Wilhelm Reich

Essay : Part Two

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE LIFE AND WORKS OF WILHELM REICH:Part Two

Hitler came to power in January 1933. In March, the Nazi's publicly attacked one of Reich's youth pamphlets. Reich, being the intelligent man that he was, fled Germany for Denmark but was run out of that country within a year by politicians who labeled his pamphlets and writings "pornographic" (Sharaf 172). From Denmark he moved on to Oslo, Norway in 1934. It was here that he first began to move psychoanalysis into the realm of natural science.

"By 1934, the physiological emphasis of Reich's therapeutic work was becoming increasingly important: the investigation of the streamings of energy (libido) in pleasure; the reverse movement of that energy in anxiety; and the muscular spasms which, along with the character armor, prevented the free emotional expression of the organism. But Reich was not content simply to progress further in his therapeutic technique. He also wished to prove his own concepts and, with them, Freud's early hypothesis of the libido, in a demonstrable, quantitative way. He wanted to provide the biological foundation for psychoanalysis that Freud had predicted, even though Freud himself had abandoned his early efforts to link analysis with physiology" (206-7).

Reich was impressed with the work of two German scientists, Hartmann and Rhumbler. They had done experiments with amoebas and electricity. They found that amoebas reacted to stimuli in one of two ways (depending on the quality and quantity of differing stimuli): they moved toward them or away from them. They also noted that when the amoebae was at rest that it pulsated in a rhythm of expansion and contraction. In addition, they found internal movement in the form of fluid currents: when the amoebae would move toward a stimuli, the fluid would move toward the surface of the amoebae; conversely, when the amoebae would move away from stimuli, the fluid would contract to the center of the organism (208).

Reich was also impressed by the work of Friedrich Kraus who, in 1926, had shown that living substances consisted essentially of colloids and mineral salts, both of which when dissolved in a solution are electrolytes--i.e. there is bio-electricity present in the body (209).

"The most important antecedent to Reich's experimental work was his own study of the function of the orgasm. Clinically, as we have noted, he had long been impressed by the fact that mechanical sexual processes...could occur without strong sensations of pleasure. Clinically, too, he had been concerned with alleviation of this condition. Now he wanted to move toward laboratory investigation: What had to move, what had to be present beyond known processes, for pleasure to be experienced?

"Several lines of thought influenced Reich to hypothesize that bio-electrical processes were involved in the flow of sexual pleasure. As we have noted, he had been impressed with Kraus's bio-electrical model of the organism. Secondly, he noted the popular idea of a kind of 'electricity' between a man and a woman who are attracted to each other. (Reich tended to take quite seriously everyday expressions for energetic or emotional processes within or between people.) Third, he had commented that moisture, a conductor of electricity, played an important role in sexuality: 'There is an almost irresistible urge for complete contact between the two organ surfaces when the erect male organ touches the moist mucous membrane of the vagina...'.

"Reich now returned to two old observations, but from a new angle: slow, gentle frictional movements during intercourse produced much stronger sensations than harsh, rapid movements; and after orgasm, the genital became refractory to any further excitations. From these observations, Reich hypothesized that the orgasm represented a form of electrical discharge. Then he went on to make one of his bold leaps: he described a four-part process which, in his view, characterized not only the orgasm but also cell division (mitosis). This process, which he termed the 'orgasm formula' or the 'life formula,' consisted of four steps:

  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)" (Sharaf's emphasis, 209-10).

This work was well received, but Reich was not content to stop the intellectual process. His researched moved on.

One of the main criticisms of Reich is that he never stuck to one line of research long enough to argue it thoroughly. I agree, but also think that the shifts to new areas of research were not arbitrary but had a logical flow. However, many were quick to dismiss some of Reich's later research because of this tendency of his-which is a shame from my perspective, for I feel Reich was definitely onto something and that his research should not have been, or continue to be, dismissed so readily. However, part of the tendency to dismiss his research results from the fact the Reich was proposing a new order in direct conflict with all political systems. Secondly, his work with the German Communist Party did not do much for his reputation during the post-WWII Red Scare. Third, he did not have any qualms about pointing out perceived faults in the work of his colleagues and, as a result, lost many friends. Finally, he was constantly being misrepresented: he was accused of using mental patients for his sexual experiments in Denmark; his desire for self-regulated sex among youths was easily twisted to serve the ends of his critics; and later he was to be accused of having sex orgies at his laboratory in Maine.

