Wilhelm Reich: Transition from psychoanalysis to natural science

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In the mid-1930s Wilhelm Reich had reached a transition point. He was still interested in neurosis and other mental health problems, but becoming more interested in the physical mechanisms underlying them. He had burned his bridges with the psychoanalytic community in Vienna and elsewhere, with the Communist parties of Germany and Denmark (at least), and several countries thought his treatments were invalid. Norway became his refuge, but he had problems there too, some of which had to do with his new interest in experiments meant to quantify sexual pleasure.
He used skin potential experiments because he thought this a way to determine pleasure at various parts of the body. This was because positive and negative charges could be measured, and positive charges he correlated with pleasure. Pleasure represented the organism expanding towards the world through the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is the part of our nervous system outside our conscious control, which controls the heart, function of the organs, release of hormones, etc. It is far more sophisticated than the “consciousness” that we tend to think is all of us. The sympathetic division is responsible for the fight or flight response, which means moving away from the world, or contracting. Here he had a formula for the orgasm, which he saw in electrical terms:

“(1) Mechanical tension (filling of the organs with fluid; tumescence, with increased turgor of tissues generally).
“(2) The mechanical tension associated with an increase of bio-electrical charge.
“(3) Discharge of the accumulated bio-electrical charge through spontaneous muscular contractions.
“(4) Flowing back of the body fluids: detumescence (mechanical relaxation).”

(Quoted from Fury on Earth, by Myron Sharaf).

