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George Hanson - Society for Psychical Research Vol. 51, No. 792, October 1982 – 04 Dowsing: Physiological studies



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Originally published in the Journal of  the Society for Psychical Research Vol. 51, No. 792, October 1982, pp. 343-367. DOWSING: A REVIEW OF EXPERIMENTAL RESEARCH  by GEORGE P. HANSEN* 


   In contrast to the biophysical investigations just discussed, there is considerable agreement among studies of the physiology of dowsing. Various anecdotal reports indicate that some good dowsers experience profound physiological changes while dowsing. Barrett and Besterman (1926/1968) reported instances of dowsers becoming dizzy or sick while standing over underground water. Bill Cox, a prominent American dowser, reported that an extremely sensitive dowser he trained would vomit while standing over a good water well location. Tromp and Rocard have reported on European work, and Harvalik has described more recent American work. 

   Tromp (1949) conducted a number of experiments measuring the skin potential between wrists of dowsers. Tests were used to monitor skin potential while dowsers were exposed to artificial magnetic fields, while walking through ‘dowsing zones’ (a rather vague term; in some instances they were definitely associated with magnetic anomalies), and while walking next to human beings. An Einthoven string galvanometer was used to record skin potential. The loop-shaped dowsing rod was placed in insulated grips, and a special circuit was established which included part of the dowsing rod (Tromp conducted several experiments to ensure that the circuit did not change skin potential). 

   In dowsers exposed to an artificial magnetic field from a tangent galvanometer, changes in skin potential were registered almost immediately after the field was developed. The report does not show whether the dowsers knew whether or not the current was on. Tromp cited evidence to support the argument that changes in the electrocardiograms recorded by the Einthoven string galvanometer during these experiments were not due to psycho-galvanic reflexes (a psycho-galvanic reflex is a sudden decrease in skin resistance accompanying a mental reaction such as that caused by calling a person’s name (frightening him, etc.). Tromp tested the monitoring equipment to ensure that the change was not caused by induction potentials. In other experiments, he had dowsers walk over dowsing zones while their skin potential was being monitored. Very distinct changes were found while the dowsers were in the dowsing zones, changes which did not occur if the dowsers were outside a dowsing zone and intentionally moved the dowsing rod. He also found that the same changes occurred when the dowsers walked through the dowsing zone but did not carry the rod and that persons not especially sensitive exhibited similar changes except the changes were slower and less pronounced. 

   Tromp noted that persons sensitive to dowsing had much lower skin resistance than those not sensitive, and claimed that non-sensitive persons can be made sensitive for a short time by washing their hands. In other experiments, the skin potential was monitored while a dowser moved the rod over the body of another human. Tromp found differences when the rod was held over the head and when over the feet. There were different changes for men and women. Few details are given of these experiments; the results would be strengthened if influences such as psycho-galvanic action could be convincingly ruled out. 

   A number of American studies have been done with Henry Gross, a dowser made famous by the works of historical novelist Kenneth Roberts (1951, 1953, 1957). 

   Gallay (in Roberts, 1953) reported on a short study conducted with Henry Gross by a group of electrical engineers familiar with Tromp’s work. They attempted to verify and extend it. For the first part of the experiments, the skin potential was monitored while working indoors doing ‘long range’ dowsing rather than walking back and forth over known underground water. On some of the trials a noticeable change occurred; however, subsequent trials did not obtain significant results. In the latter part of the experiments, the tests were conducted near a known vein of water. When Gross walked over the vein of water, a change of 100 millivolts was noted, which returned to approximately normal after he crossed it. For the nondowsers tested, changes of less than 10 millivolts were generally recorded. In a later set of experiments, Gallay tested a Canadian dowser, Desrosiers. Desrosiers used no dowsing instrument but experienced his dowsing reactions as painful sensations on the soles of his feet and in the small of his back. Changes in skin potential were from 100 to 200 millivolts when he walked over the known water vein. The maximum change noted with a number of non-dowsers was 30 millivolts. The location of the water vein was apparently known to the dowsers; again the results would be strengthened if psycho-galvanic action could be ruled out. 

   Berthold E. Schwarz, a psychiatrist, also investigated the physiological and psychoanalytical aspects of Henry Gross’s dowsing (Schwarz, 1962-63 and 1968). Electroencephalographic studies were made while Gross was dowsing for water veins near the laboratory; map downing for water; and dowsing for objects hidden in the laboratory. Schwarz concluded that there were no associated measurable changes on the EEG other than increased eye movement and muscle artefact. The report indicates that all testing was done in the laboratory but none while Gross was crossing an underground vein of water or other dowsing zone. Although these tests were not designed to determine dowsing’s effectiveness, Schwarz did report some notable successes for near distance dowsing, map dowsing, and dowsing for hidden, objects. These can only be considered anecdotal cases because no statistical evaluation was presented and the tests did not always exclude sensory cues. Schwarz also conducted experiments monitoring respiration, skin resistance, pulse pressure, and pulse rate. During the periods in which dowsing was attempted the respiration became irregular, the skin resistance decreased, the pulse pressure increased and the pulse rate slightly increased. While Gross was dowsing, the electrocardiograms showed an increase in heart rate of 23 per cent compared to a rest period. These experiments were conducted both in the laboratory and when dowsing for water in the neighbourhood. Schwarz concluded that polygraphic studies suggested that dowsing is associated with a significant expenditure of energy and is a rather abrupt process. The same conclusion could have been reached by watching Gross while he dowsed. 

