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If you've ever played with a ouija board, you might have gotten the spooky sensation of an other worldly presence. But really, that's just your brain playing tricks on you.

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Blinkist puts all of the need-to-know  information from thousands of nonfiction books and condenses them down into just 15 minutes. Go to to learn more. [ intro ].

If you’ve ever played with a Ouija board, you’re probably familiar with the spooky feeling of another presence moving the planchette. But we can say something with a bit  of confidence, it’s not a ghost:. It’s just your brain playing  tricks on you.

In fact, psychologists actually have a pretty good understanding of Ouija boards. They’ve figured out not only how the  planchette moves across the board, but also why we’re so easily convinced  a spirit is the one behind it. In a sense, the way we interact with Ouija boards is similar to how we’ve learned to  interact with most of the world: through associations.

As infants, we begin learning to associate  our behaviors with certain outcomes — like, “If I cry, my caregiver  will give me food or attention.” So, after just a few trials,  we can begin to understand how our world works and how to survive in it. But this also means that, generally, our brains end up wired to think  in terms of cause and effect. It’s just that figuring out /what/  caused something can be a challenge.

And that’s especially true with Ouija boards. Under normal circumstances, we realize our actions caused  some outcome if our behavior is closely linked in time with the effect. In other words, if I reach over and push  a planchette and it immediately moves — cool, my brain will totally know I did that.

But! If the outcome happens  much /later/ than our action, or if our action wasn’t voluntary to begin with, that throws us for a loop. And our brain normally doesn’t  realize /we’re/ responsible.

And that’s exactly what happens with Ouija boards. Overall, the mechanics here  are actually pretty simple:. The planchette moves thanks to  something called the ideomotor effect.

This is when a muscle moves /just/  a little bit without you noticing, and without you actually intending to move it. And it’s driven by your thoughts and subconscious. So, if you’re focusing really hard on the  planchette and waiting for it to move, you might not notice that your finger /happened/ to twitch a little toward one of the letters.

And your brain won’t notice, either! So, faced with a spooky, moving planchette, you might just try to assign  causation anywhere you can. In other words, /you/ didn’t move it… so maybe it was your friend.

Or  maybe it /could/ have been a spirit. A key brain region in figuring this  out is called the caudate nucleus, and it deals with motor behaviors  and reward-based learning. But the other major player here is  the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or dlPFC.

This region has kind of a big job: It figures  out who or what caused something to happen. It’s just... not always great at it. I mean, in its defense, figuring  that stuff out is /hard/.

Like, something could have been caused by your  actions… or by chance… or by some other factor. So, this region needs to take in information about /tons/ of only-possibly-relevant cues and  determine which ones are /actually/ important. And while this usually works  out, sometimes, the dlPFC   is just a little overeager  to assign credit /somewhere/.

And that means we might superstitiously  give credit to something irrelevant, just on accident. Like a ghost. Admittedly, it /could/ seem like  there’s a bit of a jump between “your brain doesn’t know what caused something  to move” and “there’s a ghost in the room.” But here, a look at personality  traits may help explain why some people are more inclined to  give credit to something supernatural.

Specifically, there’s an idea in personality  psychology called locus of control. A person with a strong  /internal/ locus of control feels that they’re mainly responsible  for their outcomes in life, while a person with an /external/ locus of control   will give more credit to things  like fate, luck, and chance. And maybe unsurprisingly, where we fall on that spectrum can  influence how we interact with Ouija boards.

In a 2018 study of 40 Ouija board players, more skeptical players reported  a more internal locus of control. More specifically, this group believed the  planchette was being moved by the other player or perhaps even unconsciously by themselves. Meanwhile, the opposite was true for  those who believed the planchette was moved by some outside force: They  reported a more /external/ locus of control.

No matter which camp you fall into, though, Ouija boards can be a lot of fun. They’re creating an illusion  driven by unconscious movement, an overzealous brain, and our personality traits. ...but even knowing that, they  can still be a little spooky. Speaking of spooky… 2020 has been quite the year,  and there’s enough going on that it can be hard to just  sit down and /learn/ something.

But Blinkist is trying to help with that. They created an app that takes the key  insights from more than 3000 nonfiction books, then condenses them down into 15  minutes that you can read or listen to. The books range from stories  about business and history, to self-help and psychology.

Like, one of their favorites this month is  called Life in the Transitions, by Bruce Feiler. And it’s all about navigating  change and what makes it meaningful. If you want to try Blinkist, you can  head over to

The first 100 people to visit that URL will  get unlimited access to Blinkist for a week — and 25% a full membership. You can also click the link in  the description to learn more. [ outro ].