A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of WILHELM REICH

As related to

The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety

By Roger M. Wilcox

Last modified 1-November-2002

From 1934 to 1937 in Oslo, Norway, Reich performed a series of experiments on human subjects wherein he measured the electrical voltage potential across their skin while they were experiencing either pleasure or anxiety.  He believed that these electrical changes were synonymous with, and not merely indicative of, the underlying psychological changes.

These experiments were written up and published in their final form in 1937 under the title Experimentelle Ergebniße Über Die Elektrische Funktion von Sexualität und Angst, and translated into English in 1982 as The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety.  To measure his subjects' electrical skin potentials, he hooked them up to an apparatus described in part 3 (pp. 78-82, 1982 ed.).  A diagram of the apparatus appeared on the first page of this description, which looked something like this:

Diagram of the apparatus
(A photograph of this apparatus appeared in the back of The Function of the Orgasm, which was perhaps Reich's best-known book.)
The cathode, anode, and grid taken together comprise a common triode vacuum tube, the kind used in radio amplifier circuits since the turn of the century.  Reich called it an "amplifier tube."  He lavished an entire page of his book on what this tube does and how it works, as though it were the most marvelous and strange piece of technology ever to grace the world of electronics.  Oddly, in all of his details, he describes the cathode as being heated by a "filament current," rather than by a filament running on its own independent circuit (with its own power source), which is how real vacuum tube filaments operate.  This leaves one to wonder just how much the psychiatrically-trained Reich actually knew about electronic circuits.

A modern follower of Reich, named James DeMeo, makes the following telling statement about such vacuum-tube equipment:

"Engineers who are familiar with the differences between vacuum-tube and solid state instruments will often express, quite on their own, that the tube-type instruments yield 'anomalies', or that the tube instruments 'often go wild', or 'take time to find' or 'look for' the measured readings.  Generally, the classical engineers view these fluctuations in measurement as problems to be overcome — but I am convinced these are in fact expressions of life energy functions more readily picked up by the vacuum tube electronics.  By contrast, a transistorized, solid-state millivoltmeter often yields electrical potential measurements which appear lifeless or dead.  It may measure the same base potentials, but fluctuations or variations ('wandering'?) might be diminished or lost."
   — A Critical Review of Bernhard Harrer's Experiments, in the section titled "Harrer's Observations and Techniques on Bioelectricity"
This leads one to suspect Reich's claim of bioelectrical "wanderings" as being nothing more than measuring errors in his apparatus.

Reich also wrote that the cathode and grid were "connected to one another by an electrical conductor to produce a secondary circuit."  True, a wire between the cathode and the grid would produce a parallel pathway through which electrons could flow, but it would hardly constitute a complete independent circuit in its own right.  We are also given to wonder about that omega character (Ω) in the diagram above.  If it has the standard meaning given to omega in modern circuit schematics, it means that the "electrical conductor" connecting the cathode to the anode is actually a resistor.  But perhaps the omega referred to this:

"it is important to note that a resistance of approximately two million ohms between body and tube was built into our apparatus, so that practically no current flowed; only the the voltage itself was indicated."
    — The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety, part 3 (p. 81, 1982 ed.)
In the diagram above, this 2 Mega-ohm resistance isn't indicated anywhere near the picture of the wires which connected the tube's cathode to electrode A, or electrode B to the tube's grid.  The omega in the diagram, however, implies that the resistance is present in the curly wire that connects the cathode to the grid in parallel with the electrode wires.  And the arrow for the cathode is backward; the arrows in circuits point not in the direction the electrons flow, but in the direction the "standard current" flows, which for historical reasons is exactly opposite of the direction of the electrons.  Of course, we must remember that Reich was writing in German (in which "cathode" really is spelled with a K), and circuit notation may have changed a great deal in the decades since this book was written (witness the "divided-by" sign next to the cathode, where modern notation would instead use a "minus" sign).  Some of Reich's terminological gaffes may simply be due to translation errors and changing trends within the electrical engineering community.

In any case, Reich had a great deal of pre-existing electrodermal research to draw on for help in setting up his apparatus, as he was far from the first person to measure the electrical potential of a human subjects' skin.  As early as 1890, it was discovered that a very small electrical current could be generated by the human body when two electrodes were placed on different parts of the skin.  This was called the "skin potential."  Like the skin's electrical resistance, the skin potential was known to change with time, and experiments by J. Tarchanoff and O. Veraguth had established that the skin potential would exhibit sharp, abrupt changes in response to surprising or frightening stimuli.

