In the midst of an interview at the Church of Scientology's S. Street headquarters last week, a Scientologist carried in a Hubbard Electrometer and offered to hook up the interviewer.
"Take off your ring," he said. "That's good to short it."
The E-meter looked incomplete, somehow, as though it ought to be part of something else. Two tin cans, their labels removed, were wired to a small box less than a foot square. A needle rested on the left end of a small screen, and as I picked up the tin cans the needle quivered and began to rise.
These machines have been assailed as bogus medical aids, defended as religious artifacts, and dismissed as overpriced toys that do no more harm than good. Fourteen years ago the Food and Drug Administration confiscated dozens of them, charging the Scientologists with false advertising of supposed E meter medical benefits: 10 years and many court battles later, the meters were ruled harmless (though medically useless) church devices, and were returned.
"Totally ridiculous," muttered church spokesman Jeff Friedman, referring to the FDA seizure, as he twirled the E meter's control knobs to set it up for me. The machine is an indicator of feelings, he said - nothing more.
"OK," said Friedman. "I'm going to pinch your left arm." He did, and although my grip on the tin cans did not tighten noticeably, the needle shot way over to the right.
The sting of the pinch faded, and the needle fell back to its resting position. "Now," said Friedman, "I want you to think of that pinch."
Still holding the tin cans, I remembered the pinch. Again the needle jumped and moved right, just as it had before, "Now think of it again," Friedman said. I did, and the needle moved a little less. The third time it rose even less, and by the fourth time I remembered the pinch the needle hardly moved at all.
"That's the very, very bottom rung of Scientology," Friedman said. The E meter, he explained, had illustrated for me the memory of pain - and confronting the memory had cleared it away.
"It's a gimmick," said Dr. Martin Orne, director of the Unit for Experimental Psychiatry at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital, in a telephone interview last week. "It gives you the trappings of science . . . They're promising some of the same things which were promised at one time by pschoanalysis, but we have years ago learned that you can't deliver that."
Like the machines commonly called "lie detectors," Dr. Orne explained, E meters measure the surface skin changes in a person undergoing emotional stress - conscious or unconscous. The heartbeat increases quickly, for example, and the palms and forehead sweat. These changes, first observed by the psychologist Carl Jung, are referred to by doctors as "electrodermal response."
The problem, said Dr. Orne - and many psychiatrists and health officials agree with him - is that emotional counseling should involve far more than simply measuring electrodermal response and believing that trauma can be erased from the mind. "Working through a problem does not mean that you're going to be immune from it." said Dr. Orne. "There is no way a person is going to be without problems, without fears. To fear is human."
The E meters lend an aura of science, Dr. Orne said, to a practice he believes to be useless at best and dangerous at worse. "The purpose of treatment is to do yourself out of a job," he said, speaking of psychoanalysis. "The purpose of the cult is to get you hooked, and make a lifetime proposition out of it."