Saturday, June 16, 2007

Some Magic Boxes - #1 The E-Meter

The E-Meter is a galvanic skin response meter that is used in the auditing process. Galvanic skin repsonse (GSR) refers to the electrical resistance of skin, and is thought by some to change depending on the emotional state of the subject. A mild current is passed through the skin and the efficiency with which the electricity is conducted is measured. This efficiency fluctuates and it is the fluctuations that are considered to be meaningful. GSR is one of the indicators used in the polygraph, or "lie detector."

Less sophisticated than the polygraph (which as its name suggests utilises a number of different indicators with which to measure anxiety) the E-Meter was the invention of Volney Mathison, an associate of Lafayette Ron Hubbard, the author of Dianetics and architect of Scientology. He created and patented the device, which he named the Mathison Electropsychometer, claiming that it would allow access to the subconscious and so aid any form of psychotherapy. Mathison experimented with lie-detectors in the 1940s and noticed that when a subject recalled past events, a fluctuation would occur that appeared to corelate with the level of response in the subject. How Mathison measured the level of repsonse so that he could check it against fluctuations in the GSR is hard to see. I'll come back to this point in a moment.

The notion of the E-Meter was appropriated by Hubbard while he was creating Dianetics. This was an above board arrangement, but in 1954 Hubbard and Mathison fell out when Mathison refused to take his name off of the device. As Mathison had the rights for the device, Hubbard decided that the E-Meter was no longer deemed a necessary part of auditing.

"Yesterday we used an instrument called an E-Meter to register whether or not the process was still getting results so that the auditor would know how long to continue it. While the E-Meter is an interesting investigation instrument and has played its part in research, it is not today used by the auditor except perhaps in testing the basal metabolism of the preclear. The E-Meter is no longer used to determine 'what is wrong with the preclear.' As we long ago suspected, the intervention of a mechanical gadget between the auditor and the preclear had a tendency to depersonalize the session and also gave the auditor a dependence upon the physical universe and its meters which did not have to be there. I knew when we first began to use E-Meters that sooner or later something would have to be evolved, or that something would turn up which would dispense with them. I worked along that line rather consistently and about half a year before this writing developed 'communication lag' as the only diagnostic instrument needed by the auditor."

-- Hubbard, Dianetics 55!, Chapter 10, "Communication Lag"
Four years later Scientologists Don Breeding and Joe Wallis developed a similar tool that was smaller and ran from batteries. Hubbard, evidently rethinking his reasons for dismissing the meter, patented it in 1966 and reintroduced it into the process of auditing. It would appear that the key element of his thinking with regards the E-Meter was whether or not he could own and market the device. The E-Meter remains a central part of the auditing process to this day, despite various criticisms about its efficacy both as a measure of stress and in terms of the explanation of the device as laid out in Understanding the E-Meter. The earliest key criticism of the device focused on the supposed ability for an E-Meter to access the sub-conscious. We are told that the sub-conscious mind retains all information given to it. Indeed one of the abilities that a subject is supposed to acquire on becoming clear is perfect recall. Thus it is suggested that the E-Meter would be able to access memories inaccessible to the conscious mind. This claim was challenged by Alan Levy in an article he wrote for Life Magazine. During an auditing session it became important to pinpoint the time on which a particular argument took place.

Somehow, I was reliving an argument from early in my marriage. I had been blathering about how well I was doing and how great I was, and my wife had made a face. I shot back then almost jokingly: "Don't you love me anymore?"

"I love you," she had replied, choosing her words carefully, "but I'm not sure that I like you at this very moment." Her words had for a brief time devastated me.

David wanted to know when this had happened.

I thought for a moment and said: "In 1958. We were living in Louisville and had just came back from a winter trip to New Orleans, so I'd say early 1958. And it was Sunday morning -- I remember that distinctly."

"Good. Let's get a fix on the date, Was it January? February?"

"March, I'd think."

"It was March," said David, consulting the E-Meter. "Now the date? First to 10th? Eleventh to 20th? I've got a read on 11th to 20th?"

"Wouldn't it be easier," I said, "to consult a 1958 calendar? There are only four to five Sundays in March."

"There's no need for that. And keep your hands on the E-Meter," David said sharply. "The E-Meter will find out for us. Was it the 11th to 15th? Sixteenth? Seventeenth? Eighteenth? Nineteenth? Twentieth? That's funny, I get reads on the 15th, the 17th and the 18th."

"I think I know," I said. "When you said '15th' the Ides of March went through my head. And the 17th is St. Patrick's Day, which anybody who grew up in New York remembers. But I don't know about the 18th."

"Then it's probably the 18th," said David.

We rechecked March 15 to 20th on the E-Meter. This time the only "read" was on the 18th.

