OUR ordinary actions, both physical and mental, are, for the most part, subject to our own voluntary guidance and choice. Of this, at least, we feel sure. We work, walk, talk, play upon an instrument, read a book, or write a letter, because we choose to do these things; and ordinarily they are done under the full guidance of our will and intelligence. Sometimes, however, actions are performed by us without our choice or guidance, and even without our consciousness, and such actions are called automatic. The thrifty housewife, perhaps also being of a literary turn of mind, may become deeply absorbed in an exciting novel, while at the same time her busy fingers, without thought or effort on her part, skilfully ply the knitting needles, or her well accustomed foot, with gentle motion, rocks the cradle.

During an exciting conversation, or the absorbing consideration of some important subject or problem, the act of walking is performed without will or consciousness; the pianoforte player runs his scales and roulades with marvellous rapidity and precision while reading a book or carrying on an animated conversation. Such actions are performed automatically.

When we come to examine a large number of actions performed in this automatic manner, we observe that they exhibit great diversity in the kind and degree of automatism displayed in their performance. In the cases above mentioned the mind is simply altogether engaged in doing one thing, and at the same time the muscles go on without any conscious direction or supervision, doing altogether another thing, but generally something which they had before been accustomed to do. This is often called absent-mindedness; it is also one of the most common and simple forms of automatism. We set the machine to work, and it goes itself.

Another kind of automatism is that which often appears in connection with peculiar gifts or talents, and is especially associated with genius. It is seen, for example, in the poet and the orator, and in those capable of improvisation, especially in music or in verse. The pianist or organist seats himself at the instrument without the remotest idea of what he is to perform - he simply commences. The theme he is to present, the various melodies, harmonies, changes, and modulations which come at his touch are often as much a surprise and delight to himself as to the most interested listener. Something within him furnishes and formulates the ideas, and causes him to express them artistically upon the instrument of his choice without any effort, or even supervision of his own - he is simply conscious of what is produced - but if he should undertake consciously to guide or in any way interfere with the production, the extraordinary beauty and excellence of the performance would at once cease.

Still another kind of automatism is illustrated in somnambulism. The somnambulist arises from his bed in his sleep, and proceeds to prepare a meal or work out a mathematical problem or write a thesis or a letter, or sometimes to describe distant scenes and events transpiring far away. Here the actions, both physical and mental, are performed, not only without the exercise of the actor's own choice or control, but he has no knowledge of them whatever. They are altogether outside the domain of his consciousness, and have their origin in some centre of intelligence quite apart from his own ordinary consciousness, and they only appear or find expression through his physical organization. Let us examine a little more closely into these different forms of automatism.

Twenty-five years ago a curious little piece of mechanism - apparently half toy and half an instrument for amateur conjuring - made its appearance in the windows of the toyshops and bookstores of the United States. It was a little heart-shaped piece of mahogany, or other hard wood, about seven inches by five in dimensions, with two casters serving for feet at the base of the heart, while a closely-fitting pencil passed through a hole at the point or apex.

Thus a tripod was formed, moving with perfect ease and freedom in any direction, while the pencil, which formed the third foot, left its plain and continuous tracing wherever the instrument was moved.

This little toy was called Planchette, and wonderful tales were told of its strange performances when rightly used. Evenly adjusted upon a plain wood table, if a properly-constituted person placed his or her finger-tips lightly upon its surface, it soon began to move about, without any muscular effort or any wish or will on the part of the operator; a broad, smooth sheet of paper being placed beneath it upon the table, figures, words, and sentences were plainly traced by the pencil, all in the style of a veritable oracle, and greatly to the delight of the curious, the wonder of the superstitious, and the mystification of people generally.

Not every one, however, could command the services of the modern oracle; only to the touch of a certain few was it responsive; to the many it was still and silent as a sphinx. One in ten, perhaps, could obtain a scrawl; one in twenty, intelligible sentences, and one in a hundred could produce remarkable results. Few persons witnessing its performances under favorable circumstances failed to be interested, but different people looked at it from quite different standpoints. The habitual doubter saw in it only a well-managed trick, which, however, he failed to detect; the spiritualist saw undoubted evidence of spiritual manifestations, while the great majority of common-sense people saw writing done, evidently without will or effort on the part of the writer, producing messages of every grade, from the most commonplace twaddle, foolishness, and even falsehood, to the exhibition of intelligence of a high order, a sparkling wit, and a perception of events, past, present, and sometimes even of those still in the future, most acute and unusual. What was the cause of these involuntary movements, or whence came the messages written, they did not know, and few even cared to speculate.