The Story of the e-Meter

MathisonPart One: The Inventor

The inventor of the e-meter wrote extensively for a wide range of pulp magazines, but preferred to be remembered for his unremarkable contributions to early Science Fiction.

When he originated a pseudo-therapy (which resembled psychoanalysis) he enhanced its credibility with a technological device called an e-meter. This ‘electropsychometer’ was an electrical device that (he claimed) could indicate mental states.In actual fact, it only measured skin resistance, and functioned only as a pseudo-scientific prop.

The inventor promoted his ‘therapy’, and started to sell training and e-meters.  At a time when science was starting to transform everyday life it seemed credible that, with the aid of new technology, ordinary people could perform professional services – like psychotherapy – without extensive training.

He made regular sales, and his ‘practice’ prospered.

The inventor was NOT L Ron Hubbard.

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Amazing Stories June 1929Part Two: Scientology – take Nobody’s Word for It

For critics of Scientology, credibility is everything.

Representatives of the Church do not have an arguable case – in fact, they are often placed in the invidious position of having to defend Scientology doctrines that they are not presently aware of (or, if they are, are not allowed to discuss).

Their only option they have is to catch critics out in a mistake – and use this to attack their credibility. This is why it is important to check your sources.

I recently did, and was… surprised. I had used a quote sourced from Wikipedia  in the previous post  in this series about the origins and development of the e-meter.

In the June 1929 issue of Amazing Stories, Mathison’s story, “The Mongolian’s Ray” appeared and was promoted on the cover. Forrest J. Ackerman and Brad Linaweaver write in the book Worlds of Tomorrow, “In this story, he created the fictional device that shortly after the introduction of Dianetics, morphed into reality as the E-meter employed today to supposedly reveal the personalities of individuals interested in becoming ‘clears’ in the Dianetic regimen.

It turns out to be  wrong, in every respect.

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Part Three: 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).

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Investigation DiscoveryPart Four: Could Mathison’s e-meter Ever Have worked?

Mathison’s approach had some scientific plausibility.

  • 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.

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galvactlightPart 5: Is The e-meter Fit for *Any* Purpose?

Volney Mathison’s electropsychometer measured a real phenomenon called Galvanic Skin Response (GSR).

Whenever you experience something that is psychologically arousing, your  eccrine sweat glands are activated, which results in a ‘micro-sweat’.

This means that when you experience a strong emotion, are performing a mentally demanding task, or are just startled your skin resistance will drop.

GSR changes happen in the same way that the pupils of your eyes contract in bright light, or your heart rate increases when you are startled.

Because GSR is not under conscious control real-time measurements might feasibly provide an objective measure of a person’s psychological state.

Volney Mathison made reasonable claims for his e-meter. He presented it as an accurate instrument to measure GSR, which could be useful in psychological therapy.

To access these claims, lets compare the e-meter with a device designed by students of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) specifically to measure and indicate GSR – the “Galvactivator“.

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 mk1 emeterPart 6: L Ron Hubbard and Volney Mathison Together in the Garden of Eden

As described in part three of this series, in 1950 Volney Mathison (the inventor of the e-meter)  was seeing a psychoanalyst about depression after suffering a business failure.

Disillusioned with his treatment he attended a’ lecture’ by L Ron Hubbard. Hubbard bemoaned the fact that there was no way to objectively measure  a patients mental state, and that psychotherapy would be transformed by a device that did this. Mathison was inspired to create just such an instrument.

He revived a simple device for measuring galvanic skin response (GSR) and added an amplifier to the circuit. Although this made the device more sensitive and easier to use, his innovation came a little late – GSR had been rejected as a therapeutic tool by mainstream psychiatry at the beginning of the century.

This did not deter him from inventing and practising his own form of psychotherapy to complement his e-meter. He describes this in his books  “Electropsychometry” (Extract: Read Online | Download as .pdf ) and “Creative Image Therapy”.

Mathison also played the part of a ‘researcher’ in early Dianetics and collaborated with Hubbard, who gradually incorporated Mathison e-meters into Scientology practice.

This story is traced via extracts from the pages of the  “Journal of Scientology” which can be downloaded here  Open folder to download individual issues | Download all issues in a .zip file.

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 Part 7 – The Ingenuity of Volney Mathison

lie detectorL Ron Hubbard lost control of the patents which applied to his breakthrough creation”Dianetics” when he accepted external funding. When the ‘Dianetic Foundations’  collapsed, he was left out in the cold, no longer able to exploit his own ideas.

He was not going to make that mistake again. From this point, he was careful to maintain full personal control of the organisations he founded. He built Scientology up gradually from the grass roots (initially using mailing lists purloined from the Dianetics foundations). After several years of growth, there was only one fly in hisointment.  He did not own the most distinctive, popular and profitable device in Scientology – the e-meter.

His problem was that Mathison was a canny, hard working, independent and ingenious man. He had invented his own fringe therapy and written a book about it. He practised this therapy, and sold e-meters to Scientologists, psychoanalysts, and other fringe practitioners.  Crucially, he held patents on a range of devices. Their sale was making him a comfortable living – and he was not going to surrender them to Hubbard.

I was surprised when I learned of the extent of Mathison’s product range, and I think it would be worthwhile to describe it here. It illustrates the magnitude of the problem that Hubbard had created for himself, not only by integrating  Mathison’s e-meters into Scientology practice, but extensively praising them in writing.

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mathison pendulumPart 8 – The Theory behind the E-meter (and Scientology) In Perspective

Volney Mathison emerges as a man who was energetic, ingenious, inventive and technically competent.

In the 50’s, when science was performing miracles, his impressive-looking e-meters must have lent great credibility to the claims he made for his own “Creative Image Therapy” and for L Ron Hubbard’s “Scientology”.

The problem, of course, is that no matter how wonderful his machines were, the theory that they were based on was simply wrong. All that an e-meter can measure is a small decrease in the electrical resistance of the skin. While this often accompanies a state of arousal, knowing this is of little practical use to a psychotherapist.

Simply put, ‘arousal’ means that you are stimulated by your environment.  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.

The wonderful variety of Mathison’s e-meters disguises the fact that their supposed ability to “objectively confirm” what is said by a client to their therapist has no rigorous theoretical foundation at all.

The justifications Mathison offered for his e-meter were based on magical thinking – and if that seems harsh, today we will examine a two-page  advertisement for another product that Mathison distributed for profit  –  a “Crystal Pendulum”.

This is, nakedly, the same thing used for centuries for magical divination. Mathison attempts to ‘modernise’ it with the pseudo-scientific use of ‘technical’ terms drawn from real medicine and from psychoanalysis.

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