanisms of our subconscious.
We have already discussed automatic actions and how thoughts trigger unconscious movements in the last blog post (check it out if you haven’t!), and this idea combines with the concepts of the flow state auto-pilot to create what we believe to be the basic structure causing Ouija movements.
During an Ouija session, we tell participants to wait until they feel the Ouija move, and then follow it and allow it to move in whichever direction it wants to go. They essentially wait until someone (or something) else answers the question for them, and consequently they drastically reduce the amount of thinking they need to direct to the questions. In this state, our experiment found that people perform above their normal levels, seemingly drawing from a larger pool of information than they had access to when consciously answering questions. This shows we are better at these simple memory tasks when we enter this flow state of minimal, almost nonconscious thinking. This is a very unique example of optimal flow however as it is not a sporting situation but a highly intellectual task.
So in conclusion, don’t think so much! It seems that the same phenomenon behind the cool headed athlete is the same phenomenon which drives people to meditate, as well as being responsible for the feeling of hypnosis when driving and (of course) very surprisingly responsible for the increased accuracy in answers we give unconsciously on a Ouija board.