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Participants use their simple metronomes to demonstrate the ideomotor response. Credit: Jen Southern

The Materiality of Thought (or How to Read Minds for Fun and Profit)

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This is a guest post by Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellow Stuart Nolan, of Lancaster University in the UK. His research at the Kluge Center looks at the influence of New Thought on theatrical mentalism.

Reading through the scrapbook of newspaper reports of the public appearances of the thought-reader John Randall Brown, in the Library of Congress McManus-Young Collection, one gets a sense of the combination of demonstration and performance that took place. There is a clear theatrical structure and an intention to inspire the audience to ponder the capabilities of the human brain. Many of the reporters use Brown’s appearances to consider the mind in terms of the experience of coincidence, personal magnetism, psychology, the odic force, mesmerism, and the theories of Dr. Beard, which explain Brown’s abilities as muscle reading. One report uses the phrase, “The Materiality of Thought.” This is reminiscent of the popular New Thought phrase: “Thoughts are things.” The idea that thoughts have a material nature and can be manipulated as things to the good of humanity was central to the New Thought movement and to present-day neuroscience.

I recently ran a workshop at the Kluge Center that explored the techniques of the 19th Century stage performers, known as thought-readers or muscle-readers. The workshop was on May the Fourth, an appropriate day to learn Jedi mind tricks.


The Ideomotor Response

We began with a demonstration of the ideomotor response. Try this experiment yourself to explore the same experience as the participants. I delivered the following instructions:

First a short experiment. I want you to all stand-up. Make sure that you’re not propping yourself up on anything, that you are standing freely. Good. Now close your eyes. Take a moment to focus on your feet. Notice that they are actively involved in maintaining your upright position. You tilt a little bit to one side, or backward or forward, and your feet adjust to keep you stable. Standing up is an active process. Standing up is a process of constantly not falling over.

Now, I’m going to ask you to think of something and I want you to genuinely imagine it as best as you can. This works best if you genuinely engage your full imagination. Think of an event that is going to happen in your life in the future. Something you are looking forward to will work well. And imagine yourself physically at that event. Transport yourself. Imagine being there in that moment. Now notice how your body wants to tilt forwards. I can see many of you visibly tilting forwards because you have immediately strong physical imaginations.

Now think of something in the past. Something that genuinely happened in your life. Imagine yourself physically in the past. Notice how your body wants to tilt backward.

Participants think about events happening in the past or future with eyes closed for the first exercise. Credit: Jen Southern

Researchers at Aberdeen University studied this effect using motion-tracking sensors. Even when people think that they’re not tilting the sensors show that they are tilting a little. The effects can be too small for us to consciously register them but whenever we imagine something there is a measurable physical effect on our bodies.

Moving a Pendulum with the Imagination

The second exercise we used demonstrates a physical movement that is subliminal for the participant: moving a pendulum with the imagination. I always use simple pendulums made from a paperclip on the end of a piece of cotton thread rather than something you would buy from a hippy emporium as this is a demonstration of physiology and I want to avoid any trappings of mysticism.

First, hold the pendulum by the thread and let it hang free. Now touch the arm of your chair with the paperclip. Move it around a little and explore the surface of the arm of the chair. Notice that you can sense the surface that the paperclip is touching almost as though you are touching it with your hand.

You don’t get the impression of the touch happening between the thread and your fingers but between the paperclip and the chair. The paperclip is like a sensory extension of your body. We know from recent research that when we touch something with a tool we have the sensation that we feel the touch in the tool rather than in our hand. But this is an old idea. In the 17th century, philosopher René Descartes discussed the ability of blind people to sense their surroundings through their walking cane. This is a kind of extended cognition.

The cognitive scientist and philosopher Alva Noë says that the mind, “is more like dancing than it is like digestion.” He suggests that our whole body is necessary for consciousness. We find that the things we see and the objects that we hold become part of the enactive process that makes our mind. Once you accept that the paperclip, or a tennis racquet, or any tool we use, is a part of your mind then things get big, messy, weird, and magical-seeming pretty quickly.

So the paperclip is a part of our mind and we can get feelings from the paperclip. But can we also send thoughts to it?

Hold the pendulum in front of you so that you can see the paperclip. Focus all of your attention on the tip of the paperclip. Everything we do today will work best if you genuinely use your best imagination when I ask you to imagine something. Focus your attention on the paperclip and imagine it moving. If it has a slight wobble from a movement of your arm then take that movement and imagine it getting bigger. Don’t swing the pendulum deliberately, just image the paperclip swinging.

