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Transhumanist Therapy II: A Century of Electronic Psychotherapy

While less controversial than it was fifty years ago, psychotherapy is an anomalous feature of modern culture, plagued by defects.  Among its shortcomings, psychotherapy has made remarkably little use of information technologies. This blog considers electronic devices to measure human emotional response, that may have been stigmatized by their use in radical religious movements, or by their origins in primitive attempts a century ago to cure neurotics.  I do not recommend simply adopting those religious or therapeutic practices, but adapting the technology to new uses.  A mentally healthy individual could employ emotion-sensing hardware to identify personal goals, consider the meaning of past events, and explore future possibilities.

Part One: Transhumanist Therapy: Historical Case Studies

Some of these devices are called lie detectors, although polygraphs is a more technical term that suggests their use is not limited to criminal investigations, and that ideally more than one variable is measured.  A person’s breathing and heart rate may reflect the degree of fear or other arousal, and have been measured for many decades.  Recently, functional magnetic resonance imaging has been used in a range of scientific studies, detecting changes in brain activity localized to various meaningful areas, and has some use in medical diagnosis.  An especially effective measure is galvanic skin response, often called GSR, emotionally induced change in the electrical resistance of the human skin, essentially a reflection of sweating but not requiring very visible wetness to be detected electronically.

Already a century ago, Carl Gustav Jung and his disciples were exploring the use in psychotherapy of a device to measure GSR, and researchers today still employ it, yet it never became a standard tool in psychotherapy.  Jung was one of the two most prominent early defectors from Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalysis, Alfred Adler being the other.  Remarkably, Jung was both the most mystical and the most scientific of the prominent defectors, for example arguing in Synchronicity that some mystical force unrelated to cause and effect connected separate events, and yet conducting many rather rigorous experiments - something Freud himself never did.

For example Jung sought to discover rigorous methods to analyze free association, most simply the therapist speaking a list of words, one at a time, and asking the patient to say what first comes into mind upon hearing each one.  Jung became especially interested in the duration of the time delay before the patient responded, which was assumed to be a measure of the degree to which the patient had suppressed from consciousness his or her feelings about the topic.  A very recent online development is Project Implicit that administers an online judgment test claimed to detect prejudice in a person, as inferred from comparing the duration of delays in responding to various stimuli, for example pairing various words with racial terms.  In 2013, two of the developers, Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji, published a popular book about it, and their title Blind Spot is reminiscent of Freud’s notion of the subconscious mind.  This is an example of political use of psychoanalytic thinking, because delay can be caused by many things other than subconscious repression of prejudice, including the time required to estimate what the social reaction to one’s response might be.  Indeed, free association methods may be useful, but we would be wise to avoid being trapped in simplistic interpretations of the results.

There may be several reasons why GSR is not widely used in psychotherapy, but one surely is that the technology was discredited in the 1950s when it was very prominently used in the Dianetics and Scientology movement.  That was the time when Freud’s version of Psychoanalysis was riding high among intellectuals and members of the upper social classes, and in its October 16, 1950, issue, Newsweek magazine called Dianetics “poor man’s Psychoanalysis.”  In 1958, a really excellent study by August Hollingshead and Fredrick Redlich, Social Class and Mental Illness, demonstrated that in that decade the highest prestige psychotherapies pretended to liberate middle class patients from inhibitions, while the members of lower social classes had to make do with therapies that imposed control on their behavior.  Scientology promised to give clients greater control over themselves, but usually by first relinquishing control to the therapist.  Today we can recognize that people of all social classes differ in whether they would benefit from more or less self-control.  In the 1950s, psychoanalysts were simply trying to take control of psychiatry for their own advantage, and would sell their treatment in terms of any rhetoric that served their own selfish interests.

To tell the truth, painful as it may seem to some readers, the E-Meter GSR hardware used by Scientology, and some of the procedures for using it, are actually of high quality.  We do not need to infer from this anything about the claims Scientology made for the effects of the treatments, or the theory of the human mind on which they are based.  In the first blog of this series I reported the ethnographic research I did on Scientology and an offshoot movement, the Process, which also used this device but called it the P-Scope.  As part of the research, I obtained an E-Meter and experimented with it extensively.  The Wikipedia page titled “E-Meter” does a good job describing it, links to other information sources, and reports some of the controversies surrounding it.

For both Scientology and the Process, the E-Meter and other non-technological methods were intended to raise a person above the average, even to heights of superiority over other people.  Whatever we think of religion, that goal should still be of interest to Transhumanists.  The big difference between the two groups was that Scientology was more individualistic, whereas the Process was organized in world-rejecting communes and more collectivist.  A prime goal in Dianetics and Scientology was going clear, a term derived from the technological act of clearing old data out from the memory registers of a calculator or computer.  The goal for the Process was almost the opposite, helping people share their inner natures, in order better to join with other people in building a superior society.

An E-Meter or P-Scope is used mainly in two-person sessions between a therapist and a client.  The client holds electrodes connected to the device that registers GSR changes.  The therapist can see a large display needle, like that of a traditional ohmmeter, but it is connected to electronic circuitry involving an amplifier and a Wheatstone bridge, designed to display even small changes in the client’s electrical resistance.  The therapist adjusts rheostats to keep the display needle near the middle of its range and asks questions or gives commands, paying close attention to any stimulus that causes a noticeable response.

About thirty years ago, when personal computers were very new, I gave a lecture at Harvard where I was a faculty member, showing how the output from an E-Meter could be entered into a computer, so the data could be displayed, saved, and connected to the words that were spoken.  I used an Apple IIe, which unlike modern computers was made so that the user could add various circuit cards.  I had done this with a voltage input card I connected to the circuitry of the E-Meter, and I programmed a moving bar graph to display the data the computer was getting from the E-Meter.  Of course today we could set the system up so that the therapist and client were interacting over Internet, rather than sitting across a table from each other.

