Wilhelm Reich: Using Orgone Energy

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In his bioenergetic experiments Wilhelm Reich had noticed particles he called “bions”, which he thought were transitional forms between nonliving and living matter. There were three in particular: red, lancet-shaped particles he called T-bacilli, and two different blue particles he called PA and SAPA bions.
The latter two first immobilized then killed the T-bacilli, especially the SAPA bions, which he had derived from ocean sand. The latter also seemed to emit some kind of radiation, which left marks on his skin when exposed to it, and also gave him severe conjunctivitis so that he had to take a break from microscopy.
In order to isolate this radiation to study it he built a box of metal on the inside and organic material on the outside. He had noticed that metal reflected the energy (though the energy could also penetrate the metal), while organic matter seemed to absorb it. These boxes he later called orgone energy accumulators (he coined the word orgone from a combination of orgasm and organism) and he would use them therapeutically, but his biographer emphasizes that this wasn’t originally what they were for.
These accumulators seemed fishy to many people, as if Reich were some sort of charismatic quack. Myron Sharaf, his biographer, takes pains in his biography to show how Reich arrived at his ideas and techniques through a development of his basic ideas by observation of himself, of patients in therapy, and scientific experimentation.
Reich was by no means perfect. He managed to antagonize many people, including his first wife and many former friends, by demanding they be as interested and committed to his concerns as he was, and that they help him with what he did. But he also antagonized people who didn’t understand what he was trying to do. Studying sexuality seemed suspicious to many, as did his later therapeutic techniques of having both male and female patients mostly undressed (men in shorts, women in shorts and bra) so he could observe changes in skin color, warmth and coolness, patient’s breathing, etc. He also physically manipulated patients, using his thumb or palm to loosen muscular segments in chronic spasm. This often elicited strong emotional outbursts of rage or sobbing (he called sobbing “the great softener” of the musculature).
Sharaf says that Reich thought this a more direct way of discovering the origin of neuroses than analysis of dreams or resistance, in which he was less interested anyway. Not because he was unable to analyze in these ways, but because he preferred the tangible, and biology was obviously more tangible than psychology, though not necessarily easier to understand. But when people heard of this sort of therapy they envisioned sexual orgies, and Reich’s frank sexual attitudes contributed to that misunderstanding.
Reich found what he often felt was willful ignorance difficult to bear, especially from people close to him, and especially if he had alienated them. One man, about Reich’s age, who had befriended him and introduced him to psychoanalysis, must, says Sharaf, have found it most difficult to be in Reich’s shadow and have Reich demand his support besides. As insightful as Reich could be, he couldn’t always see why people refused to let him take over their whole lives, or that they could disagree with him without having sinister motives. Even people who generally agreed that his work was important could resent the demands he made on them to support him.
When he put SAPA cultures in his orgone accumulator (as he would later call it) he saw flickers of light. This he had expected. After he took the cultures out of the box, he observed the interior of the box again to compare what he saw. Flickers of light were still visible in the box. He reasoned that there must be traces of the culture still in the box, so he cleaned it thoroughly, but STILL saw flashes. Slowly and reluctantly he concluded that the energy wasn’t just in the cultures, but in the atmosphere too.
He questioned that conclusion: if the energy was omnipresent, why had no one else noticed it? But he became more convinced of his conclusion when he saw the same kind of flashing in the night sky.
He saw this without the use of any equipment. He saw it in the sky opposite the moon, which he though made little sense. If flickering in the sky was caused by light diffusion, it should be greater or at least equal around the moon, but it was greater in areas between the stars. The flickering was the same as he had observed in the box. His eventual conclusion was that that the energy was in the atmosphere, not just in the SAPA cultures, and thus was virtually everywhere.
Few other people accepted what Reich thought he’d discovered. He approached Einstein, who was initially fascinated, but then explained the phenomenon away. Other scientists thought the flickering entirely subjective, after-images of the sort children love to play games with, eyes closed.
Reich, says Sharaf, always kept in mind how our attitudes to our own sensations can affect our reactions to orgone energy: from orgastic potency to bions to energy in the atmosphere. Were Reich’s observations objective? Reich liked to quote Goethe: “Is it then so great a secret, what God and mankind and the world are? No! But none like to hear it, so it rests concealed.”
This is a perspective we can’t exclude. Fear is merely the most obvious thing that prevents us from seeing things as they are. Religious and scientific people are as prone to this fear, or to the preference for the paradigm they’re used to, as anyone.
Reich was able to break out of (after initially building on) previous paradigms and follow where his research led him. That’s what scientists are supposed to do, but often don’t manage, at least in part for reasons they can’t control, or can control only with difficulty.