Most scientists at the time classified this "psychogalvanic response" as a side effect of all the electrochemical neurological signals that fire in response to surprises or fright.  Tarchanoff himself attributed the change in skin potential to nerve signals being sent to the sweat glands.  But Reich believed that the subject's electrical potential was inseparable from his emotions, not merely the after-effect of them, and that the changes in electrical potential that accompanied surprise and fear were the surprise and fear:

"What is important for this present study is that the literature about the relationship between affectivity and the vegetative apparatus there is no mention of a functional identity and simultaneous antithesis.  Either the physiological phenomena are taken as 'accompanying phenomena' of the affect, or the affect is considered the 'consequence' of a vegetative excitation.  In the first case, the affect would be taken to have no biophysiological material basis, for physiological phenomena would be merely 'accompanying phenomena.'  In the second case, we have a mechanistic view, according to which affect would be the product of a vegetative excitiation, in a similar way that so-called brain mythology considered psychic achievements to be a secretion of the brain.  If we assume that affect and vegetative excitation are an inseparable and indivisible functional unit, that the one cannot be thought of without the other, several important perspectives open up for the investigations of the psycho-physiological boundary area."
    — The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety, part 3 (p. 76, 1982 ed.)
(By "psychic," Reich simply meant "of or related to the psyche," not the popular interpretation of "psychic" as referring to ESP, telepathy, psychokinesis, etc..  By "vegetative," Reich was referring to the autonomic nervous system.  For what Reich meant by "mechanistic," see my critique of orgonomic functionalism.)

A logical way to test this hypothesis would be to find someone who was paralyzed, and see if the skin potential in the paralyzed areas (where the nerves cannot comunicate with the brain) still changes in response to psychological stimuli.  But that's not what Reich did.  Reich instead chose to study the changes in skin potential of subjects while they were experiencing either anxiety or pleasure.  Including sexual pleasure.

Reich measured the skin-potential in five different kinds of experiments: the resting potential of erogenous zones versus nonerogenous zones, tickling and rubbing versus firm pressure, the tongue of an "orally erotic" subject being administered sugar versus salt, masturbation, and heterosexual couples kissing and otherwise engaging in foreplay.  Pictures of the oscillographs generated by each of these experiments appear in the back of The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety (pp. 131 ff., 1982 ed.).  In each of these pictures, the potential wanders noticeably up and down over short periods, and is punctuated by even shorter-period narrow spikes which Reich claimed are electrocardiographic (EKG) spikes.  (The electrocardiogram was invented in 1903 by Willem Einthoven, and was well known in Reich's time.)

But before I go into Reich's experiments on living subjects — and his questionable conclusions — I'd like to address the control measurements Reich performed by connecting his apparatus to non-living objects.  Reich calibrated his apparatus with a couple of control experiments, one of which used a towel soaked in potassium chloride, and the other of which involved rubbing the electrodes on the metal surface of a flashlight.  With regard to the towel, Reich wrote:

    "If one connects the two electrodes via a piece of cloth soaked in KCl or NaCl, the oscillograph reading deviates by about 20-40 mV into the negative range when the circuit is closed.  But no manipulation of the cloth with insulated material produces any fluctuation in the reading.  However, if one rubs or presses the cloth with a finger, the typical wanderings, etc., appear at once.  Thus, if we are too critical about the findings made on organic matter, and if we are not guided by the same critical spirit in the control studies — if, for example, we press the silver electrodes into the cloth with our finger — we can easily believe that 'the cloth, too, is alive.'
    If the distance between the measurement sites on the cloth is increased, thereby raising the resistance, the result is just as negative."
    — The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety, part 3 (p. 116, 1982 ed.)
Reich wrote elsewhere that he used electrodes of pure silver whenever he made what he called "indirect measurements," wherein at least one of the electrodes was immersed in a bowl of electrolyte solution and the subject held one of his/her fingers in the same bowl, instead of having the electrode touch the subject's skin directly.  But what if, in the above passage, only one of the electrodes was made of silver while the other was made of some other metal?  In that case, it would go part of the way to explaining why an electrolyte-soaked cloth should produce an electrical potential of its own: the two different metals in the electrodes would form an electrolytic battery.  Reich also obtained steady readings of up to -10 mV when attaching silver electrodes to "cotton wool" soaked in a concentrated sugar solution, or when attaching silver electrodes to "cotton wool" soaked in KCl and then pouring concentrated NaCl solution over the cotton.

The control experiment with the KCl-soaked towel also demonstrates, clearly, that an electric potential can exist in an object that is not electrostatically charged.  Reich frequently confused the concepts of potential and charge throughout The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety, stating for example that a subject's "charge" jumped to +55 milliVolts when the subject was tickled (p. 90, 1982 ed.).  I would normally attribute this to some German-to-English translation error, except that it is completely in keeping with Reich's obsession with his precious tension-charge formula.