"Before we go on," I said, "can't we get a calender and check whether March 18, 1958 was a Sunday?"

"No," said David. "This is the session. And don't let go of the cans!"

March 18th 1958 fell on a Tuesday. It seems unlocking the subconscious mind may not be as certain as the literature of Scientology suggests. It turns out the E-Meter isn't all that good at monitoring Galvanic Skin Response in the first place.

The Food and Drug Administration took the Founding Church of Scientology to court in a case that saw the E-Meter facing criticism from the scientific community. Paulette Cooper summarises these criticisms as follows:

1. The E-meter has no device to control the constancy of current.

2. Holding a can in the hand permits great variations in the area of the skin in contact with the metal electrodes, and would allow great variation in the amount of actively sweaty tissue that is in contact with it.

3. The instrument is subject to polarization.

4. It is not a quantitative instrument due to uncontrollable variations in skin contact and current.

These experts also explained that the machine was not really a measure of skin resistance at all, but partially a reading of how firmly the individual was grasping the can; if the person squeezed the can, there was more contact, and apparent skin resistance would drop. If he held the cans loosely, the apparent skin resistance would simply increase.
That last paragraphs brings me back to my earlier query. How was it that Mathison could tell that the needle fluctuations of his device matched the level to which a subject responded to certain memories? Unless Mathison quizzed the subjects, asked them to gauge their own responses, which would be a rather sloppy way of going about it considering his interest in unconscious and subconscious responses, it is likely that he assessed the reaction levels based on observation alone, which would involve determining from the subjects body language the significance of each memory. If the body language changes, indicating a significant response, it's not too far a supposition to think that the grip on the cans (or the metal scouring pads that Mathison seemed to favour) would change along with it, providing the real cause of the fluctuations.

Not all criticisms of the E-Meter focus on its explicit claims. One of the routine accusations levelled at Scientology is that of brainwashing, which is one of those terms that somehow automatically undermines itself. Brainwashing is a word that tends to be used by one ideology to describe the indoctrination of someone into an opposing ideology. The claim invariably is not met out with science, however, but therein lies a problem with the word. It is very much an a priori term. The term is used and it is left to the listener to determine exactly what is meant by it. We can imagine some kind of crude torture, perhaps a 1984 style Room 101 encounter where the butterfly of humanity is broken on the wheel of a fascist government. If what Scientology does can be called brainwashing (and that is a discussion for a later post), it is of a much gentler and discreet form. Arnaldo Lerma's criticism of the E-Meter is very much bound up with this notion of auditing as a means by which a person is in some way detrimentally altered.

He notes that the E-Meter passes a low current through the subject and that this current, albeit harmless for short periods of time, has other effects when the current is sustained for the sort of lengths of time associated with the auditing process.

The E-meter can expose the human body with a left hand to right hand current up to 300 Micro Amps. 1/3rd of the value that is generally considered noticeable by a person.
Studies have shown that a small electrical stimulation with a small morphine dose has a therapeutic effect of a larger clinically significant dose, which indicates there is a close relationship between these two factors.

Thus, I conclude that the E-meter directly provides a pain killing adjunct to the implied result of Scientology auditing technology's release state.

This is also the source of the sag effect of a participant feeling great after auditing, yet having a sagging emotion tone some few days later - as his bodies endorphin levels go down past normal in a hang over effect, in which, like a heroin addict, he wants another dose, only it is a dose of auditing.

The feeling of euphoria that is often associated with the auditing process is central to the way in which the Church of Scientology slowly divorces its subjects from a commonly held worldview. Auditing is primarily a form of regression therapy, and the feeling of euphoria that comes with protracted auditing is a powerful tool for legitimising, at least in the mind of the euphoric subject, the validity of the process. That auditing then leads on to past life regression, a process that results in that same euphoria, that quasi-proof does much to assure the subject that the lore of Scientology is little short of fact. No wonder they didn't want Levy to let go of the cans!

What I think is worth pointing out with regards Lerma's claims is that it seems doubtful to me that Hubbard knew of the effects of receiveing a low and lengthy electric current. Lerma describes the electric shock machines that were common in the fairgrounds of Hubbard's youth, but the experience of a short sharp shock, and that of a low, almost imperceptible hum, seem too dissimilar for Hubbard to associate them. What I suspect is that Hubbard may have encountered the euphoria of the cans and either unwittingly associated it with the auditing process, or saw something that he could use to his advantage and lay the foundation for a fraudulent religion. I hope in future posts to suggest that Hubbard may have trodden that same slow gradient that Scientologists today tread, the path from immediate credibility to the heady heights of Incident II, that he to some extent, and using the same doublethink that many Scientologists cling to, suckered himself. I realise this is conjecture, but I feel it is conjecture worth pursuing.

coming soon... de la Warr's Radionics

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