Tables tournantes 1853 (image courtesy of

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.

The image to the left depicts 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.

Ideomotor effect

As in reflexive responses to pain, the body sometimes reacts reflexively to ideas alone without the person consciously deciding to take action. For instance, tears are produced by the body unconsciously in reaction to powerful emotions. 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, 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". 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".

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 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.

Ideomotor response

The ideomotor response (or "ideomotor reflex"), often abbreviated to IMR, is a concept in hypnosis and psychological research. 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. 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. Carpenter was a friend and collaborator of James Braid, the founder of hypnotism.

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."

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.

Uses: Questioning

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.

Uses: An example

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. 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.

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.

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.

See also

Balance disorder

Broken escalator phenomenon



Illusions of self-motion

Motion sickness



Spatial disorientation


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