The second control experiment consisted of Reich rubbing an electrode across the metal surface of a flashlight with batteries in it, presumably while the flashlight was turned on.  The results were shown in figure XXXII, which showed wild deviations up to and even past the outer reaches of the oscillograph's scale (which ranges from about +40 milliVolts to about -40 milliVolts from the baseline).  He wrote:

    "One can obtain fluctuations by rubbing the electrodes on metallic material; however, the deviations are toward negative values only, they cannot be reproduced [!], and they are completely arhythmical.
    If electrodes are rubbed on an electric flashlight, positive deviations are obtained.  But it is clear at once they do not have the rhythm of organic wandering (XXXII).  The increases are arhythmical or mechanical and angular.  The surface of the flashlight is charged electrically from the inside and thus acts like a living body.  But the fluctuations are different.
    The control experiments we have described reveal that the excitation phenomenon cannot be produced on inorganic matter."
    — The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety, part 3 (p. 117, 1982 ed.) [emphasis in original]
Perhaps the fluctuation effect on the plain metallic material that "cannot be reproduced" occurred because something touching the metal was carrying a static electric charge and got discharged when the electrodes touched the metal.  With the flashlight, though, a lot would depend on whether the metal surface was smooth or bumpy, and the distance between the electrodes.  Metal flashlights, now as in the 1930s, typically have a "stack" of batteries that act in series, and connect the positive pole of the battery stack to the center base contact of the light bulb and the negative pole to the body of the flashlight itself.  When the switch is pushed on, a metal strip connects the flashlight body to a piece of contact metal which in turn is connected to the outer contact of the light bulb, completing the circuit.  However, the metal flashlight body is not a perfect conductor; measuring the potential between two points at different lengths along its surface will show a tiny drop in voltage, corresponding to the power lost due to this minute resistance.  Reich's apparatus is essentially a milliVolt meter.  Whenever both electrodes made good, solid contact with the flashlight surface, his oscillograph would show the potential difference (voltage drop) between those two points.  Whenever one or both electrodes made poor or negligible contact, the oscillograph would show only a portion of the potential difference or even a zero-milliVolt value.  If the flashlight surface were bumpy, contact would be made and broken repeatedly as Reich dragged the electrodes across the bumps.  This is consistent with figure XXXII in the back of The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety (p. 161, 1982 ed.).  It also demonstrates, contrary to Reich's sweeping generalization, that a positive-direction deviation of the oscillograph — the "excitation phenomenon" in the paragraph above — can be produced with inorganic matter, provided the inorganic matter has an electric current running through it.

Nevertheless, Reich was correct when he surmised that a voltage potential reading could not be obtained without some kind of voltage source, whether that source was a non-living electrochemical reaction (such as flashlight batteries or metal electrodes in electrolytes), a quick static electric discharge, or the skin potential of a living subject's "psychogalvanic response."  His apparatus was probably working properly.  Thus, his experiments with living subjects experiencing pleasure and anxiety can actually be said to yield some useful data.  But one thing must be kept firmly in mind when reviewing Reich's conclusions about his data: electric potential is not the same thing as electric charge.  No reading from a skin potential oscillograph, no matter how dramatic, can lend any credence to (or provide any evidence against) the tension-charge formula that Reich set out to prove with his bioelectrical experiments in the first place.

(I should also like to note that one very simple control experiment was missing from the text.  Nowhere in The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety could I find any mention of how far the potential reading on the oscillograph deflected, if at all, when the two electrodes were directly touched together.)

Reich's first experiments involved placing the cathode electrode, which Reich called the "indifferent electrode," on a neutral area of the subjects' skin, such as the lower leg.  Or at least it seems, from most of Reich's descriptions throughout The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety, part 3, that the cathode electrode is being placed on the skin surface of the neutral area.  But we cannot be absolutely certain that the skin at the cathode-electrode site was not intentionally scraped in every experiment.  In describing "the biological resting potential", Reich wrote:

    "The first condition needed for the electrical function of sexuality is that undamaged skin and mucous membrane surfaces must posess a resting potential, or basic electrical charge.
    "If one damages any area of a subject's skin by scratching the epidermis, and if one then applies an ('indifferent') electrode to this area, while the other ('differential') electrode is applied without pressure to various undamaged skin areas, then, when the subject is connected into the electrical circuit of the oscillograph, the light beam deviates from the absolute, otherwise motionless zero line.  The beam jumps rapidly to a different position.  This is because the electrical surface charge of the undamaged skin area has disrupted — i.e., either strengthened or weakened — the grid voltage of the apparatus, which corresponds to the absolute zero line.  It is easy to prove that it is actually the undamaged skin area which causes the interference.  For if one measures two abraded skin areas simultaneously, the absolute zero point does not move; the beam of light stays where it is."
    — The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety, part 3 (pp. 77-78, 1982 ed.) [emphasis in original]
It is true that the undamaged skin area was responsible for the readings on Reich's apparatus, but not for the reason Reich stated.  Electrical surface charge would have no effect on Reich's apparatus.  Only a difference in electrical potential — such as having more bioelectrical current flowing into or out of one site than the other — would affect his apparatus.  An abraded skin area does not have the same potential as undamaged skin because the nerves have been damaged and cannot relay their electrochemical impulses as effectively.  An area of undamaged skin, with intact nerves, will thus have a different measured potential than damaged skin, if only because of the electrochemical signals sent away from the area by the pressure-sensor nerves there.  Furthermore, scraping the skin deeply enough will produce an exudate at the site of the scraping which greatly affects electrical contact, and even a scrape that isn't deep enough to break the surface of the skin will have exfoliated some dead skin cells, which will produce better contact.  Scraping also increases local blood flow thanks to the "weal response," and this too will change the conductivity of the site and perhaps its electrical potential.

Unfortunately, Reich had a rather terse writing style when it came to describing his experiments.  "Minor" details tended to get left out.  In describing each bioelectrical experiment, Reich failed to mention whether he abraded the skin under the cathode electrode for that particular experiment, or whether he attached the cathode electrode to the undamaged skin of the subject's arm or leg instead.

Regardless of whether the cathode electrode was placed on damaged or undamaged skin, the grid electrode was always placed on the undamaged skin (or mucous membranes) of what Reich called the subjects' "sexually excitable zones":

"I am referring to those areas which are especially sensitive and responsive to stimuli during sexual activity; i.e., the penis, vaginal mucosa, tongue, lips, anal mucosa, nipples, palms, earlobes, and, strangely enough, in some intellectually oriented subjects, the forehead."  The electrical function of the sexual zones is different from that of the rest of the skin.  They have the special characteristic of exhibiting either a much higher or a much lower resting potential than ordinary skin."
    — The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety, part 3 (pp. 82-83, 1982 ed.) [emphasis in original]
Reich may have arrived at which subjects were intellectually oriented and which were not by subjecting them to character analysis.  But another possibility exists: Reich may have discovered an enormously high potential on one subject's forehead, and then justified it as an "erogenous" zone by claiming that the subject was "intellectually oriented" after the fact.  There is also the issue that the very act of placing an electrode, or any other object, on someone's sexual organs can be a somewhat exciting or uncomfortable experience in itself — with so much attention focused on the subject's private parts, it does not seem reasonable to treat the readings as a "resting" potential.  Reich may have been seeing a psychogalvanic response of surprise or fear when he attached the electrodes.  The way to tell, of course, would be to get a second oscillograph apparatus and attach its electrodes to neutral patches of the subject's skin (the lower leg or arm, for example), then see whether or not this other oscillograph also exhibited a stronger-than-normal resting potential when the first oscillograph's grid electrode was attached to the sexual organ.  But Reich did not do this.

Reich also made the following claim:

"Potential does not increase unless an erotic flowing sensation accompanies the engorgement of the organ.  The penis can thus become erect without an increase in potential taking place.  The increase in potential is always linked with a psychically pleasurable sensation, and vice-versa, as will be seen later in further studies."
    — The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety, part 3 (p. 84, 1982 ed.) [emphasis in original]
Reich did not describe these first experiments in which an erection showed no increase in potential, or how he established that the subject was experiencing an "erotic flowing sensation."  (He did later do an experiment with a woman tickling herself and an observer reading the oscillograph in another room, which will be dealt with later in this critique, but no penises were involved.)  For all we know, Reich could have seen the subject get erect, noticed no potential increase on the oscillograph, panicked over the thought that his pet theory might get invalidated, quickly asked his subject, "You're not experiencing any erotic flowing sensations, are you?", and breathed a sigh of relief when his subject answered "No" — without ever bothering to ask the subject if he were experiencing erotic flowing sensations at other times when the oscillograph did show a potential increase.  Reich gave no evidence to back up his claim in the paragraph above, other than his own say-so.

Reich's second experiments involved tickling a subject with a feather or cotton swab, or applying firm pressure to the subject's skin.  Reich chose the feather and cotton, rather than a human fingertip, because a finger isn't an insulator and he didn't want any electric currents in the tickler's finger to interfere with his readings.  Even if the subject were to tickle him/herself with his/her own finger, the subject's finger might be undergoing its own psychogalvanic reactions.  Using an insulator, such as a feather or cotton swab, eliminated this unknown factor.  (This is one of the few cases where Reich acted like a real scientist and took the appropriate degree of care and precision in controlling his experiment.  If only he had approached his later experiments in photographing orgone radiation with the same degree of scrutiny!)

