The Story of the e-meter Part 3: Back to the Future

Ifortnight-mathisonn his book “Electropsychometry”, (Extract: Read Online | Download as .pdf ) Mathison describes his life after his career at sea, and the genesis of the e-meter.

He states that, in 1950, he obtained a patent on a device that helped projectionists regulate the colour of the arc lamps used in cinema projectors – the “Arcon Monitor”. However, his plan to sell these items to cinema owners was frustrated by the advent of television.

This appears to have been a low point in Mathison’s vigorous life. He sought the aid of a psychoanalyst (the only mainstream psychiatric therapy available at this time) but was dissatisfied with the results. He looked for an alternative. During this search, he:

[…] attended a series of lectures being given by a very controversial figure, who several times emphasized that perhaps the major problem of psychotherapy was the difficulty of maintaining the communication of accurate or valid data from the patient to the therapist.

The “[…] very controversial figure” was, of course, L Ron Hubbard ‘lecturing’ about Dianetics (which Mathison goes on to accurately describe). Mathison decided that,

What was needed […] in psychotherapy was an instrument that would to some degree “read the mind […].”

Mathison had no knowledge of medicine of psychoanalysis, but he did have a technical background and an agile mind. He set out to solve this problem, and soon produced a prototype.

Galvanic Skin Response

Mathison’s e-meter measured Galvanic Skin Response (GSR). First demonstrated in 1888, this is a simple physiological reaction. The hairs on your back of your arm sometimes stand up when you are alarmed, or emotional – in the same way, the resistance of your skin changes slightly. GSR is,

[…] the phenomenon that the skin momentarily becomes a better conductor of electricity when either external or internal stimuli occur that are physiologically arousing. Arousal is a broad term referring to overall activation, and is widely considered to be one of the two main dimensions of an emotional response. Measuring arousal is therefore not the same as measuring emotion, but is an important component of it.


The First e-meters – A Diagnostic Aid Rejected by Psychoanalysis

cgjungIn 1906 C G Jung, the prominent psychoanalyst (and pupil of Freud) carried out experiments to investigate the possibility that real-time measurements of GSR could be useful in psychological therapy.

In his paper, “Studies in Word Analysis” Jung describes how he read a list of words to people who were monitored by a device which measured GSR.  A battery passed a small current through probes held by the patient, which was measured by a very sensitive galvanometer (a simple meter, with a needle and a scale).

Unfortunately ‘Arousal’, as measured by a GSM meter, simply means, ‘a thing that makes you go hmm…’ You could be having the most profound insight – or thinking about the moment when you stubbed your toe on the way to the doctors office.

Judging by the fact that neither nor Jung, nor any other serious practitioner ever adopted the device, he concluded that it did not reveal anything that he could not find out by simply talking to the patient.

Bearing in mind the hostility that Dianetics and Scientology have always shown towards psychiatry, it is ironic that their most revered “religious artefact” began life as a diagnostic tool rejected by psychiatrists.

Mathison’s Innovation – and Hubris

The meters that Jung used were very simple and difficult to use. They contained no electronics – only a battery (to pass a tiny current through the patients body) and a very delicate, sensitive galvanometer (meter). When the resistance of the patients skin increased, the voltage read by the meter dropped.

This is where Mathison the Radio engineer produced his only innovation  – he added an amplification stage. An audio amplifier can take the tiny current generated by a microphone or other source and increase it (without distortion) so that the original sound can be clearly heard through loudspeakers.

Of course, this device used the only the technology available at the time – thermionic valves (US: Tubes).

It required AC power from a wall socket and anyone who has worked with this type of amplifier is (often painfully) aware that it employs very high, potentially lethal, voltages.

Effectively wiring people into the same circuit was dangerous and irresponsible. Selling these devices to a general public who did not have Mathisons’ expertise with this kind of device was reprehensible.

It’s complexity must have lent it a aura of power and mystery that would have appealed to  early Scientologists – and especially to L Ron Hubbard, who needed a technological prop to validate his unsupported assertions.

Like any innovation, this idea had advantages and disadvantages. It made the meter easier to use,  but it also made it liable to ‘false  reads’ and random movements. This introduced the risk that the operator would be able to see whatever his preconceptions had prepared him for.

To be fair to Mathison, he did his best to insure accuracy. He experimented with various ways of passing the current through the patient, and found that hand-held steel wool (AKA scouring pads) worked reliably.

Mathison’s electronic engineering was sound (there are no reports of his electrocuting ‘patients’) but his psychological ideas were vague, misguided and unsupported by rigorous research.

Mathison Loses Perspective

In an article in “Fortnight” magazine Mathison was clear that his meter measured GSR. However, he seemed to believe that  GSR did not merely indicate ‘arousal’ – he asserted (purely on the basis of his own observations) that his meter could somehow tell the difference between stressful and traumatic thoughts. As we have seen, this conclusion is completely unjustified. There is no way that the operator of a GSR meter can tell whether the patient is experiencing a profound insight or remembering stubbing their toe.

Mathison soon constructed a whole edifice of wishful thinking on this shaky foundation which was incorporated into his version of psychotherapy (influenced by psychoanalysis and Dianetics) which he dubbed “Creative Image Therapy.”volney_tone_circle_1954_a

Mathison began to elaborate his concepts, and invent new ones without submitting them to valid tests. Lacking formal training, he did not even know what constituted a valid scientific test.

However, his ‘practice’ prospered financially. This apparent validation gave him confidence – and he began to make up his own, highly questionable, psycho-therapeutic regime.

Soon, he had written several books on the subject. In one, he invented the idea of ‘tone’. This was indicated by readings on the meter ranging from “4.0 (a healthy person in deep and dreamless sleep) to 1.0 (a state of acute physical and psychic disturbance).” Mathison formalised this as  ‘The Tone Scale” –  an elaborated version is now familiar to Scientologists. Unfortunately his new conceptshad no rational basis.

However, Mathison now possessed a number of ideas, and a device, which could be advantageously incorporated into Scientology. While he was interested in Hubbard’s creation, he was also sceptical about the man. He continued to go his own way, and develop his own approach. The stage was set for conflict between two budding gurus.


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