However, I'm getting ahead of myself. What happened next in Reich's research would forever change the course of his work. Reich wanted to study the streaming of fluids in an organism. His research at this point was primarily concerned with vegetative currents in the body. Reich's earlier research into character armor led him to formulate a system of armoring within the human body. He broke down the different "plates" of the armor into rings. There was a ring around the brow of the head, another around the mouth, another around the neck, another around the chest, and so forth. The goal of his treatment of patients at this point was to break down this armor so that the vegetative currents, which he believed existed in humans, could flow freely. When it could, then Reich would have hopefully loosened the armor of the patient to the point that the potential for the "orgasm reflex" had been obtained--the quintessential goal of Reich's treatment, for orgastic potency was like a signpost of the psychically healthy individual in Reich's conception of bio-psychology.

Actually, this conception of a life energy (i.e., the vegetative currents) is not that different from others like chi, the name of the body currents in ancient Chinese medicine. Reich often referred to the autonomous nervous system--a distinct nervous system that was directly related to the vegetative currents in question. For example, the sciences of acupuncture and acupressure work on the principle of pressure points in the body. Acupuncture has been used successfully as an anesthetic in hospitals; however, the pressure points do not line up with nerve endings. Rather the points are determined by the location of chi currents.

Reich, on the other hand, avoided any association with "mystic" concepts like chi and kept his work with vegetative currents strictly in the realm of bio-electricity (and, later, orgone energy). Keep in mind that the crux of Reich's conception of the "orgasm reflex" was the capacity for involuntary muscular spasms during orgasm. This was most likely to happen when the armor of the individual--which had been created as a result of childhood sexual trauma and/or the emotional plague--had been worked through and overcome in treatment which, in turn, would allow the bio-electrical (i.e., life energy) to flow freely.

Now, as mentioned, Reich wanted to study these vegetative streamings; however, observation of the process in humans was extremely difficult. As a result, Reich took inspiration from the amoebae research of Hartmann and Rhumbler (Sharaf 218-9). He went to the Botanical Institute in Oslo to obtain cultures. Instead, he was instructed that in order to create an amoebae culture all one needed to do was to put blades of grass in a solution and then wait 10 to 14 days. Reich asked how the amoebas got into the solution and was told that there were spores in the air that came to rest in the solution which then thrived and multiplied. Regardless, Reich did as told and, in a few days, had his protozoa and amoebae. He confirmed the research of Hartmann and Rhumbler observing the streaming of fluids in the organisms as they were exposed to different stimuli.

"However, Reich was also interested in the developmental processes he noticed at the edge of the grass blade. He was struck by the following phenomenon: If the plant tissue was kept under continuous observation from when it was first put in to soak, the cells at the edge gradually disintegrated into vesicles, which eventually broke off from the main structure and floated freely in the water. (Vesicles are here defined as 'small bladders, cavities, sacs, cysts, bubbles or hollow structures.') Often the vesicles would collect together and float around in clumps, initially without any clearly defined borders or membranes.

"Reich [in The Bion Experiments p.28] also described the process in which a clear border or margin developed: 'I observed the change taking place in both the vesicular structure and the formation of a border in one object over a period of four hours. An irregularly structured, boundryless, vesicular object had formed at the margin of piece of plant. The object gradually swelled and detached itself from the section of plant. Double refracting margins appeared on the edges. The vesicular structure became more regular and homogeneous and the vesicles refracted light with greater contrast. In its structure the object was almost indistinguishable from a passing amoebae. It assumed a long oval shape and became increasingly taut as the margin became more complete and distinct'" (Sharaf's emphasis, 219-20).

