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Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Scientology E-Meter

There is a lot of misinformation, speculation and strange claims about the Scientology E-Meter.  Since I try to clear up such confusing areas, it is high time I tackled this subject.

People (who have not actually studied or used the e-meter) very often claim the instrument is bogus; can't work; doesn't work.  It has been described by uninformed critics as "a crude lie-detector".

I recently had a conversation with someone who had heard it was only measuring skin resistance and reacted only to sweat and grip.  This is not accurate.

I have to tell you -- it works.

Before I get into a lot of caveats about that statement, about what it doesn't do, let me first establish what it does do.  The following is a description of a test, called the "pinch test", that anyone trained in the e-meter can do to anyone to show what the e-meter does.  I've done this myself on non-Scientologists, it is pretty convincing.

The "Pinch Test"

The person with the e-meter, let's call them the operator, sets the meter up and hands the other person the electrodes, the "cans".  The operator then has the person watch the needle while the operator pinches them, hard.

The person will see the needle immediately and quickly move to the right in response to the pain.

The operator then gives the command, "Recall the moment of the pinch."  When the person does so, they immediately see the same motion of the needle, usually a bit smaller.  The person can, again and again, recall the pinch and, the instant they do so, see that needle motion, a little less each time.

If you know someone who has a meter and has been trained, they can do this for you.

This is obvious proof that the meter really does react to the thought.

This is actually pretty amazing.

There is another test, a drill used during training, where the student puts another student on the meter and says, "Consider the events of today."  The other student does so.  When the first student sees a distinctive needle movement, he says, "That".  As prearranged, the second student immediately thinks of something else for a little, and then thinks the same thought he was thinking at the moment the first student said "That".   The first student is supposed to see that same needle movement and say, "That is the same thought."

Every graduate of an e-meter course has done this drill and passed it.

This shows that different thoughts can cause different and individually identifiable needle motions.

The unproven theory about all this is that some thoughts have "charge" attached to them, that this "charge" impinges on the body when the thought is "activated" by thinking it and this effect can be detected by measuring the change of resistance of the body.

There is no proof that this is true, but it's the only explanation at this time and it does seem to fit the current evidence.  It sure would be nice if someone competent did some scientific research on this.

So, that's what the meter can do.  Here's what it can't do.

It can't read or measure emotions.  It can't tell truth from lies.  It cannot tell what a person is thinking. It cannot make a person do anything.  It can be rather easily fooled.  And the meter is affected by many other factors than just thoughts.

The meter is affected by sweat, the grip on the cans, body motion and some other things.  This is a significant problem and requires much training on the part of the operator and much instruction of the person holding the cans (the "preclear").   Of course, sweat doesn't cause needle movements because it is slow to occur and very slow to evaporate, but sweat can affect the range, causing the meter to read too low.  Likewise, dry hands can make the meter read too high.

Preclears are carefully instructed on grip, and this is also why each meter comes with many different sizes of cans.

The meter operators are instructed and drilled on body motion, so they can, it is hoped, recognize and ignore needle motion caused by that.

The e-meter, as sold by the Church of Scientology, is a very expensive, but still somewhat primitive instrument.  It has never been analyzed in any scientific way.  It has many limitations.  The meter is quite easily fooled, if you know what you are doing.  The mind is a complex thing and the meter is a very simple thing, so problems can and do occur because the meter reads on something other than what is expected.

More research has been done in the Freezone concerning the e-meter and they claim they have improved it, but there is still no independent, scientific research on the e-meter.

How the E-Meter is part of the trap

It is the fact that the e-meter actually works that makes it a very integral part of the very effective trapping mechanism of the Church of Scientology. 

Very early on, every new Scientologist is led to believe that they cannot keep any secrets from the e-meter.   In session, when the auditor asks about their secrets, their bad actions, the meter reads.  And the auditor won't stop until the meter stops reading, meaning the Scientologist has "told all".

In this way, the Church of Scientology can and does get all the person's crimes, sexual problems, secrets and so on.  Every session starts with those questions.  The church's files are quite full and quite complete.

