- His e-meter measured a real physiological effect (Galvanic Skin Response)
- The question of whether real-time measurement of GSR could aid therapy had already been investigated
- The amplification stage in his e-meter made the device considerably easier to use
This raises a serious question. If the e-meter had been used as Mathison intended, could it have developed into a useful therapeutic tool?
One way to assess this possibility is to take a look at the polygraph. This is a far more complex device which measures not only GSR but also heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. What’s more, it has more limited aim – to detect a simple lie.
If the complex polygraph cannot reliably tell if someone is lying, there is no chance that relatively simple e-meter can perform the infinitely more subtle and complex task of detecting psychological trauma.
Mental states do have physiological manifestations – for example, if a person is anxious, their heart rate will typically increase, they will breathe differently, and they may sweat more (changing their GSR). However, the idea that lying is the only thing that will cause a stress reaction is crude and highly questionable. There are so many other possibilities – for example, the subject may:
- Hate tests
- Be afraid of authority figures
- Know that their career depends on ‘passing’ a ‘test’ they do not understand
- Be nervous about some other, unrelated, matter
The person who formulated this theory ignored one of the most basic scientific principles – that correlation does not imply causation – in other words, just because two things happen at the same time, it does not necessarily mean that one causes the other. For example, when ice cream sales increase, more people drown. This does not mean that eating ice cream causes drowning. It is simply that more people go the beach in hot weather.
There are other flaws to this idea. The most potentially dangerous people that polygraph operators will ever encounter (sociopaths) can lie without any physiological reaction whatsoever. They are immune.
The polygraph industry endures because it provides law enforcement, and other powerful social groups with an excuse to stage interrogations in a very intimidating, pseudo-scientific, atmosphere so that maybe, when all else has failed, they can obtain a confession.
If a polygraph can’t reliably detect a simple lie, a simple e-meter has no chance of helping a therapist understand the infinitely more complex situation that obtains during psychiatric therapy. There are just too many opportunities for error.
If you are discussing anything with the patient which provokes anxiety, the meter will register. However, it cannot indicate which reactions are significant, and which are not. A ‘read’ might indicate an underlying trauma – or the fact that a mildly arachnophobic patient thought the saw a spider – it takes human judgement to tell the difference. As long as you have a human being capable of making those judgements (a therapist) on the scene, you might as well use his or her powers of observation to detect anxiety instead of a meter. In other words, an e-meter cannot tell a therapist anything that they cannot see for themselves.
Also, the patient might (deliberately or unconsciously) learn how to provide a meter reaction to order (see above).
finally, the therapist may tend to notice the meter reaction that they expect to see, and discount the reactions that they do not expect (our old friend confirmation bias).
If you want to be a therapist, there is simply no substitute for empathy, intelligence, human insight, good judgement and years of training in a legitimate, evidence-based therapeutic technique. ‘Magic mind-reading meters’ are for people who want to claim the prestige of a ‘medical’ status without passing the required qualifications – exactly the sort of narcissists who should not be therapists in the first place.
Mathison was a radio engineer who aspired to the higher social status granted a medical man. He thought he could take a shortcut by using technology. He could not – his meter told him nothing meaningful. However, it gave him confidence, and enabled him to convince the public that he was the real thing. Troubled people then placed their trust in an unqualified individual who was making it up as went along. That’s pseudoscience.
At least Mathison, for all his flaws, appeared to mean well. As we will see later, L Ron Hubbard took the e-meter out of the realms of Scientific plausibility altogether, with claims that thought had mass which the meter could indicate, and other insupportable ideas.