Reich also observed that at a magnification of 3000x, one could see movements of expansion and contraction within individual heaps of vesicles (CB 14-21). Reich called these pulsating clumps of vesicles 'bions' and posited that they were the transitional phase between non-living and living matter. Reich went on the use different materials to make his solutions (food, sand, coal particles, etc.). In each case he found that as the matter disintegrated in the solution, the particles would clump together into bions. These bions would do more than pulsate; they "moved about...ingested unattached vesicles...at times they divided into smaller heaps, which expanded as they took up fluid or unattached vesicles, thus simulating reproduction and growth" (Sharaf 222). In some of the preparations Reich found two kinds of bions-common, packet-shaped, blue amoebiod vesicles and smaller, lancet-shaped red vesicles. The first type he called PA-bions; the second type he referred to as T-bacilli. The two types of bions also had effects on each other. PA-bions immobilized the T-bacilli. The significance of this will become apparent later.

Reich's critics objected to the bion experiments stating that his preparations were not completely sterile. To counter this argument Reich heated coal particles to 1500 C--biology states that no germs survive above a temperature of 180 C. He also conducted experiments using a hermetically sealed system. In both cases, bions still formed.

In January 1939, one of Reich's assistants took the wrong container from the sterilizer and, instead of earth, heated ocean sand. After heating and placement in solution, two days passed after which Reich observed large blue bions which refracted light strongly. This new, third type of bion Reich named SAPA-bions. They caused pain in his eyes when he observed them under a microscope, and they created a prickling sensation in his hand when he held it near them. In the dark, the SAPA-bions glowed blue (CB 81-90).

Criticism of Reich's work continued nonetheless. Between September 1937 and the fall of 1938, over 100 articles denouncing Reich appeared in the Oslo newspapers. In addition, Norwegian authorities were reluctant to extend Reich's visa--a definite problem, for Reich, without a renewed visa, would be deported back to Germany, and the Nazi's were not favorably inclined toward Reich considering his work with the German Communist Party and his criticism of Nazism in The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Thus, in early 1939 Reich decided to emigrate to the United States. Reich "felt that the constant publicity combined with the continuing practical difficulties [i.e. loss of some of his financial backers] made Norway no longer the hospitable environment it had been until late in 1937" (233).

In the United States, Reich first lived in Forest Hills, New York. During this time Reich continued his bion research studying the strange blue radiation of the SAPA-bions which he supported with his psychoanalytic practice. By this point he was referring to the bion radiation as orgone energy. The next step in his study was to attempt to build an apparatus that would contain the energy. Reich had observed that the orgone energy was reflected by metallic materials and absorbed by organic materials.

"In order to avoid or minimize this external loss of radiation, Reich designed a boxlike apparatus that had metal walls on the inside backed with organic material on the outside. He reasoned that the radiation from the [bion] cultures would be reflected back by the inner metal walls; the outer deflection would be reduced by the external layer of organic material. One panel of the apparatus had an opening with a lens through which possible manifestations of the presumed energy could be observed by the researcher from the outside. In effect, Reich had designed the essential features of what he would later call an orgone energy accumulator" (277).

The big breakthrough came next:

"When Reich began to observe through the lens the enclosed dark space containing the SAPA-bions, at first he noted what he expected: the same kind of visual phenomena but in an even more intense form than he had previously seen. Now it was possible to distinguish two kinds of light phenomena: bluish, moving vapors, and sharper, yellowish points and lines that flickered. Reich expected that when he removed the SAPA-bions and ventilated the apparatus, the light phenomena would disappear. However, he found exactly the same light phenomena, though not as strong, in the empty box, in the absence of SAPA cultures. He first assumed that the organic part of the enclosure had absorbed energy radiating from the cultures, and this was what showed. Then he took the box apart, dipped the metal plates into water, put in new cotton, and ventilated everything for several days. But when he tried once more, he still found some visual light phenomena. He also had another box built, with a glass front wall but without organic material outside. This box he kept carefully away from rooms in which SAPA cultures were stored. However, no matter what he did, he could not eliminate the radiation from the empty box. The light phenomena were not as intense as when the box contained cultures, but they were undoubtedly present.

"Confronted with the ever present visual phenomena, Reich groped to the conclusion that the energy he was studying was 'everywhere.' In his account, he did not arrive at this belief easily..." (Sharaf's emphasis, 277-8; see also CB 90-93).

