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Testing Spirit Writing PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Karen Stollznow   

writingSome people are given flowers, chocolates or socks as birthday gifts. Instead, I received a Ghost Writer Automatic Writing Kit...

I tested a "Spirit Writer" years ago and concluded that the practitioner's pages of "channeled" scrawl were a stream-of-consciousness style of writing that was about as paranormal as James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.

I should explain that there are two types of "spirit writing". One kind is where an uninvited spirit supposedly leaves a message on your wall, a threat written in lipstick on your mirror, or a rude word on your post-it notes. A classic claim is the infamous story of Borley Rectory the original "Most Haunted Home in England", as researched by the early paranormal investigator Harry Price. In this case, ‘victim' Marianne Foyster was supposedly haunted by ghosts and poltergeists, and received spirit writing pleas for "light mass prayers" and "please get help". It's now believed that Mrs Reverend Foyster faked the phenomena to divert attention away from her extra-marital affairs.

In contrast, spirit writing (also known as automatic writing or trance writing) is where a subject allegedly channels a spirit, becoming an intermediary for the spirit that controls a writing implement and writes ‘though' the subject. It's a form of mediumship, but the communication is written rather than verbal. Infamous automatic writers include the "spirit" Patience Worth who allegedly wrote poetry and novels through her host Pearl Lenore Curran; and Rosemary Brown, who claimed that Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and other famous (not to mention deceased) composers dictated new works to her.

Now you too can "Become your own psychic medium!" gushes the blurb on the box. You might recall repressed memories, compose music or even contact someone famous. For $17.95 the kit includes the requisite "tools" for automatic writing. "All you need to contact the subtle vibrations of the spirit world" is their guidebook, a planchette, and...er...um... a pen.

I thought it was weird that the kit included a planchette (I know, I know, the whole thing is weird). A planchette makes automatic writing more like the ouija board game. I now suspected the ideomotor effect would come into play. However, without the words, letters and numbers of the ouija board, and the planchette restricting the movement of the hand and the control of the pen, I doubted that anyone could achieve more than an illegible scrawl with this kit.

Following the instructions carefully, I sat at a table with a piece of paper and the pen placed in the planchette. Then I was to "center" myself by performing "Protection Meditation". This ritual involved closing my eyes, breathing deeply, and visualizing:

...being at one with All There Is, or however you prefer to conceptualize the highest and most powerful force for good in the universe. Concentrate on this, the source of all light and love, for it is from this higher place that you will receive your information.

Upon opening my eyes I was instructed to utter:

The love I have for you is undiminished by time and distance. I know you love me, too, and I feel your protection around me. I invite you to share with me your loving guidance by using my hand to communicate your message for my highest good and greatest joy.

writing2I closed my eyes again. To kickstart the session and "mentally let go" I begin moving the pen in a figure 8 motion, the "symbol of eternity".  I then requested to speak to my spirit guide. I didn't know which one to ask for; every time a psychic has told me who my spirit guide is I've been given a different name...

Following the handbook, I asked a few questions; "Is there a spirit guide here?" As suggested in the book, I asked the spirits to adopt a Yes = Y or 1, No = N or 2 code to answer my questions. I also asked, "What is your name?" and "Please write a message for me."  Asking questions of thin air reminded me of the practices of those who go hunting for "spirit voices" known as electronic voice phenomena.

I spent about 5 minutes attempting to channel a spirit, the time frame prescribed by the book for first time spirit writers. When I opened my eyes all I saw was a string of figure 8 shapes, in ever-widening circles. (See photo.) No messages, no words or symbols, other than the one I'd been instructed to draw.

The process was a little hypnotic, much like any kind of meditation, but there's nothing paranormal about that. Some actually use ‘automatic' writing as a device to stimulate creativity, but there's nothing paranormal about that either.

According to the handbook, there are lots of limitations, caveats, and excuses, should the process fail: Avoid automatic writing when you are tired, stressed, distracted or skeptical. Even scribbles are supposedly meaningful in retrospect (that is, you will ascribe them meaning). But my favorite disclaimer is that if the resultant handwriting is unintelligible, the spirit had bad handwriting when he or she was alive. Perhaps this is when you've channeled a doctor!

writing3After the test, I inspected the planchette. It's a flimsy pad made of thick foam, and if sufficient pressure is placed on the front section the pen could fall out of its holder easily.  I made a careful attempt to sign my name using the planchette, but my signature looked like I'd tried to sign after I'd been in a fist-fight. (See photo.) Accordingly, even if one could summon spirits they'd have a hard time trying to write anything comprehensible.

In the end, I think the authors inadvertently stumbled across the explanation, should the process actually work: "The messages are supposed to come either from your subconscious mind or from a spirit entity." Barring the second bit, that is.