Notice how it starts to move and amplify that movement. If it is moving in a straight line, make that movement bigger. If it is moving in a circle make it a bigger circle. Notice that this isn’t just a movement caused by a random shake in your arm or by air currents in the room; you can prove that to yourself by changing the movement. If it is moving in a straight line, then change it and make it move in a circle. If it is moving in a circle, make it move in a straight line.

What is happening here is something we now call the ideomotor response. When we think of an action, a signal is sent to the hand and that signal causes a tiny muscle movement.


Common Coding Theory

Why does this happen? Common Coding Theory is a contemporary cognitive psychology theory describing how our perceptual representations of things we can see and our representations of physical movements are linked. The theory claims that there is a shared representation, a common code, for both perception and action. Performing an action activates the associated perceptual event and, more importantly for what we are doing, seeing an event or imagining an event activates the action associated with that event.

Common Coding Theory suggests that the same neurological and motor processes will deal with doing something, thinking about doing that thing, and watching someone else do that thing. You will get the same physical response in each of these instances but at different intensities.

The next step is for participants to feel someone else’s ideomotor response. They do this in pairs. One person moves the pendulum that their partner is holding by gently gripping their partner’s wrist and thinking about the pendulum moving, just as they did when they were holding a pendulum themselves. The ideomotor movements are strong enough to pass through their partner’s hand to the pendulum. It helps if they imagine that their partner’s hand is their hand.


The person holding the pendulum looks away and relaxes making no attempt to influence the movement of the pendulum but allowing any movements to pass through them. What the participants find mysterious is that the person holding the pendulum can feel their wrist being moved but the person holding their wrist cannot sense any movement. This is an interesting moment for them and they will spend time discussing it. This prepares them for the next step which involves a more active sensing of their partner’s ideomotor response.


Duplication and Sensing

Using muscle reading to duplicate drawings. Credit: Jen Southern

This next activity involves duplicating drawings and is introduced as a game based on 19th-century parlor games.

One person from each pair is asked to leave the room, they will be the receiver. While they are away their partner, the sender, makes a simple drawing on a piece of paper then hides this target drawing. The receiver comes back into the room and holds a pencil on a fresh piece of paper. The sender holds their wrist and visualizes their target drawing, thinking about which way the pencil should move to recreate it. The receiver gently moves the pencil around trying to sense which way the sender wants them to go, they will find less resistance in that direction.

When they believe they have completed a drawing they compare it to the target drawing, looking for any correspondences between the two. Here are some examples.

A duplicated drawing pair. Credit: Jen Southern


A duplicated drawing pair. Credit: Jen Southern

Having explored the ideomotor response and played a mindreading drawing game, participants are now ready to learn the stage technique that made 19th-century muscle readers both famous and controversial.

Muscle reading has gone by several other names:

  • Contact Mindreading;
  • Psychophysiological Thought Reading;
  • Cumberlandism, after the performer Stuart Cumberland, an opponent of spiritualism who argued that telepathy was impossible and promoted a scientific view of muscle reading;
  • Hellstromism, after the German performer Axel Hellstrom who performed at a time when German law required all mentalism performances to have a plausible explanation, effectively making muscle reading the only legitimate mindreading technique.

A popular use of muscle reading in a stage performance was for the performer to find an object that had been hidden in the theatre by holding the wrist of an audience member who had hidden it and asking them to merely think of the location of the object. This has been the basis of the successful careers of mentalists from J. Randall Brown to the present day. You will notice that this is very similar to the technique we used earlier for duplicating drawings but finding an object in a room is easier because the movements involve the whole body and so can be made larger and felt more easily.

One participant leading another through muscle reading. Credit: Jen Southern

One person, the hider, hides an object then holds the wrist of their partner and thinks about the location of the object. Their partner, the seeker, moves around the room and senses the amount of resistance in the Hider’s body. Again, the ideomotor response of the hider will be detectable and the path of least resistance will lead the seeker to the hidden object.

Watching a group of people perform this exercise is like watching an exceedingly slow and stately dance. Participants are intensely focussed on listening and speaking with their whole bodies. They describe the experience as somehow both relaxing and tense at the same time.

This exercise can also be done outdoors. Early mentalists would perform muscle reading while driving and could find objects hidden in whole cities.

I’m working on a book that tells the story of these incredible mind-readers, from the 19th century to the present day, and there are plans to create a public performance at the Kluge Centre based on my ongoing research into the archives of these incredible individuals.

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