This was the hypothesis he hoped to prove through work in the laboratory, a confirmation of the intuition Freud had had that mental and emotional illness had a neurological and physical basis, though Freud had been unable to discover it. Sharaf comments that he gave much space to Reich’s experiments to emphasize that he didn’t suddenly leap from theories about sexuality into orgone energy, but gradually evolved into what he considered important discoveries through the research he did in the lab based on his view of sexuality, which was based on personal experience and on experience with his patients in therapy.
So he placed the “experimental” electrode on an intact skin site, and the “reference” electrode on a scratched area that the charge beneath the skin would measure. Sharaf says the same principle is used in such research now. Nonerogenous zones he found to have a pretty stable charge, but the erogenous zones varied more. When pleasure was felt positive charge increased. With fear or anxiety, the potential became more negative. Other somewhat predictable reactions were found too, but all these depended on the patient being able to experience pleasure. That meant the patient had to be emotionally healthy enough not to block pleasurable sensations. Lack of emotional health would lead to chronic muscle spasms to defend against disturbing feelings, including sexual feelings. Other researchers didn’t take this into account.
Researchers in particular didn’t understand why Reich designed his experiments the way he did, which often diverged from common practice in the areas he worked in. One Norwegian scientist in 1935 tried the experiments and didn’t get the same results as Reich. Reich, however, criticized in turn the other scientist’s methodology. The scientist focused on attaching the electrodes securely, not understanding that the securely attached electrodes interfered with the patient’s pleasure, which was what Reich was trying to measure. This was probably a misunderstanding frequently repeated.
Making the problem even worse in the public eye was the idea that Reich wanted to study intercourse between mental patients, which was a conflation of two separate things: he did want to study mental patients, but not sex between them; and he did want to study sexual intercourse to determine the electrical nature of it, but because of where the electrodes would have to be placed, was unable to do so. The confusion of the two made him sound like a sex maniac. This made him unpopular in Norway among people uncomfortable with sexuality to begin with (not that Norway is or was different from other countries in that respect). What he in fact wanted was scientifically verifiable information about the nature of sex. That in itself many people found threatening.
At that point he made another discovery that seemed crazy to many people.
At the same time as his bioelectric experiments, Reich decided to study simpler forms of life. Sharaf suggests it was because he was tiring of the psychological complexity of humanity. He says Reich’s critics think his motive was a sort of megalomania–he had to achieve more and more, especially since there was no validity to what he claimed to be discovering. Reich’s defenders said, on the contrary, that he was following the logic of his previous researches. He could rarely observe the human orgasm; behavior of protozoa he could observe any time.
His critics seem also to have been suspicious because he refused to specialize in one field, as has been the general pattern of human work, at least since the Industrial Revolution. Most people are content to be either psychoanalysts, sociologists, or natural scientists, without traveling from one area of study to another. Such division of labor is efficient in the industrial sense, but leads to missed observations in the scientific sense. Too narrow a focus obscures the subject.
But when he went to the Botanical Institute in Oslo to get cultures of amoebae, the assistant there told him all he had to do was put blades of grass in water and examine them in 10-14 days. Reich asked how the protozoa got into the infusion. “From the air, of course,” the assistant replied, and looked astonished. Reich asked how protozoa got into the air. The assistant didn’t know. Reich took the assistant’s attitude as a sign the question he asked was an important one. He did indeed find protozoa after 10-14 days, but wondered how they got there, so began watching the infusion of grass stems in water as constantly as possible. Other scientists criticized him for watching at higher magnification than they thought appropriate, but Rich pointed out that he was more interested in “developmental” processes along the edge of the grass blade than in the structure of the vesicles. He stated this repeatedly, but made no impression on his critics.
He watched continuously through a high-powered microscope (eventually arranging for time-lapse photography, unusual at that time) to keep the infusion under observation), and saw the cells at the edge disintegrate into vesicles (“small bladders, cavities, sacs, cysts, bubbles or hollow structures”). These might collect together without any defined borders.
Louis Pasteur had taken nonliving matter, put it in sterilized water, and sterilized the surrounding air too, proving to the satisfaction of most scientists that spontaneous generation didn’t occur. Reich was now resurrecting the possibility that it DID. His method of continuous observation was thus important. Pasteur’s experiments had been done in the mid-19th century, and no one since had investigated the ground he had covered.
Reich was especially interested in motile organisms of several types. Those with spontaneous inner movement he called “bions”, and thought them transitional forms between living and nonliving.
Sharaf sees this as an analogy with Reich’s loosening of rigid character traits and muscular spasms in his patients, allowing spontaneous life of strong sensations and emotions to emerge.
Reich faced a number of criticisms of his experiments. One was that his cultures were contaminated by spores from the air, or were in his materials in a dormant state. He therefore sterilized the substance to be placed in the solution, and the solution too. Sharaf says, not only did the vesicular behavior still occur, it happened more rapidly. He tried the same thing with coal particles after heating them to 1500 degrees. Vesicular behavior still happened. If the experiment was correctly designed, this sounds very much like the spontaneous generation Pasteur had supposedly disproved.
Another repeated point was his interest in pulsations within the vesicles. Critics dismissed these as “Brownian movement”, which was also mistaken. Brownian movement is the movement of small organisms or particles from place to place, believed to be caused by bombardment from molecules. This could not explain pulsations taking place WITHIN an organism.
These are two examples of mainstream scientists apparently more anxious to dismiss Reich’s findings than to dispassionately analyze what he was looking for and what the results of his efforts really indicated. That, in itself, doesn’t prove him right, but proves at least some of his critics wrong. Reich believed he had discovered a transitional phase between nonliving and living matter. Whether or not he was right, at least some of his critics refused to look at his hypothesis and experimental evidence, apparently because it contradicted their worldviews.
Unfortunately, this isn’t unprecedented in the world of science. Mainstream Egyptologists seem unable to recognize that the monuments they’re working around are IMPOSSIBLE. They believe that the stones cut to build these monuments, ranging from large to immense, were cut with copper tools (disproven by a group in the 1970s), placed with extreme precision by human muscle power (including slabs weighing some 70 tons in the Great Pyramid, and over 100 tons in the temple facing the Great Sphinx), and intricately carved either by copper tools or knocking stones together. Their narrative doesn’t include a high technology (of which we know nothing) that makes far better sense of the evidence of the monuments.
The resistance increases when someone like Reich takes a controversial view of human sexuality. Sigmund Freud had also to take heated criticism for his own views, and Reich went further than Freud.
Later, during his stay in Norway, his critics demanded he be deported because they thought his research worthless, and were expecting many refugees from the Nazis. One of Reich’s friends provided what Sharaf calls “a satirical defense.”
He said there were a ‘”few very odd things about the controversy. All of a sudden it is claimed that Dr. Reich must be expelled from the country. When did it become a crime to perform some biological experiments, even if they should prove to be amateurish? When did it become a reason for deportation that one looked in a microscope when one was not a trained biologist?”‘
Reich provoked such extreme reactions. To be fair, not all of them were because of the revolutionary nature of his researches, but often because of his own behavior. He wanted everyone close to him to be as interested in his latest ideas as he was, which was not realistic. He entered into a romantic relationship with a patient (who apparently had wanted this even before therapy began), which was unprofessional, and was fortunate not to have bad consequences from. He took out his anger on various patients, also unprofessional, though it indicates just how frustrated he was by scientific criticism that seemed to deliberately misunderstand. Nonetheless, his discoveries DO seem to me to be revolutionary (though as a nonscientist I can’t properly evaluate them).
Sharaf says that even Reich’s critics agree that some of his work was highly original and useful, usually the work done in the 1920s. His later work is considered mistaken at best, fraudulent at worst, but, Sharaf notes, no one can agree where and when he went wrong. It’s not a given that all his work was accurate (Sharaf says he told students, “Prove me wrong”), but to say that all of it was wrong and/or fraudulent seems extreme.
As the 1930s ended his researches were far from over, and it was these later ideas that many thought drastically wrong, if not crazy.

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