In addition, the existence and apparent effectiveness of the e-meter convinces the new Scientologist that the rest of the Scientology tech must be just as effective.

Of course, neither the e-meter nor the Scientology tech is as effective as claimed.  But that isn't obvious at the beginning.  By the time the Scientologist might detect the failings of both, they are usually too far into the indoctrination and can't perceive the flaws any more.


  1. I've often posited that one of the functions of the e-meter is to erode the ability for someone to distinguish between reality and fantasy, or at the very least a real memory and an imaginary one. An important element of the pinch test ought to be to have the subject imagine being pinched by someone else, to demonstrate what level of response something that is imagined can cause. I've not heard of such tests, and so it is that when in Dianetic revery and people are imagining they are recalling events they have recorded while partly or wholly unconscious, the e-meter reacts in a way that is associated with genuine memories. CoS test the positive, but they don't test the negative.

  2. Subtle changes in a person's stress levels creates rapid changes in galvanic skin response. Ever seen a lie detector needle? It moves very rapidly. If anything the E-meter is slowing this measurement of galvanic skin response down, through averages or something.

    As for the pinch test, the very reminding of the pain of being pinched creates neurological stress, which creates a galvanic skin response, which in turn is picked up with the e-meter.

    Same idea holds for when a student is expected to think the same thought as another when "That" is exclaimed. This expectation (i.e. anticipation) creates a performance stress, which moves the needle.

    The only trick of the e-meter is that those who use it figured out how to prey on those who didn't do so well on their neurology 101 exams.

  3. I Aim To MisbehaveJune 14, 2010 at 5:04 PM

    Just Bill,

    As usual, you're giving good, true information. Thanks for clearing this up.

    A guy gets tired of hearing and reading the inaccuracies you mentioned (primitive lie detector, measures skin resistance, etc.). I'm not an "e-meter advocate," but real understanding of the whole picture of scientology requires that you get the truth about all the parts. Otherwise all you can do is criticize, and that's a lot like whining, far as I'm concerned.

    Something else about the e-meter that is worth mentioning, because its true workability does give credence to the rest of scientology: it wasn't invented, developed or significantly improved in any way by Hubbard. It was the creation of Volney Mathison (as you know), and Hubbard, as was his habit, sort of glossed over that fact later on. Would be hard to read KSW with a straight face if that was a well-acknowledged part of the lore now, wouldn't it?

  4. Re: Galvanic skin response

    You may be right, but you err as much as Scientologists do. You assume that what you think is going on is fact.

    Let's be very clear about all of these assertions: They are not proven. Neither the official Scientology claims nor anyone else's. The e-meter has never been independently analyzed by competent scientists.

    That being so, any explanation might be true.

  5. Re: Volney Mathison

    Very true. For all of Hubbard's theories about the e-meter, he was not trained in electronics and could never have built the e-meter. There is much that probably could be done to improve it, though I'm not sure anything can be done to make it actually work as claimed.

  6. @Beacon Schuler

    You make some very, very good points.

  7. Just Bill, normally you're spot-on on your blog posts, but this time you dropped the ball.

    It is a modified Wheaton comparator, a simple circuit that compares one unknown resistance (the galvometric skin resistance of the PC holding the cans), against a known resistance (the the resistance level of the "tone" arm).

    It measures the normal unconscious fluctuations of glavometric skin response. That's all it does. That's all it's ever done.

    Everything else is marketing, mystery sandwich, and pixydust.

    It's like Hubbard's "thought has a weight" foolishness: a wild claim easily disproven by a simple bathroom scale.

    The E-meter in all of it's versions does not now, nor has it ever, measured thought. Please do not claim that it does.

  8. Re: Galvanic skin response

    You are quite welcome to your theory -- and you certainly may be right, but you haven't done independent, scientific research on an e-meter, nor have I.

    Therefore, I'm perfectly willing to admit I might be wrong. No one (and that includes you) knows what is really going on.