Reich quickly discovered that a tickled subject's skin potential can jump to over +50 mV at the onset of tickling.  This is consistent with Tarchanoff and Veraguth's earlier findings of the psychogalvanic response.  When applying firm pressure, the potential quickly dropped by as much as 20 mV, but still remained on the positive side of the baseline.  But if the pressure sensation wasn't pleasurable, why would the potential still remain positive?  Why, because Reich said:

    "Up to this point, we have called a potential positive if it lies above the absolute, unchangeable zero line; i.e., the grid voltage.  We called it negative if it was below this zero line (e.g., +15 mv, -40 mv).  We also distinguished between directions in the fluctuation of potential by speaking of the 'rising' and 'falling' of the potential, which can be read directly from the milliammeter of the apparatus.
    We must now note the fact that any rise in potential represents a trend toward positive values, whether or not it occurs above or below the absolute zero line.  Likewise, any fall in potential is a negative trend, independent of the arbitrarily determined zero line.  It is no longer the absolute or relative magnitudes of the fluctuation in potential, but simply the direction in which they move, that is important.  Thus, for example, a wandering from -40 to -20 mv is just as much a positive trend as one from +5 to +30 mv or from -10 to +10 mv.  And, conversely, any potential is negative-trending when it wanders on the milliammeter from a higher reading to a lower one, or on the paper strip from left to right, or on the photograph from top to bottom."
    — The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety, part 3 (p. 95, 1982 ed.) [emphasis in original]
We can ignore Reich's arithmetic error in claiming that a trend from +5 to +30 milliVolts is "just as much" as one from -40 to -20 milliVolts.  What we cannot ignore, however, is how this statement put Reich in danger of giving himself carte blanche to proclaim both a positive-direction change in potential as "positive," and a steady reading on the positive side of the baseline as "positive" — thus letting him come to any conclusion he liked regardless of the actual experimental readings.  Fortunately, Reich almost always used the change in potential, rather than the potential's absolute level, to gauge his theories throughout The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety.

Within the tickling/pressure experiments, however, there is the issue of how the "pressure" was applied after the tickling.  Reich was careful to tickle the subject with a feather or cotton swab so as not to affect the electric circuit between the subject and the oscillograph, but he took no such care when he applied pressure.  Reich applied pressure by pressing the electrode into the skin surface.  If nothing else, this would temporarily increase the degree of electrical contact between the electrode and the skin surface, which was bound to skew the readings one way or the other.

Of course, one objection Reich was sure to face about his oscillograph readings — particularly where the graph wasn't changing very steeply — was that Reich was merely ascribing "positive trends" and "negative trends" in graphs that were simply showing random fluctuations, because he expected to see a positive trend when a subject was pleasurably stimulated and a negative trend when a subject was affected by a non-pleasurable sensation.  To counter this inevitable objection, and to see how much the subjective sensation of pleasure corresponded to electrical potential, Reich devised a blind control experiment:

"A control person observes the apparatus, while the subject, in a neighboring room, is connected to it with long wires.  The subject, who must be skilled in self-observation, announces whether the light beam is steady, moving, or indicating a rise or fall in potential, etc.  The subject does not announce this on the basis of touch, but on the basis of the tickling sensation.  The more correctly the subject is able to observe himself and the more gentle the tickling — i.e., the less contact that is made between the tickling instrument and the skin — the more precise is the result.  It indicates to us that the objectively visible change in potential quantitatively reflects the intensity of the pleasure sensation with 'photographic fidelity.'  The greater the intensity of the streaming pleasure sensation, the more precisely it is reflected."
    — The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety, part 3 (p. 92, 1982 ed.) [bolding mine]
Unfortunately, this experiment suffers from the same experimenter-bias problem it was partially devised to circumvent.  The person reading the oscillograph when the subject calls out "rising" or "falling" can trick himself into believing the trend really is rising or falling at that moment when in fact it's doing nothing of the sort.  Only one oscillograph from such an experiment appears in Reich's book (as figure XIII, p. 144, 1982 ed.), and it only shows asterisks over the points where tickling actually began and ended, not where the subject announced anything.  The text describing the experiment that created this graph says that the subject claimed, after the fact, to have experienced strong sensations of pleasure "immediately at the start and approximately at the end" of the tickling, but it does not say that the subject announced her sensations while they were happening.  It's not even clear from the text whether Figure XIII represents the experiment described in the paragraph above, or the "reverse" of the experiment wherein the people observing the oscillograph announce any sharp changes they see and the subject then "decides" whether she is feeling pleasure or not.

