Automatic Writing Explained

The desire to connect to the spiritual world is a very ancient one. Apart from mainstream methods such as prayers and sacrifices, there have always existed on the fringes of the socially acceptable other methods such as séances and psychic readings. Automatic writing is one of the latter means by which psychics and mediums try to reach out to the paranormal world or to divine hidden knowledge.

What is automatic writing?

Automatic writing is the kind of writing that takes place without the writer’s conscious awareness of the written content. This is also known as pychography and comes from the Greek words psyche meaning mind and grapho meaning writing. According to some believers, automatic writing is a form of extra-sensory perception, where a person receives information through means other than those explainable by current science.  This includes any knowledge or consciousness of an event outside of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, or smelling it and in this through unconscious writing.

Various opinions have been forwarded as the source of automatic writing. According to some experts of the paranormal, it is brought about by an external agency for instance by inhabitants of the spirit world while others believe that automatic writing emanates from the writer’s own subconscious self wherein he/she may write of the soul’s memories of past lives.
Well-known writer and creator of the iconic fictional investigator Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his book The New Revelation (1918) wrote that automatic writing occurs either by the writer’s subconscious or by external spirits operating through the writer. As a spiritualist Doyle chose to believe in the spirit hypothesis. Later examples of automatic writing via external spirits include Helen Schucman's A Course in Miracles (1975) and Neale Donald Walsch's Conversations with God (1996). However other psychical researchers such as Thomson Jay Hudson have claimed that no spirits are involved in automatic writing and that the phenomenon is a product of the writer’s own subconscious mind.

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Then again, automatic writing doesn't even have to be writing. Some people can go into a trance and record what they are moved to say, or they may have someone else write down what they are saying. While some psychics accept this form as automatic writing, others argue that it's simply channeling

How is it performed?

Automatic messages may take place in one of the following ways:

The person sits, relaxed and clears their mind of all conscious thoughts, with a pen and paper, and then a spirit controls his/her arm to write messages from the beyond through the physical person. The person doing the automatic writing does not have conscious thought of what is being written, while it’s being written. In other words the writer remains completely passive and has no role to play other than holding the pencil through which writings form.

A more active participation from the writer takes place during automatic writing by the planchette, method or by something more specific like the 'Ouija board'. The planchette, literally “little plank” in French is flat piece of wood that moves around on a board to spell out messages or answer questions during a psychic reading. A variation of the planchette, The Ouija Board is a flat board that is smooth, and has the alphabet, along with the numerals 0 to 9, Yes and No, and Hello and Good-bye. There are other symbols on it as well, like the sun and the moon, and more. Both these devices are used by the psychic or medium to communicate with spirits and since they take the form of words, it can be considered a kind of automatic writing.

While automatic writing usually takes the form of letters and numbers, experts of the paranormal believe that even pictures or symbols are important aspects of psychography.

Instances of automatic writing

Several people have claimed that they were driven to write automatically, being unaware of the meaning of the content or even conscious that they were writing at all. No less a figure than Fernand Pessoa the early nineteenth century Portuguese poet, writer, philosopher, literary critic and translator claimed to have medium-like experiences of automatic writing. In his own words1, he felt "sometimes suddenly being owned by something else" or having a "very curious sensation" in the right arm which "was lifted into the air without" his will. Among other well-known figures of the times who laid claim to automatic writing was George Hyde-Lees, the wife of William Butler Yeats. Instances of psychography have been reported as late as 1975 when Wendy Hart of Maidenhead claimed that she wrote automatically about Nicholas Moore, a sea captain who died in 1642. Her husband, who did research on Moore, affirmed that this person had resided at St Columb Major in Cornwall during the English Civil War.


Critics of automatic writing have explained that such writing is probably the result of the ideomotor effect . This is a psychological phenomenon wherein a subject makes motions unconsciously. Just like tears are produced by the body unconsciously in reaction to powerful emotions, similarly automatic writing could be the result of some strong stimuli. A 1998 article in Psychological Science described a series of experiments that sought to explain automatic writing in context of the ideomotor effect but the results proved far from conclusive. A well known critique of automatic writing was carried out by Swiss psychology professor Théodore Flournoy who investigated the claim by 19th-century medium Hélène Smith (Catherine Müller) that she did automatic writing to convey messages from Mars in Martian language. Flournoy concluded that the supposed "Martian" language had a strong resemblance to her native language of French and that her automatic writing was "romances of the subliminal imagination, derived largely from forgotten sources (for example, books read as a child)."2 He even invented new term to describe this phenomenon, labeling it ‘cryptomnesia’ or the condition when a forgotten memory returns without it being recognized as such by the subject, who believes it is something new and original.

Even though psychography is now usually debunked as a method of divination or communication with the spiritual worl, as a technique it continues to exist, for instance in various forms of therapy and in writer’s workshops around the world.


  1. Pessoa, Fernando (1999), Correspondência 1905-1922, Lisbon: Assírio & Alvim
  2. Randi, James. An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1995