Dowsing: Paranormal, practical or phony?

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A sixth sense, a gift, a hoax, a skill — dowsing has been called many things. There are the believers, the skeptics and the scientists who try to validate or discredit it. Whether it’s science or science fiction, the age-old craft has a long history and is still practiced today.

So, what is dowsing, how does it work and how can you learn to do it?

What is dowsing?

In today’s culture dowsing goes by many names — the gift, twitching, doodle bugging, water witching and water dowsing — but they all mean the same thing. Dowsing is the practice of locating things using a forked stick called a divining rod or dowsing rod. Although most dowsers search for underground water sources, practitioners have also been known to search for minerals or even lost items.

Dowsing history

Evidence of dowsing dates back millennia. Prehistoric paintings in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa depict a dowser, holding a forked branch in his hand in search of water. The mural was found to be at least 8,000 years old, according to the American Society of Dowsers.

Evidence of the craft has turned up all over the world in different cultures and eras; however, the techniques are the same.

How does dowsing work?

U.S. Geological Survey

For something that’s worked so consistently for so long, you’d think we’d understand more about how it works. In reality, opinions seem to be split into three main camps: the paranormal believers, the scientific believers and the nonbelievers.

The paranormal explanation. Some people simply believe the phenomenon simply escapes human understanding. Dowsers have a gift or a sixth sense for locating underground water sources and other sought-after objects.

The scientific explanation. Some scientists believe a dowser’s ability is related to the body’s reaction to a deviation in the earth’s magnetic field, which could be caused by the presence of ground water. The idea is that the dowser serves as an electrical conductor cutting a magnetic field, generating enough voltage to produce an electric potential large enough to cause an unconscious hand motion. The dowsing rod is used as a mechanical amplifier.

A hoax? While some physicists believe dowsing can be explained scientifically, others aren’t so convinced. Many geologists believe that some people simply learn the subtle relations between the earth’s surface and the water below it. Other experts believe it’s hard not to succeed at dowsing. In many areas, underground water is so prevalent and close to the land surface that you could drill a well almost anywhere and find water, especially in a region of adequate rainfall and favorable geology. Some water exists under the earth’s surface almost everywhere, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The challenge is identifying its depth, quantity and quality.

How to dowse for water

  1. Choose your dowsing technique. There are two major techniques for dowsing. One technique calls for a pendulum, while the other more common technique is to use a dowsing rod or rods. Multiple dowsing rods can be made from two identical pieces of wire bent into the shape of an ‘L.’ A singular rod is the most popular tool. You can make one by cutting a forked branch from a tree. The most common trees to cut the tool from include willow, peach and witch hazel.
  2. Make a dowsing rod(s). After you’ve located the tree you’ll craft your dowsing rod from, cut a Y-shaped stick, with each leg measuring between 12 to 16 inches long.
  3. Holding the dowsing rod. Next, grab the two ends of the stick that fork outward, facing your palms toward the sky, and hold the dowsing rod so that it points out in front of you, horizontal to the ground. If you chose to use two dowsing rods, hold one in each hand facing away from your body, horizontal to the ground, with your elbows bent at your sides.
  4. Searching for water. Grasp the dowsing rod(s) firm enough to keep from wiggling around as you walk, but loose enough to alert you as you’re approaching water, and slowly walk forward.
  5. Finding water. When you begin approaching a water source, your dowsing rod will bend towards the ground. If you chose to use two metal dowsing rods instead, they will cross each other when you approach water.

Is dowsing paranormal, practical or phony?

There’s no concrete theory to explain how dowsing works, or even if it does work. Regardless, someone is making money walking around with a stick and pointing it at the ground. If it is a hoax, it has to be one of the best of all-time to have lasted for 8,000 years. Well played, dowsers.

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Sara is Farm and Dairy’s online content producer. Raised in Portage County, she earned a magazine journalism degree from Kent State University. She enjoys spending time with her daughter, traveling, writing, reading and outdoor recreation.

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