Printed: 2020-07-15

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

IEET Link:

Transhumanist Therapy I: Historical Case Studies

William Sims Bainbridge

Ethical Technology

July 11, 2015

Transhumanists typically think of human enhancement in terms of biological and computational technologies that are physical in nature, and yet historically many schools of psychology have aimed to improve people through non-physical therapies, personality training, or methods of self-discovery based on relatively standard theories in social and behavioral science.  The diversity of such approaches is absolutely astonishing, but in their underlying ideologies and treatment practices, some are indistinguishable from religions, others are clearly tied to science, and still others apparently are based on extrapolations from popular notions about the human mind that may or may not be correct.

Transhumanist Therapy II: A Century of Electronic Psychotherapy

As the IEET amply illustrates, Transhumanists do seek to improve human abilities in one way without explicit use of physical technology, namely through debates on ethics from a variety of philosophical perspectives.  Yet it would be worth evaluating a range of other alternatives, using some as landmarks at the borders of sanity before rejecting them, and seriously considering hypotheses and techniques from more promising examples for possible development and adoption.

Psychotherapies and mind development groups vary in the degree to which they acknowledge their antecedents, but all derive from and connect to others.  It is essential to recognize that like biological species these social movements belong to nested sets of families, and one goal of this blog is to document that fact with awareness of how family members vary from each other.  This is based on research I completed many years ago, but to which I have recently returned to examine how modern information technologies may change the environment in decisive ways.  Later I plan to share the results of more recent research for which this blog is a prelude.  Below is a cultural map of a network of groups that were born in the marriage of two very large traditions, Psychoanalysis and Rosicrucianism, covering the years 1950 to 1980.

The first of these groups I studied closely, General Semantics which appears at the left, is not derived from any of the others, but had some influence.  I actually studied it in my sophomore year of high school, because our English teacher, Porter Dean Caesar, was a General Semanticist who assigned as our main textbook Language in Thought and Action by S. I. Hayakawa, which inspired me to read the works of the movement’s founder, Alfred Korzybski, and the journal ETC: A Review of General Semantics. The fundamental idea is that the human mind is distorted by naive use of language, and semantic training can liberate and thus greatly improve us.  It teaches that the word is not the thing and the map is not the territory.  Among its non-Aristotelian principles is the apparent contradiction that A ≠ A, which may seem mystical but does alert us to the error of taking too seriously the categories of thought provided and thus constrained by traditional languages.  Whatever we may think of Korzybski’s movement, it is plausible that humans might be improved by readings and training exercises that liberate us from linguistic stereotypes and offer more advanced modes of mental categorization.

I conducted more professional field research on Scientology for my senior honors thesis at Boston University, later publishing from it, but had long been aware of L. Ron Hubbard’s movement because it was an extension of the subculture centered on the leading science fiction magazine, Astounding Stories (later called Analog), and its initial phase called Dianetics was first announced in that magazine during 1950-1951.  Hubbard was familiar with General Semantics, and one of his most able associates in launching Dianetics, A. E. van Vogt, was a disciple of General Semantics and wrote the classic novel The World of Null-A based on it.  Van Vogt’s masterpiece was the novel Slan, which specifically deals with the potential hostility humans would have for posthumans.  This is not the right venue to evaluate Scientology, but for Transhumanists it demonstrates that many people really do wish to transcend their human limitations, and are willing to try various therapy or training exercises to achieve this lofty goal.

My research on Psychoanalysis and related psychotherapy movements culminated in my doctoral examinations at Harvard University, which were in ethnopsychiatry despite the fact my degree was in sociology.  Today, traditional Psychoanalysis has fallen into scientific disrepute, but remains a viable social movement.  Indeed, the recent dispute between the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychiatric Association over the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual suggests that all of the psychotherapies are being cast adrift from medicine, and possess only ambiguous connections to the social and cognitive sciences.  The NIMH hopes that psychiatric diagnosis will soon be based reliably on brain scans and gene sequencing, thus defining mental illness narrowly as brain problems.  It is worth noting that while Psychoanalysis was developed originally to treat hysterics and other neurotics, to become a psychoanalyst one needed to undergo the treatment, implying that it was really a method for hopefully improving all people, merely supported financially by a psychiatric definition of problems.  The battle between NIMH and APA suggests we have reached a watershed at which a re-evaluation of all theories and methods of psychotherapy is necessary, perhaps giving us in a few years a short list of ways actually to improve people.

My research on the Process and the Foundation began at Boston University, continued through my Harvard years, and now has resumed after four decades.  While the formal organization of the Process dissolved around 1975, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in the group’s literature, practices, and music which several recent performers have emulated.  The history of transcendental groups has complex dynamics as they fragment, influence each other, and sometimes combine, in their haphazard attempt to rise above the human condition, with the danger of falling beneath.

The Adler box in the diagram represents the influence on the Process of Alfred Adler’s particular version of Psychoanalysis, which actually is somewhat in harmony with Transhumanism, because Adler’s emphasis on the inferiority complex illuminated longings to become superior.  The Rosicrucian tradition, which goes by many names, consists of a large number of small para-religious groups in which a recruit climbs a status hierarchy while studying somewhat mystical lessons, with multiple initiation rituals not unlike graduations in ordinary education.  When the Process and the Foundation split in 1974, the Foundation emphasized connections to conventional religion, while the Process preserved the Psychoanalytic and Rosicrucian complexities of the original group.  Indeed, a major challenge for modern self-development movements is how they can anchor their principles in science rather than in superstition, and the groups in this diagram illustrate how difficult that can be.

My research on the Rosicrucian groups was limited to extensive reading and brief visits to the Rosicrucian Fellowship and Rosicrucian Park in California.  Research on Dianology and Eductivism was hardly more than a single day at this small group’s headquarters.  The placement of other groups is based on reading their literature or information about leaders.  The Saucer arrow refers to a group that sought to welcome extraterrestrials, described in the classic social-psychological study When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, H. W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter.  One of Hubbard’s closest associates in 1950, Dr. J. A. Winter, acted as a bridge between Scientology and the Gestalt movement of Fritz Perls.  Many psychological exercises in both Gestalt Therapy and Scientology train the client’s attention and awareness, for example projecting the client’s consciousness into inanimate objects, and recalling past experiences as if they are happening now in present time.  Mind Dynamics and EST (Erhard Seminars Training) emphasized short-duration psychological training exercises, while Amprinistics, Dianology, and Abilitism were less prominent human development movements.

Clearly, any serious Transhumanist project to collect valid and valuable methods for self-improvement from social movements such as these would face difficult challenges.  How can we avoid being stigmatized by associating with countercultures that many thoughtful people already despise?  How can we have the clear vision to see potentially valuable ideas and methods in the rubbish heaps in and around the Psychoanalysis and Rosicrucian traditions?  How can we test whatever we salvage to learn its true quality, and develop the concepts necessary to combine elements that had very different origins?  Such difficult questions cannot be answered without data, so I propose that we begin with carefully selected transitional examples, such as the use of information technology hardware by some of these groups.

In future blogs I shall consider two technologies that may assist individual personality improvement, electronic instruments that measure emotional responses during treatments, and character assessment systems more solidly rooted in standard academic psychology.  The implications of the NIMH-APA dispute needs examination as well, as does the issue of whether self-improvement diminishes or enhances democratic sentiments.  This brief historical survey is meant to remind us that past generations have shared some of the transcendent hopes of modern Transhumanists, and achievement of those lofty goals can be fraught with trouble.

Next installment: A Century of Electronic Psychotherapy (this is the first of six essays on this topic)

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.


Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
phone: 860-428-1837