Published: Psychological Newsletter, 1959, 10 131-134
Before L Ron Hubbard became known for Scientology, he had invented “Dianetics” and established organisations (called “Dianetics Foundations”) in six major American cities. By 1950 these foundations had spent $1 million and were in $200,000 in debt, and in 1951, the New Jersey Board of Medical Examiners instituted proceedings against the “Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation” in Elizabeth for teaching medicine without a licence. This forced its closure and the whole network was in danger of bankruptcy.
The “Hubbard Dianetic Foundation” was saved by Don Purcell, a rich Dianetics enthusiast who kept it solvent on the condition that it open itself to scientific scrutiny. During this brief period, people with scientific training took the claims of Dianetics seriously, and conducted a proper examination of it.
These investigations included the book, “A Doctor’s Report” AKA “A Doctors Report on Dianetics” by J A Winter MD and, a Phd thesis from Harvey Jay Fischer entitled, “Dianetic Therapy, an Experimental Evaluation.” Both publications reported negative results (despite the fact that Winters was the Medical Director of the Hubbard Dianetics Foundation, and an early enthusiast).
The research featured in today’s post was published in 1959, and examined a central principle of Dianetics – that phrases spoken in the hearing of an unconscious or traumatised person create an ‘automatic recording’ in the brain (an ‘Engram). According to Hubbard, this is persistent, and may cause the experience to ‘replayed’ whenever the phrase is heard in future.
For example, Hubbard suggested that if a child is told to “bend over” before being caned, the bad experience that follows causes a short period of unconsciousness during which an engram is created. When they hear the phrase “bend over” again in later life, the experience of being caned is ‘restimulated’ and may cause lower back pain. ‘Dianetic therapy’ supposedly removes the engram and cures the pain.
Fox, Davis and Lebovits very thoroughly tested the first part of this hypothesis (the existence of the ‘automatic recordings’ that constitute an engram) and published unambiguous findings, which you can read by clicking the link at the top of the page.
Despite their claim to be able to routinely cure an astonishing range of diseases, the Dianetics foundations collapsed in 1952, and Hubbard lost control of all the copyrights relating to Dianetics. Undeterred, he founded a new movement which he called “Scientology”, and eventually acquired enough money from this for him to buy them back.
Hubbard had learned his lesson, and never allowed proper scientific scrutiny of his claims ever again.