In 1940, Reich went on vacation in New England. He had stopped and rented a cabin on Mooselookmeguntic Lake, near the town of Rangeley, Maine. He was very impressed with the climate, dry and clear unlike the heat and humidity of Forest Hills. He would return to the area during the summers. Eventually, he built his research center there and, by 1950, was living on the property year round.

However, one night in 1940:

"he was watching the sky above the lake. He noted stars flickering, stronger in the east than the west, though the moon was low on the western horizon. Reich reasoned that if the theory that the flickering of the stars was due to diffuse light was correct, the flickering would have to be the same everywhere or even more intense near the moonlight. But exactly the opposite was the case.

"...Reich began to look at individual stars through a wooden tube. Accidentally, he focused the tube on a dark blue patch between the stars. To his surprise, he saw a vivid flickering, then flashes of fine rays of light. The more he turned in the direction of the moon, the less intense these phenomena appeared. They were most pronounced in the darkest spots of the sky, between the stars. It was the same flickering and flashing he had observed so many times in his box. A magnifying glass used as an eyepiece in the tube magnified the rays. All of a sudden, Reich's box with its flickering lost its mysterious quality. The explanation was simple: the energy in the box, in the absence of cultures, came from the atmosphere. Hence the atmosphere contained an unknown energy.

"Initially, Reich was puzzled by the nature of bion radiation, then further perplexed by his inability to isolate the radiation. We leave him in the summer of 1940 finding victory in his failure: he could not isolate the radiation because it was 'everywhere.'

"As far as Reich's formulation of orgone energy was concerned, in one sense he had been working with it throughout his long focus on bodily energy. He was certainly working on it more concretely in the bio-electrical experiments, the spontaneous motility of the bions, and the radiation from the SAPA cultures. But he himself dated the discovery to his visual observation over a lake in Maine" (Sharaf's emphasis, 278-80; see also CB 93-95, 99-103).

Next, Reich attempted to quantify the energy via thermal measurements. He placed a thermometer above a small accumulator and another above a control box. He found that there was temperature fluctuation between 0.2C and 1.8C with a mean of 0.5C--the accumulator was always warmer than the surrounding air. He was also able to measure the energy with an electroscope and a modified Geiger counter.

Reich took his case to Albert Einstein. They met on January 13,1941, at Princeton. Einstein told Reich that if his findings were true, that it would be a "great bombshell" in the scientific community (286). Two weeks later, they duplicated the thermal experiment and achieved the same results. Such a finding was in direct conflict with Newton's Second Law of Thermodynamics. Einstein was impressed, and Reich agreed to leave an accumulator with Einstein so that he could conduct further tests.

Einstein eventually wrote back to Reich telling him that he had decided that the temperature difference was due to convection currents in the air of the laboratory. Reich was puzzled by Einstein's simple dismissal. He developed rigorous controls to exclude the convection hypothesis and still found that there was a temperature difference. He wrote back to Einstein and pleaded his point, but Einstein was satisfied with the convection argument and showed no interest in lending any support, public or financial, to Reich's work. One must also consider that Einstein was most likely becoming busy with the Manhattan Project at the time and probably did not have the time to give Reich's work adequate attention. Alas, support from Einstein would have gone a long way.

Reich's research next led him to speculate on and experiment with medicinal applications of orgone energy.

"To understand the use of the accumulator in the treatment of illness, we have to return first to the Oslo days. During 1937, Reich had observed that PA-bions immobilized various kinds of bacilli. They also immobilized T-bacilli--one kind of bacteria resulting from the disintegration of animal tissue. The paralyzing effect of the PA-bions led Reich to hypothesize an antithetical relationship between these two organisms, with healthy properties attributed to the PA-bions and noxious ones to the T-bacilli. Between 1937 and 1939, Reich ran a series of experiments injecting 178 healthy mice: some with T-bacilli alone, some with PA-bions alone, some with PA-bions and then with T-bacilli, some with T-bacilli followed by PA-bions.

"The results largely supported his hypothesis. They showed that the T-bacilli-injected group had significantly more deaths within the experimental period than the PA-injected group. The results also suggested that PA-bions had an inoculatory effect against T-bacilli,...

