Illusory communication. The sadly topical history of talking animals, calculating babies and conversing spirits.


Neurologische Klinik, Neuropsychologische Abt., Universitätsspital, 8091 Zürich, Switzerland


At the turn of the last century, people claimed to communicate with spirits by "automatic writing", table turning, or by means of special spelling boards ("ouija boards"). Michael Faraday was one of the first to show that these forms of "communication" were in fact based on involuntary muscle movements of the participants in spiritistic seances. His careful and meticulous experimental investigations revealed that a subject is able to move objects without conscious control over the motor action, and that the "messages" received in automatic writing or spelling have their source in the subject's own mind. Around the same time, cognitive psychology was confronted with the claim that various animals (from dogs, pigs and horses to dolphins and apes) could communicate with man in a highly sophisticated style, if only long training with spelling or card boards had been provided. Known later under the name of the "Clever Hans" effect, this "communication" was shown to be brought about by the trainer himself who, quite involuntarily, provided the animal with subtle cues as to the correct letter or picture to select as a response. There is no reason to dismiss these forms of illusory communication as mere fads of past times; as we approach another turn of the century, similar ideas are still haunting cognitive psychology and psychiatry. "Facilitated Communication" is a method, discussed in part in prestigious specialist journals, that purportedly allows persons with a severe communication disorder to demonstrate a sudden, highly developed literacy. It is shown here that Facilitated Communication works along the same mechanism of involuntary muscle movements than does table turning or automatic writing. More importantly, this contribution shows that, by experimental investigation of these mechanisms, cognitive neuropsychiatry could gain important insights into very basic questions: What neuropsychological processes allow a person to commit elaborate motor acts without conscious control? What does the study of illusory communication tell us about psychotic interpretations of involuntary motor activation?


Panel 3B   (Evolution and Dissolution)
Tuesday, 14 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999