   Rocard (in Barnothy, 1964) made several comments on the physiology of dowsing. He noted that electrical resistance between palms of the hands for a ‘good’ dowser is 1/3 to l/4 that of a ‘poor’ dowser. No details were given as to how this was determined. Rocard suggested that nuclear magnetic resonance might explain a dowser’s sensitivity to magnetic gradients. He argued that protons of the dowser’s body in the weaker portion of the field might move at a different rate than those in a stronger portion. This would cause beats detectable by the dowser. Apparently no experimental work was done to test this hypothesis. 

   Harvalik reports two experiments attempting to locate dowsing sensors in the body. In the first (Harvalik, 1973b), a dowser walked over several dowsing zones (undefined) while a magnetic shield was placed over various portions of his body. Harvalik concluded that the dowsing sensors seemed to be located between the seventh and twelfth rib somewhere in the body. It is not clear whether the experiment was conducted double blind and whether sensory cues were eliminated. In a well described second experiment, Harvalik (1978) reports a study with dowsers detecting low-power high-frequency electromagnetic fields. Fourteen reputed dowsers participated with 694 trials (661 hits, 33 misses). The high-frequency generator was randomly switched on or off; the trials were conducted double blind. Pieces of aluminium sheet were placed on various portions of the dowser’s body to shield the ‘dowsing sensors’ from the radiation. Harvalik concluded that the sensors exist in the area of the kidneys and in the brain, possibly in the pineal region. Several questions can be raised about this experiment. Were the dowsers responding to the electromagnetic radiation or to some other possible stimulus associated with the high-frequency generator (e.g. slight noise or heat)? Secondly, were the dowsers aware of the experimenter’s expectation as to location of the sensors? If the dowsers were always able to sense the field, they may indicate no reaction when the shielding was placed in a position they expected to be effective. Overall, given the high rate of success, this is one of the best experiments supporting the validity of dowsing. 

   Cope suggests several mechanisms to account for sensitivity to magnetic fields. Thus, biological superconductive Josephson junctions might explain such sensitivity (Cope, 1973). In a series of articles (e.g. Cope, 1978, 1979a, 1979b) he suggests that magnetoelectric dipoles might help to explain dowsing as well as auras and other reported phenomena. His work has been financed in part by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. He has not supported his ideas with direct experimental evidence. 

   Another concept that may concern physiological effects is the rather obscure idea of ‘noxious rays’. Some dowsers believe that at certain locations, the earth gives off rays which damage health. Most investigations of this have been done in continental Europe, and few references have been translated. Klinckowstroem (1959) briefly presented some of the European findings. He concluded that dowsers may indeed react to stimuli from the soil; although their nature may be unknown. Tromp (1968) also reports experiments done in continental Europe. One study found that mice preferred to sleep outside a dowsing zone rather than in one. Mice treated with a carcinogenic tar were said to develop 30 per cent more carcinoma when placed inside dowsing zones rather than outside them. In another experiment, dowsers located several dowsing zones, across which a hedge was later planted. The hedge grew well except at the dowsing zones. Bird (1979) has compiled an extensive list of references on the subject and has described a number of anecdotal cases and experimental investigations. Because the sum- maries in English are quite brief, it is not possible to evaluate this work critically. 

   Two topics seemingly similar to noxious rays are those of ley lines and earth energies (supposed systems of energy patterns related to specific geographical locations and detectable by dowsing). C. Wilson (1978) has described some beliefs about this. There seems to be considerable current interest in this area; The American Dowser (Earth Mystery Related Publications, 1980) recently listed nine different publications concerned with it. Nevertheless, the present writer knows of no well controlled experimental work dealing with it. Zorab (1959) mentioned that the Royal Academy of Science of the Netherlands had investigated claims regarding earth rays and found them unconfirmed. Hopwood (1979) claimed to have established an artificial ley with a wire and monitored his own dowsing reactions; but Scorer, Parsons, and Tart (1980) pointed out that as the tests were not double blind no conclusions could be validly drawn from them. Taylor and Balanovski (1979b) reporting a test in which dowser Bill Lewis claimed to detect energy bands around an ancient standingstone, noted that magnetometer readings seemed to validate Lewis’s claim but that a more sensitive magnetometer would be required for a definite conclusion. 

   Various studies of the physiological changes accompanying dowsing reactions seem to agree. Changes in skin potential were noted by a number of in- vestigators. There seems to be no evidence disputing this finding for the cases in which a dowser crosses a ‘dowsing zone’. Pisani, Deodato, and Nigro (1969) report that a magnetic field (800 Oe) applied to the palms of the hands reduced electrical skin resistance. Perhaps additional work on acupuncture (as described by Tiller in Mitchcll, 1974) or other work involving electrical conductivity between points on the skin would shed further light on this matter. Although considerably less work has been done on physiological effects than in attempting to determine whether humans are able to detect weak magnetic anomalies or other electromagnetic radiation, what has been done strengthens the evidence for human sensitivity to such weak anomalies. Harvalik’s work attempting to locate dowsing sensors is especially notable for this. 

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