Such reasons include sexual anxiety, which most of us have. Religious and scientific people are not necessarily exempt from it. Another reason is the investment most people have in their preferred paradigm. Religious people who see their religion as necessarily rejecting science won’t be persuaded by scientific argument, at least about the subjects causing them anxiety. Scientists are invested in their careers and the mainstream conceptions which they have to accept to greater or lesser degree if they want to continue to get funding for research. Being a maverick, as Reich was, largely shuts down outside funding. Sharaf quotes Max Planck as saying that new ideas don’t become accepted because their originators are so persuasive (some exceptions obviously apply), but because those opposing the ideas die off, and younger scientists, who have lived longer with the ideas, are more inclined to accept them. This resistance to the acceptance of new ideas obviously protects various scientific fields from going off in all kinds of wild, REALLY crackpot directions. But it also prevents fruitful ideas from being accepted as quickly as they might be. An example of that is Alfred Wegener, who proposed in 1912 that the continents moved, and got ridiculed for it until the 1960s, when the theory of continental drift was accepted. In the case of Reich, this resistance has helped prevent his work being objectively analyzed, although people who agreed with his thesis also were usually not trained scientists, and didn’t take the trouble to acquire this training.
At first, Reich thought the T-bacilli mentioned earlier were specific cancer causing agents, but then found them in perfectly healthy people and animals. That caused him to think of how organisms succeeded or failed in resisting illness, a concept that was, again, ahead of its time. Cancer, he found rarely developed in a young healthy host, but usually in an older, biologically damaged one. In healthy people red blood cells broke down into particles of relatively equal size. In unhealthy people they broke into a variety of sizes. He found this aspect of blood an accurate predictor of the production of cancer tumors. These were found at high magnifications that others studying cancer didn’t use.
From 1941-43 he saw 15 cancer patients, and found that cancer was only one symptom of an underlying process. One of these cases was a woman with breast cancer who was thought hopeless. He found that her sexual life had not been satisfactory: she had been married, but her husband died after two years. After that, she never became sexually involved again, and her desires turned into anxiety states. When he saw her, he found that her musculature was extremely rigid, and that she was unable to breathe deeply. He also found that cancer patients in general were emotionally mild and resigned, which he thought related to loss of energy in the organism, even at the cellular level.
He had tried treating cancer with injections of SAPA bions, but found this inconvenient. He had decided that the SAPA bions were the same as the orgone energy he saw in the atmosphere, so decided to try putting the mice he’d been experimenting on into the orgone accumulator.
He found the results dramatic: the mice quickly got healthier. The orgone energy positively affected the organism. Reich and his students began using the accumulator themselves, and noticed that their vitality increased.
So Reich tried using the accumulator to treat human patients. His cancer patient, he found, had her hemoglobin level rise, her pain recede, and she was able to sleep without use of morphine. Her breast tumor shrank, she was able to get out of bed, and resume housework. But other problems surfaced.
With the increase in her energy level, she became anxious and depressed. She seemed to experience acutely the unsatisfactory nature of her life, and asked if the accumulator could cure her neurosis too. Reich had to tell her it could not. He saw her as a psychiatric patient, and she made some progress, but then broke her leg, declined rapidly, and died. Reich’s treatment hadn’t been completely successful; it had prolonged the patient’s life for ten months, and had kept her tumor-free and pain-free for much of that time.
Sharaf points out that Reich didn’t treat her with a narrowly specific means, but treated her physically first, then psychiatrically, as that became appropriate. This was an example of his having a broad enough knowledge base to be able to more or less see the whole phenomenon she was experiencing, and be able to treat each aspect of it. It’s also an indictment of overspecialized science which can miss crucial aspects of something for lack of sufficiently unspecialized knowledge.
Reich was also cautious in his claims about the accumulator, and willing to admit there were things he didn’t know. Another cancer patient, with whom Reich worked on other projects, built his own accumulator and used it as he thought appropriate, being in a sense his own doctor. Reich encouraged him to do this saying that they didn’t know the simplest things about the accumulator and the energy it used, and had to find out. Other scientists attacked Reich because he said that the orgone energy penetrated metal, but he didn’t know why. One would think such a frank admission would be preferable to claiming more knowledge than he had, but it wasn’t.
With all his imperfections, this period of his life (possibly more than others) shows Reich pioneering on a broad front, rather than finding specialized knowledge about a narrow subject. He must have felt that once he opened up an area of investigation, more specific research could follow. But few in the mainstream of science were interested in following where Reich had gone. By the time Sharaf’s biography was published (1982) some of Reich’s concepts were being used in various forms of treatment (Bioenergetics was a direct descendent of Reichian therapy, practiced by Alexander Lowen, a student of Reich’s), but little basic research had been done on many of his various findings. From the time he lived in Norway in the second half of the 1930s (if not before), there were people in mainstream science who seemed determined to prove him a fraud, hardly an objective stance.
Sharaf quotes Dr. Courtney Baker, son of Dr. Elsworth Baker (one of Reich’s students, and practitioner of his form of therapy), who performed one of Reich’s experiments and didn’t get the same results. Dr. Baker objected to the idea that someone who generally agreed with Reich’s concepts couldn’t be objective and report experimental data that didn’t agree with Reich’s predictions. Scientists predisposed to disagree with Reich were certainly no more likely to be objective.
Whatever one thinks of Reich’s ideas, one ought to be appalled at the way Reich found himself the object of a witch hunt, eventually went to prison for fraud (which had not been clearly proved), and had his books burned, something that’s not supposed to happen in this country. That will be a subject for a later post.

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