Reich's third set of experiments involved what Reich described as "several people" being given a concentrated solution of either sugar or salt.  Only two subjects were described in the text, however: one was a female whom Reich assessed as being "oral-erotic," and other was a male that Reich said "was not so obviously oral-erotic," When the "oral-erotic" subject was given sugar without expecting it, the skin potential in her mouth measured off-the-scale (over +80 mV) the first time, and lesser positive amounts (around +70 mV) subsequent times.  When the "not so obviously oral-erotic" subject was given sugar, however, the potential in his mouth only measured +10 mV to +40 mV.  When the "oral-erotic" subject was given salt instead of sugar, the potential in her mouth dropped to -55 mV.

The first objection one might have to the methods Reich used in the sugar-salt experiments was that the grid electrode was attached to a long cotton wad, the electrode-attached end of which was soaking in a dish containing a concentrated sugar solution, and the other end of which was saturated either in concentrated salt solution or concentrated sugar solution.  The subject had to put the concentrated-salt-or-sugar-soaked end of the long cotton wad in his or her mouth, and the electrolyte saturation along the length of the cotton wad (strong sugar/weak salt or strong salt/weak salt) would act as a conductor between the subject's tongue and the grid electrode.  Any activity in the subject's mouth — sucking on the cotton, spitting it away from his or her tongue, salivating — could drastically alter the quality of the electrical contact between the tongue and the electrolyte-soaked cotton.

A second, although milder, objection to this set of experiments is Reich's inconsistency when describing the location of the cathode electrode.  In the main body of the text (p. 100, 1982 ed.), Reich wrote: "The cathode electrode was laid in a container with a 0.9 [molar] (normal) NaCl solution," and the diagram on the accompanying page shows the subject sticking his finger into one end of this container with the electrode submerged at the other end.  These are both consistent with what Reich described as an "indirect measurement" at other places throughout the text.  However, the captions below figures XVII through XX, which are all pictures of the sugar-salt experiment oscillographs described in this same text, all read, "Indirect measurement.  Indifferent electrode on left [or right] arm."  The "indifferent" electrode is the cathode electrode.  Was Reich merely indicating whether the finger the subject stuck down into the bowlful of electrolyte with the cathode electrode was part of the subject's left or right arm, or did Reich mean that the electrode was directly attached to the left or right arm, in contradiction with both the description and diagram in the text describing this experiment and Reich's meaning of "indirect" elsewhere?  Does the phrase "electrode on right arm" hint at a different meaning in German than it does in English?

But even if every one of the readings in this experiment are truly indicative of how the electrical potential in the mouth varies while experiencing pleasant vs. unpleasant taste sensations, Reich once again leapt to unjustified conclusions:

"The biological energy of the mouth quickly reaches out toward the pleasurable stimulus and retreats from the unpleasurable stimulus.  The antithesis of pleasure and unpleasure can thus be exerimentally tested and photographed.  It exists objectively, independent of our ideas of it.  The basic antithesis of vegetative life is manifested as pleasure — electrical flow directed toward the periphery — and as anxiety or unpleasure — electrical flow directed toward the center."
    — The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety, part 3 (p. 102, 1982 ed.) [emphasis in original]
Here, Reich began confusing electric potential not only with electric charge, but also with "biological energy."  Reich firmly believed that Freud's "libido" was not merely a convenient concept to describe one's sexual feelings with no basis in objective reality, but a real energy that ought to be measurable somehow, if only the right way to measure it could be stumbled across.  He'd convinced himself that libido was an electrical phenomena (perhaps because sticking your finger in a light socket gave you a powerful "buzz" similar to that of strong sexual feelings), and so "found" confirmation of this libido=electric energy theory in his bioelectrical experiments.  (This same conviction about the "objective reality" of libido would come up again when Reich decided that biological energy was not electrical energy, but orgone energy.)

In truth, changes in potential (Voltage) do say something about changes in electrical energy (a freshly-charged battery will give a higher Voltage reading than a drained battery, for example), but cannot, by themselves, tell you how much electric energy is actually flowing — for that, you need to measure not only the Voltage, but the current or "Amperage" moving across the voltage drop.  Reich mentioned an "ammeter" at a few points in the text, but did not report the readings he obtained on said ammeter.  Moreover, a reduction in voltage at the skin surface does not in any way indicate that electric energy is "flowing inward" toward the center of the organism.  It only means that less electromotive force is being exhibited on the skin between the two electrodes.  This could, and in fact does, merely mean that certain electrochemical reactions were being turned on or off by the body.  Electric potential is not electric energy.  Potential does not have to be "conserved" like the total energy or mass or electric charge of a system.  A change in potential at the surface does not mean potential is "moving outward" toward the surface, or "moving away" toward the interior.  (Perhaps Reich was placing the cathode electrode on an abraded area of the skin, and decided that this represented the "inside" of the body, and so figured that a negative potential between cathode and grid meant "charge" was flowing "inward.")

