by Michael Brooks
Last week, I went dowsing. Also known as divining, this is the ancient practice of holding twigs or metal rods that are supposed to move in response to hidden objects. It is often used to look for water, and farmers in California have been known to ask dowsers to find ways to irrigate their land.
Yet despite many anecdotal reports of success, dowsing has never been shown to work in controlled scientific tests. That’s not to say the dowsing rods don’t move. They do.
The scientific explanation for what happens when people dowse is that “ideomotor movementsMovie Camera” – muscle movements caused by subconscious mental activity – make anything held in the hands move. It looks and feels as if the movements are involuntary. The same phenomenon has been shown to lie behind movements of objects on a Ouija board.
Meet the dowser
I knew all this when I went to meet John Baker, who is supervising a dowsing workshop at Sissinghurst castle in Kent, UK, tomorrow. What I didn’t realise is just how hard it is to believe the science.
Baker specialises in dowsing for hidden archaeological structures. By the time I had finished my couple of hours with him, my scepticism about dowsing was getting shaky.
When I arrived, Baker was standing in front of an array of blue flags he had planted in a grassy area in the castle grounds. The flags marked out something his rods had revealed: the outline of a long-forgotten building. Baker held his L-shaped dowsing rods like a pair of six-shooters and walked back and forth across the lines. As he “entered” the building, the rods swung across his body. When he exited, they uncrossed.
At this point, I was neither impressed nor surprised. He could see the line of flags, and he knew what he expected to happen. It would only take a small unconscious movement of his hands to make the rods cross, I thought. What would be impressive and surprising is if the rods crossed when I tried it.
So I had a few goes. Nothing happened. Baker looked untroubled, but I had begun to feel that I was wasting my time.
Baker suggested I try to relax, shake out my shoulders, and maybe visualise something to do with buildings, since that was what I was dowsing for. I did – and it worked.
First the rods started to feel “jumpy” in my hands. Though they didn’t cross as I walked forward, they felt as if they might want to. So I tried it again. Eventually, they crossed every time I “entered” the building. They even uncrossed at the other side.
I have to confess, however much I might be able to rationalise what was happening, my newfound ability freaked me out a little.
So what happened? Baker’s explanation is that by relaxing, and suppressing all my rationalisations, I allowed my brain to tune into a kind of “energy” associated with the buried structure. I think there’s a simpler explanation.
I was frustrated when nothing happened, and stimulated (and amused) when something did. It seems that a part of me wanted it to work. In other words, the atmosphere was the perfect set-up for the ideomotor effect to kick in and move the rods.
Scientifically minded sceptics often express deep dismay at the credulousness of people who believe in dowsing, extrasensory perception and other “inexplicable” phenomena. They should not be so harsh. The illusions that make them seem plausible are astonishingly subtle and powerful.
It is only human to attribute such observations to something beyond the normal senses. Even if science is your thing, a brief immersion in the world of the “unexplained” can be enough to inject a little doubt.
A final confession: I am still slightly disappointed that the scientific explanation stands up so well. I had a great time with Baker at Sissinghurst, and I’m sure tomorrow’s apprentice dowsers will too.
We take a perverse pleasure in things that confound our senses, which is why conjuring tricks are delightful and science can seem a killjoy. The physicist Richard Feynman once said that science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. What he didn’t say was just how much fun fooling yourself can be.
Michael Brooks is the author of 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense (Profile/Doubleday)
14:08 29 July 2009 by Michael Brooks