Recently, inspired by early Transhumanist science fiction like The World of Null-A and Slan by A. E. Van Vogt, I wrote a novel, The Processean Revival, using the Process as the perspective from which to consider a range of issues, seriously but in a free fictional context.  Here, a Processean priestess named Lilith demonstrates one of the many P-Scope processes, called Goal Line Analysis and based on Alfred Adler’s ideas, to a psychologist named Watson, a program director at the grant-giving National Social Science Institute:

====Excerpt from The Processean Revival====

Yes, let us begin,” she agreed.  “Watson, we will demonstrate a slightly advanced form of goal line session, not actually the first one we would normally give you, just so you can see the wider potential.  In an ordinary first session, we might simply ask you to list some of the superficial things you happened to want at the moment.  From session to session the goals would become more serious and reveal deeper and deeper conflicts within you.  When I refer to your chronic goals, I mean what you are constantly trying to achieve in your life, which might mean fleeing from something you fear, or accomplishing something good.  I will ask the question repeatedly for a few times, and enter each answer you give, as the computer links those words to your resistance reading.  Are you ready?” He nodded, sat up in his chair, held each of the silver spheres in one of his hands, and looked intently at Lilith.

Lilith: “Watson, be here now!  Banish all other thoughts from your mind, come up to present time, and focus on the questions I shall ask.  What is your chronic goal?”

Watson: “To spend grant money.”  She typed those words into the computer.

Lilith: “What is your chronic goal?”

Watson: “To support science.”

Lilith: “What is your chronic goal?”

Watson: “To feel important.”

Lilith: “What is your chronic goal?”

Watson: “To make people admire me.”

Lilith: “What is your chronic goal?”

Watson: “To feel in control.”

Lilith: “What is your chronic goal?”

Watson: “To end the nightmares.”

Lilith: “What is your chronic goal?”

Watson: “To hide from everyone.”

Lilith: “What is your chronic goal?”

Watson: “To lose control.”

Lilith then pointed at the display screen on the wall.  “Notice that I entered each of your answers, and the computer displayed each one with a bar graph indicating how emotionally aroused you became.  In a real session we would go through the list again, perhaps several times, and the computer would average the arousal ratings for each answer to improve the accuracy.  Two of them stand out after this one time: ‘To make people admire me.’  ‘To end the nightmares.’  Each of them could become the beginning of a new round of questions, or if they prove especially arousing, of many rounds.  For example, I can ask you what would happen if you succeeded in making people admire you, getting many answers, and then asking what would happen if you failed to get people to admire you.  That might take an entire session, and some answers would become branch points for other questions.  We might not return to the nightmares you want to end until several sessions later.”

====End of Excerpt====

A very different kind of procedure, used in both Scientology and the Process, had the patient relive past experiences, chaining from one experience to another through shared elements of their descriptions.  For example, in one session I ran during my experiments, the research subject was describing the environment of a past traumatic experience and said, “There was a floor like this floor.”  The meter’s needle moved.  Later I asked if the subject could recall another time when there was a floor like this floor, and indeed a memory of another important incident flooded out.  As in Psychoanalysis, the assumption was that remembering past experiences in a therapeutic context could reduce their traumatic effects on us, but I would suggest that a large number of very different goals could be served.  For example: (1) It can be fun to relive past experiences.  (2) Memories can be strengthened by doing so.  (3) We may gain insights about life in general, or the meaning of specific elements of the memories, even if trauma and the subconscious mind are not involved.

But why must we remain stuck in the past?  A series of GSR measured episodes could begin with some important event in the person’s life, but then look toward the future rather than the past.  “Now imagine a time in the future when there is a floor like this floor.  In your mind’s eye, see that floor.  Now, what else do you see?”  Or, imagining episodes could be connected to the Goal Line Analysis, and there are several ways this could be done.  For example, Watson could have been asked to imagine a future scenario in which people were admiring him, then imagine other scenarios when GSR highlighted particular features of the first one.  Or, the goal line could focus not on goals possessed by Watson, but the goals of society or groups within it, leading via GSR readings to science-fiction scenarios in which Watson imagined being inside a future world other than his own personal ideal.  The fundamental result could be greater self-awareness, increased imagination, and amplified cognitive capacity more generally.

My 2014 book, Personality Capture and Emulation, gave extensive attention to personality analysis by means of questionnaires, the topic of the next blog in this series, but hardly mentioned the use of GSR or other physical measures.  Thus I can imagine that future Internet-based technologies analogous to E-Meters might have many valuable uses, but frankly I lack the data to prove that will be true.  I suggest that many Transhumanists and their friends might want to experiment themselves.  Some competence with electronics would be valuable. offers a selection of GSR devices for sale, but many of them seem to be crude devices capable only of possibly helping the user relax in simplistic “biofeedback” routines.  Buyer beware!  Having adequate hardware is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success in innovating new electronic techniques for self-improvement, because also needed are appropriate procedures and some form of customization to the nature and needs of the user.  The next blog in this series will consider ways to classify human personality variation.

Next installment: Dimensions of Personality and Culture

William Sims Bainbridge Ph.D. is an IEET Senior fellow, and a prolific and influential sociologist of religion, science and popular culture. Dr. Bainbridge serves as co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the NSF.


I would say that psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy which is thought to be the gold standard, has made very little if any progress since Freud. In addition, psychopharmacology hasn’t done much better. The efficacy for many anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, etc. is little better than a placebo. For those seriously depressed or suffering from psychosis by far and away the best and most effective treatment is electro-convulsive therapy or other brain stimulation techniques.

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