Reich's fourth set of experiments dealt with a masturbating male subject.  Here, Reich wanted to place the grid electrode directly on the subject's glans penis during ejaculation, but even Reich realized that his measuring equipment was woefully inadequate to this task.  The normal convulsive bodily movements associated with ejaculation made it next-to-impossible to sustain consistent electrical contact with the penis throughout the process, and even then, there was the serious unknown of whether the bursts of ejaculation would produce large EKG-like spikes in the readings and thus throw them off.

Which led to Reich's fifth set of experiments.  Here, he had "a happy couple" engage in kissing, naked caressing, and nipple sucking.  He placed both the cathode electrode and the grid electrode into separate bowls of electrolyte (salt water) solution, and had the man stick his finger into one bowl and the woman stick her finger into the other bowl.  Then, when the couple touched each other in any way, it would complete the circuit.  An obvious problem with such an approach is that the degree of electrical contact between the two subjects and the precise skin areas making such contact will vary wildly during an even moderately-passionate kiss — Reich's conclusion that "the magnitude of the potential (except for negligible differences) is independent of the size of the area of the two skin surfaces touching each other" (p. 112, 1982 ed.) seems highly suspect.

(It was this last set of experiments that drew fire against Reich from the popular press.  European society in the 1930s was quite prudish, and the idea of doing experiments on couples engaged in foreplay activity — some of whom were [gasp!] not married — shocked quite a number of Norwegians.  Unwarranted allegations of secret sex cults inevitably followed.  While this didn't make Reich a popular fellow, any attempts that were made to search for these alleged secret sex cults turned up nothing, so no government action was taken against Reich during the time of his bioelectrical experiments.)

Reich's bioelectrical experiments represent a transition for Reich.  Before these experiments, he worked in the well-established field of psychiatry.  Non-drug-based psychiatry is notorious for its lack of experimental rigor and double-blind placebo trials, and so Reich felt right at home playing more-or-less by the psychiatric community's rules, which let him make bald-faced assertions based on isolated incidents without being challenged much.  After the bioelectrical experiments, Reich delved into fields in which he had no experience, and had a miserable track record for jumping to unjustified conclusions from experiments which lacked proper controls.  The bioelectrical experiments form a kind of "bridge" between those two great epochs in Reich's life; they did use the existing, well-documented effect of skin-potential and proven methods for measuring skin-potential, and Reich did take a mild degree of care from time to time to perform control experiments and eliminate unknowns; but psychogalvanic effects were outside Reich's area of training, and he did not enlist the help of others who had worked in that field or in related fields.  The experiments do present us with some data that would have been useful for understanding psychogalvanic responses while experiencing pleasure instead of surprise or fright, had Reich published just his simpler experiments and restrained himself from leaping to conclusions not supported by that data; but instead, Reich insisted on publishing his riskiest experiments with the most questionable controls, for he was obsessed with using these experiments to bolster notions such as this:

"The arrangement of membranes, boundary surfaces, and fluids during sexual intercourse indicates that a complete electrolytic system has been established.  The surface of the penis must be seen as one electrode and the vaginal mucosa as the other.  The contact between the two is made by the acidic female secretion acting as an electrolyte.  Water, which does not conduct, is not an electrolyte.  Saliva, on the other hand, does conduct.  It is no coincidence that, as clinical experience has shown, sexual sensation declines when the vaginal mucous membrane is moistened with water; saliva, on the other hand, enhances sensation, although not to the same degree as vaginal secretion, which is a colloidal-acidic solution."
    — The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety, part 1 (pp. 13-14, 1982 ed.)
... which ignores the simple fact that non-conducting lubricating oils can also enhance sexual sensation — even if used with an electrically-insulating rubber condom.

