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British Columbia Researchers crowd-source funds to back Ouija board science project

UBC Cognitive Systems student Mahtab Borhani, left, and Simon Garret are photographed with a Ouija board being used in an experiment to explore how the boards can be used to unlock subconscious memories.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Scientists at a University of British Columbia lab examining human unconsciousness using Ouija boards are taking to the Internet to look for research funds.

Docky Duncan, a research assistant with UBC's Visual Cognition Lab, said in an interview Tuesday that the project is "off the beaten track" and there has been "incredible difficulty" getting even the modest $2,000 in funding it needs.

"The research methodology is so strange, using the Ouija board and all, that it might be a little too controversial for most grant organizations," he said.

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Without an obvious organization to back the project, Mr. Duncan said researchers had to look to crowd-sourcing as an alternative.

"Grant organizations do great things for a lot of projects, but they definitely have a certain view of what a psychology project should be, and you throw Ouija boards into the mix and a lot of people either think they're possessed or they're a total sham and that they have no place in science," Mr. Duncan said.

Using crowd funding for an academic endeavour isn't unique: There are websites dedicated specifically to crowd funding science research, such as Experiment (formerly known as Microryza). And UBC is currently working on a UBC-specific crowd-funding tool.

The Ouija project previously launched a six-week funding campaign on Microryza that fell short of its goal. This time, though, Mr. Duncan is hoping the campaign, to be launched at the end of this month, will achieve its desired $2,000 mark.

A Ouija board – a parlour game popular in the early 1900s – was said to magically answer the questions of a circle of participants who all placed their hands on a tear-drop-shaped planchette with their eyes closed. The answers were said to have been channelled from the spirit world. In Canada, its most famous practitioner was William Lyon Mackenzie King, prime minister during the Second World War.

In the UBC experiment, participants are given a series of questions that they first must answer on a computer and are then asked to answer using the Ouija board. During the Ouija board segment, participants are assigned a partner and are blindfolded. Eventually, one of the pair is told to withdraw, leaving the other participant to play alone without knowing it.

The experiment has found participants who cannot answer some of the questions on the computer, can sometimes answer them correctly using the Ouija board, despite being blindfolded. Mr. Duncan said the remaining participant is told at the end that they were moving the board alone.

"Usually they don't believe us at first," he said. "When we tell them they were the only ones moving it … usually they think that the deception was that we were just moving it around."

Ashwin Krishnamurthi, a second-year computer science student at UBC, was a participant in the Ouija experiment and was "amazed" when he found out he was the only one moving the board piece.

"I thought that the other participant was also playing along with me. I felt that the other person was trying to move the piece, but he wasn't. It was just me," Mr. Krishnamurthi said.

Mr. Duncan said the researchers believe the experiment shows that there are important unanswered questions about the human mind.

"There's still a lot that we don't know about how our brains work and about how our subconscious is organized," he said. "There are still a lot of questions that we can't answer and, using this sort of usually-frowned-upon unusual methodology, we can actually start answering some of these really interesting and unanswered questions."

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