Dowsing is a technology for intuition amplification

15.12, Friday 9 Dec 2022

I’d love to build intuition amplifiers as cyborg prostheses.

Like, here’s an old one: flipping a coin.

You know when you don’t know the right course of action so you get a coin and then it lands heads and you think, oh I wish that had been tails. In the process some internal signal too faint to discern has been lifted to awareness.

Like, here’s another: dowsing.

(Dowsing as the ancient art of walking over a field holding a Y-shaped twig or stick - the divining rod - and when the stick rises up then you know that there is water underground. Some people are better dowsers than others.)

Dowsing is pseudoscience, and whether or not it actually works, I believe in the idea of dowsing because I can imagine a plausible mechanism. Being this:

  • We know the hippocampus carries a landmark detector, as previously discussed (2021): even if we don’t consciously recognize something as a landmark it still triggers a response
  • And at that same link, Kevin Lynch’s work on imageability shows that people have a common understanding of what constitutes a landmark, distract, path, boundary, etc in the urban landscape
  • So it’s a plausible stretch to suppose that we are predisposed to recognise other landscape features – such as there being a likely water source
  • And this doesn’t need to be conscious. The concept in psychology of priming (Wikipedia) is what I mean here: that your brain your brain becomes “ready” to notice the thing that is likely to happen next, and if it does occur then you will respond to it quicker. So being primed to expect water will make it slightly more likely that you notice it, if presence, and that’s all evolution needs.

So my unfounded, imagined mechanism starts like this: thinking about water, and stepping into a location where there is increased water likelihood, one may become primed to look down, which is physically represented as a microscopic movement or twitch of the fingers. (Which could of course be a random twitch because that happens too.)

The next step is that the twig is a lever that magnifies the movement, being gripped right at the end, and you see the far tip of the divining rod move, then your brain (still unconsciously) either corrects (removes) or accepts this movement by adjusting your hands.

And so, when there is an unconscious belief that there is water underground, you enter a positive feedback cycle and the intuition is amplified into a visible signal.

Equals dowsing.

It’s like the coin flipping but much accelerated and realtime.

So how about new intuition amplifiers?

Now, conversation often serves to pick out and boost intuitions. And writing can be a conversation with yourself.

But dowsing is interesting because it’s pre-verbal. It short-circuits the rationalising and linearising processes inherent in speech.

Dowsing has these three qualities:

  • It starts from something deep within, something analogue and probabilistic, something unconscious
  • It deliberately draws an amplifier circuit with a long feedback loop
  • There is some element of stochastic resonance.

(Stochastic resonance is the phenomenon in which random noise can amplify a signal, like putting static over a photograph too faint to be seen can make it visible, and human perception already makes good use of this. In short, the noise in the signal from the unconscious via the stick is a benefit.)

I think the physical world is intrinsic in these qualities. Our new sensor has to be embodied; you need to have an actual device.


Remembering that financial traders are better able to estimate their own heartbeat than the general population and this ability is a predictor of their profitability (discussed here) – could we build a wristband to do this?

Say: an Apple Watch that generally taps your wrist, exactly in time with your own heartbeat.

Would that ability to always be able to tune into your own pulse give us all a better sense of risk? Whether trading stocks or walking down a street at night.


Brain waves. Could a targeted EEG sensor listen to the exact spot on your cortex which recognises faces – or, better, the mirror neurons that fire when you recognise someone else’s emotions? My assumption is that we’re all much better at reading feelings than we think we are. Can we dowse for emotions?

Imagine wearing augmented reality glasses that overlay your conversational partner with a little bar chart displaying the positive/negative emotions that your mirror neurons think that you’re seeing. Would that be enough of a feedback loop to turn you into a cyborg empath?

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