An attempt to reproduce Reich's results

At least one of Reich's contemporaries attempted to reproduce his bioelectrical experiments:

"The critique was by Wilhelm Hoffmann, a man well trained in physiology at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. . . . Some time in 1935, Hoffmann collaborated with Reich.  He was especially interested in testing Reich's hypothesis that withdrawn schizophrenics would show a lower skin potential than normal persons.  He found that the patients' skin potentials were not in fact lower.  Nor did Hoffmann find any difference in skin potential between erogenous and nonerogenous zones of the patients.
    Reich in turn criticized Hoffmann's procedures.  Hoffmann, he said, had used electrodes attached to glass cups that were then fastened over the subjects' nipples with adhesive tape.  'From a mechanical viewpoint,' Reich commented, 'everything was perfect.  Hoffmann only overlooked one point and that was the crucial one.  A pleasure reaction doesn't occur if one attaches glass with adhesive tape to a living organ.'"
     — Fury on Earth, by Myron Sharaf, ch. 16, p. 215.
Hoffmann had added the glass cups and adhesive tape as a means of ensuring a constant level of electrical contact with the nipples.  People experiencing great levels of pleasure tend to squirm around a lot, and Hoffmann wanted to be sure that the movement of the subjects' skin against the electrodes didn't affect his readings.  Essentially, he tightened the controls on Reich's experiment, and discovered that by doing so, the more striking results Reich had obtained vanished.  This is an all-too-common recurring theme in Reich's experimental work; more often than not, Reich's experimental controls are sloppy or non-existent.

And what of Reich's claim that Hoffmann's glass-and-tape electrodes would preclude a subject from experiencing pleasure in any organs they were taped to?  Well, you'd think that after all of Reich's work with adolescents, he would know how strong the feeling of sexual arousal can be, and what steep obstacles it can overcome.  Adolescent males can and do experience penile erections all the time, even while wearing overly tight, constricting bluejeans, and would probably do so even if their pants were made of cast iron.  Women in the right mood can and do experience pleasurable nipple erections while wearing a sports bra (or worse).  A glass cup and a little bit of adhesive tape on either side of the nipples won't keep an aroused woman from feeling pleasure in her nipples.  It may diminish the pleasure, or distract from it somewhat (as would having electrodes attached to ones nipples in any fashion!), but it would not reduce the pleasure below significant levels.

Reich's bioelectrical experiments might have remained obscure to this very day, if not for the experiments of William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson 20 years later.

Masters and Johnson

Much ado is made among Orgonomists of the similarity between Masters and Johnson's polygraph experiments with subjects experiencing sexual stimulation, and Reich's bioelectrical experiments.  Both of them used a paper oscillograph similar to a polygraph to record electrical changes.  Both of them measured small electrical currents across portions of the subjects' skin.  Both of them measured subjects' electrical reactions during sexual arousal.  Reich, the Orgonomists argue, was the first person to even think of performing electrical measurements on subjects experiencing sexual pleasure.  After all, Reich's experiments preceded Masters and Johnson's by about 20 years.  A few Orgonomists even go so far as to claim that Masters and Johnson knew about Reich's biolelectrical experiments and copied them without giving Reich any credit, thus strengthening the image of Reich as an unsung martyr.

The main book in which Masters and Johnson describe their experiments and findings is Human Sexual Response, first published in 1966.  Unfortunately, the details of how they obtained their bioelectrical measurements are surprisingly lacking from this book.  Indeed, even the amount of bioelectrical data presented is quite sparse.  Only 4 pages in the book — pages 35, 117, 132, and 175 — contain pictures of electrographs, and of these, pages 35 and 175 consist solely of simple electrocardiograms (EKGs).  The picture on page 132 (labelled figure 9-1) consists of EKGs side-by-side with measurements of the "orgasmic platform" (vaginal walls) taken at the same time, but how these orgasmic platform readings were taken is not described.  The picture on page 117 (labelled figure 8-2) is of uterine contractions before, during, and after an orgasm; these were said to be "recorded with intrauterine electrodes" but were not otherwise described, and the graph itself was calibrated in millimeters of mercury.  (Millimeters of mercury, or "mm of Hg," is one of the more popular scales for measuring pressure; no actual mercury need be involved).  Since this graph shows contractile force, it's doubtful that Masters and Johnson were using the electrodes to measure surface voltage potential, as Reich did.

Of greater interest is the bibliographic reference in the back of Masters and Johnson's Human Sexual Response.  Wilhelm Reich appears in this reference section twice, first as the author of The Function of the Orgasm, and second as the author of The Sexual Revolution.  If The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety had been translated into English at the time Human Sexual Response was published, I'm sure it would have been of great interest to Masters and Johnson, and certainly would have appeared in this reference section.  As it turns out, the first book of Reich's that Masters and Johnson cited, The Function of the Orgasm, does have a chapter in the back which presents an abbreviated description of Reich's bioelectrical experiments.  It's in Chapter IX, subchapter 1 (pp. 368-379, 1973 trans.).  The Function of the Orgasm even shows 14 of the electric-potential graphs that appear in The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety.  One thing is clear: Masters and Johnson were not trying to "rip off" Reich without giving him any credit.

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