"When Reich investigated the cause of death in the thirty mice injected with T-bacilli alone he found that thirteen showed cancerous cell formations and another seven showed ripe cancer cells in various tissues.

"Reich thus came to America with the finding that T-bacilli apparently effected the development of cancer in mice and with preliminary evidence that PA-bions played some role in combating this effect...

"The first opinion Reich formed from his experimental production of cancer tumors in mice was that the T-bacilli he injected were specific tumor agents. Thus, his initial thinking ran along traditional lines: a specific agent or virus for a specific illness. However, the T-bacilli did not prove to be specific for cancer. Reich examined samples of blood and of secretions, and found that T-bacilli could be obtained from persons who were perfectly healthy. For example, he found T-bacilli in a small [non-cancerous] erosion of his own tongue.

"This negative finding led him to shift the focus from the agent of the disease to the host organism, in other words, to the question of 'resistance to disease.' As Reich put it: 'It is always reassuring to find the 'specific cause' of a disease. This enables us to delineate the disease from healthy organisms in which this specific cause is absent. But this concept is erroneous and blocks the approach to the nature of immunity, that is, the natural defense reactions of the organism..." (my emphasis, Sharaf 293-4).

Reich found that in healthy individuals the blood contained PA-bions surrounded by dead T-bacilli. He concluded that the struggle between PA-bions and T-bacilli took place all the time. He also theorized that in unhealthy individuals, PA-bions were weaker and, thus, unable to effectively combat T-bacilli.

Reich responded to this finding by developing a blood test that would check for the health and vitality of the blood as an indicator of one's capacity for resistance to cancer--that is, that it would indicate whether or not the blood was energetically-charged, able to keep the organism charged, and the cells healthy and less prone to disintegration into T-bacilli.

Reich also found that SAPA-bions were more effective than PA-bions in fending off T-bacilli.

"The Cancer Biopathy explains in detail Reich's partial success with SAPA-bion treatment. Suffice it here to note that blood tests showed that the red blood cells (erythrocytes) of the treated mice were taut and biologically vigorous, while the blood of the untreated mice presented the typical picture of cancer: shrunken membranes of the erythrocytes, T-spikes, and abundant T-bacilli in the blood. Through these and other observations, Reich came to the conclusion that the erythrocytes, charged with energy from the SAPA-bions were the bearers of the therapeutic function, rather than the SAPA-bions themselves, as he had originally thought.

With treated mice, Reich noted that many died not from tumors or from T-bacilli intoxication but from tumor remains clogging the kidneys. The larger the tumor, the greater this danger. In other words, they died from the results of the elimination of cancer" (301).

As a result of these observations, Reich would recommend that patients have as much of their tumor removed as possible before beginning orgone therapy.

Meanwhile, Reich was also continuing his experiments with orgone and the orgone energy accumulator. He found, in his research into orgone energy, that he experienced prickling and sensations of heat similar to those he had experienced when handling the SAPA-bions. He postulated that perhaps SAPA-bions and orgone energy shared a common identity. Thus, he began to wonder if perhaps the accumulator might be a more effective treatment for cancer than SAPA-bion injections. Instead of giving the mice daily injections of SAPA-bions, Reich placed them in the accumulator for one half hour every day. The results confirmed his suspicions.

"The very first tests revealed an astoundingly rapid effect; the mice recuperated rapidly, the fur became smooth and shiny, the eyes lost their dullness, the whole organism became vigorous instead of contracted and bent, and the tumors ceased to grow or they even receded. At first, it seemed [unlikely] that a simple cabinet, consisting of nothing but organic material outside and metal inside, should have such a pronounced biological effect" (CB, 306).

The fact of the matter is that the average life span of untreated mice was four weeks; of those mice which received injections of SAPA-bions the average life span was nine weeks; and of those mice which only used the orgone accumulator the average life span was eleven weeks.

Go to Part Three

A friendly reminder. This text is not intended for sale. It is intended for scholarly edification only. I have quoted extensively from Myron Sharaf's book Fury on Earth. I hope it is okay.

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