In this form, automatic writing is likely to be resultant of subtle motor movement. (See Ray Hyman's article explaining Ideomotor Action.) In effect, the automatic writer shouldn't expect to predict anything he or she doesn't already know. As the handbook says, don't attempt to channel the next winning lotto numbers because "spirit guides are notoriously useless when it comes to gambling." Why? Well, if you don't know the numbers, they don't either, because "they" are "you"...

Now for my caveat: this isn't intended to be a rigorous experiment. However, I followed the instructions closely, and this kit is intended to replicate a result for all users, i.e., the production of a message from a "spirit". I received a result that adhered to my initial hypothesis; I produced the figure 8, as instructed to do so by the book. I didn't even invoke the ideomotor effect.

During the mini experiment I didn't recall any repressed memories. Unlike Led Zeppelin, I didn't receive a satanic symbol that would bring me fame and fortune; and I didn't channel any poetry, artworks or music. I only created the kind of absent-minded doodle you'd draw when on the phone. I didn't contact Houdini, Carl Sagan or my deceased grandmother.

At least my fears of channeling the Fat Elvis were completely unfounded.

Karen Stollznow is a linguist, researcher and writer. Karen is the Naked Skeptic columnist for Skeptical Inquirer, and a regular contributor to Swift and Skepchick. A version of this article first appeared at Skepchick.

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Comments (13)Add Comment
Warning: Do Not Use When Skeptical
written by Zadillo, July 03, 2009
OK, I just love that part - seems like it should be part of the standard instructions for pretty much any pseudoscientific product/service/remedy.

"Oh, [fill in the blank] didn't work? Wait, you weren't doubting whether it could really work were you? Didn't you read the warning?"
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written by Able, July 03, 2009
Years back, my wife’s cousin got into Spirit Writing and would try and get people to do it when she was throwing a party. So as not to upset her, my wife and I played along. I kept writing “Dumbbb” every time. I thought she would get it but she insisted that I was channeling a relative of hers who had been a Rebel Drummer during the civil war.
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written by BillyJoe, July 03, 2009
Unlike Led Zeppelin, I didn't receive a satanic symbol that would bring me fame and fortune
What is the reference here?

spirit writing is where a subject allegedly channels a spirit, becoming an intermediary for the spirit that controls a writing implement and writes ‘though' the subject.
A tough critic says: I thought it was "through" though. smilies/cool.gif

BJ
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written by MadScientist, July 03, 2009
How thick was the manual? 1 page of instructions, X pages of excuses? You're obviously too skeptical - that must be excuse #1 - what are the other 8,000 excuses?

Have you ever done any palmistry or tarot readings and had the sitter tell you that you're wrong? I'd love to hear a psychic say "sorry, I'm too skeptical tonight so I can't give you accurate readings".
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"The (Woo) doesn't work when there's unbelievers in the room"
written by Brookston John, July 04, 2009
Like we haven't heard THAT one before, eh, kids? smilies/wink.gif
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@ Billie Joe
written by FrankH, July 04, 2009
"A tough critic says: I thought it was "through" though."

And I thought you colonials spelt it "thru".

Happy Independence Day. smilies/wink.gif
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Made-up pop reference
written by Diverted Chrome, July 04, 2009
"Unlike Led Zeppelin, I didn't receive a satanic symbol that would bring me fame and fortune"

Huh??
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written by Arts Myth, July 04, 2009
Avoid automatic writing when you are tired, stressed, distracted or skeptical.


Amazing how cars will still function even if the driver is skeptical of internal combustion, how even the most ardent denier of gravity remains earthbound, how even one who decries "allopathy" receives its benefits; yet all these extraordinary and powerful abilities claimed by paranormalists can be foiled time and again by just a little doubt.

Funny, that.
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@FrankH
written by Kuroyume, July 04, 2009
No, "through" is the proper spelling. "thru" is just a shortcut variant usually employed by engineers and draftspersons. But it is an American invention (the colonists actually used "through" since "thru" didn't appear until the early 1900s). Damned Yankees always changing spellings. smilies/smiley.gif
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written by BillyJoe, July 04, 2009
"A tough critic says: I thought it was "through" though".

And I thought you colonials spelt it "thru".
Yeah but...the pun would not have worked then.

Happy Independence Day.

Yes, I am grateful for that. We were married on Independence Day (imagine that, getting married on Independance Day!). As a result I have never forgotten the anniversary.

smilies/smiley.gif

BillyJoe
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written by inquisitiveraven, July 05, 2009
No, "through" is the proper spelling. "thru" is just a shortcut variant usually employed by engineers and draftspersons.


And here I thought "thru" was the invention of ad writers with space constraints. smilies/wink.gif
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@THRU vs THROUGH
written by Raindoggy, July 06, 2009
From the Izzard school of linguistics, I believe.
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A way a lone
written by DrMatt, July 07, 2009
Wait, Finnegan's Wake isn't......??????? smilies/shocked.gif
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