    You believe your theory is absolutely the only truth -- but until you get an e-meter and carefully set up comprehensive and independently vetted tests to prove or disprove your theory, it's only a theory.

    Understand me, I am not saying you're wrong -- it's just your adamant insistence on your "truth" without any proof that annoys me -- because that's exactly what Scientologists do.

  9. On the one hand, maybe nobody has done much scientific observation of an e-meter working on people ... but people have taken them apart and found what's inside: simple electrical components. And billions of electrical devices operating for many decades all over the world now make it pretty clear that we do know exactly what these simple electrical components do.

    On the other hand, though: we don't need Scientology to tell us that thoughts can cause all kinds of physiological effects. I'm typing this because my finger movements are responding to my thoughts. So maybe the electrical properties of skin that are being measured by an e-meter are themselves being directly affected by thoughts.

    So in principle there's no contradiction between the two camps, here. Of course it remains pretty doubtful that anything so crude as what an e-meter actually is inside is really going to be able to do anything like the sensitive discrimination claimed for it in Scientology. But even a very crude device could be genuinely measuring some crude consequences of thoughts and feelings. This seems to be Bill's point, and I think it's sound enough.

  10. Thanks James Anglin, a moderate voice is always appreciated.

    I, actually, am not promoting any explanation of how the e-meter works. I don't know.

    While all this technical discussion may be important in other contexts, the only thing I'm concerned with is that fact that someone thinks a thought and (by some method) the e-meter reacts.

    In this discussion, it really doesn't matter how it does so -- the fact that it does, or appears to, is used to convince new Scientologists that Scientology is "high-tech" and that it "works". This is part of the trap.

    In actual fact, the e-meter is quite unreliable and, as pointed out in my next article, reliance and absolute trust in everything the e-meter "says" has resulted in massive problems for Scientology and Scientologists.

  11. Don't expect there to be much scientific research in all this because, frankly, the forces at play here are rather mundane and already well understood. A Wheatstone Bridge and skin resistance. No big deal.

    To understand the pinch test you need look no further than Pavlov. A pinch leads to a reaction; the memory of the pinch (especially so close to the original pinch) leads to a similar reaction. Muscles tighten, resistance changes.

    If anxiety is built into the PC over time about the ability of the meter to tell lies, then that anxiety over telling a lie will have a similar impact on the meter.

    So perhaps the research that should be undertaken is how the meter becomes a tool of control.

    One thing I've not seen much discussion about -- though you have started to touch on it here -- is how the meter is just part of the experience with the auditor. I was surprised when I learned from an auditor how much they read into other indicators from the PC beyond the meter reads.

  12. "One thing I've not seen much discussion about -- though you have started to touch on it here -- is how the meter is just part of the experience with the auditor. I was surprised when I learned from an auditor how much they read into other indicators from the PC beyond the meter reads."

    That's something known as "Cold Reading," which is surprisingly common to multiple fields: police use it in interrogating suspects or witnesses, therapists use it for treating their patients, professional gamblers use it to get an edge over their opponents, lawyers use it during cross-examination in court, and con-artists use it to fleece their victims...

  13. There was once a drill for auditors to learn how to audit flawlessly without an emeter. I've never done the drill, but I am quite sure it is possible. The person's indicators (smiling, crying, etc.) are a critical element of any auditing and the emeter is an additional tool that is used to aid in identifying indicators.

    Pinch tests work whether or not a person "believes" in an emeter and responses do not have to be "below awareness" to read.

    The emeter is more useful to sort out what to audit first, or establishing the order of what to audit, and then ending off when a process is not producing any more change.

    There is a distinctive state of mind that is very calm, relaxed or sometimes "happy" associated with a free needle. You can see it on the emeter on people who are doing well and feeling good even when they have never had any auditing and know nothing about emeters or even Scientology.

    I don't know where the idea came from that it is a lie detector -- I suppose it can be used that way -- but since it will only register on "angst" or the lack of it, the best that can be said for it is that it can help track down what's bugging the person.

    It's quite useful for that whether or not a person believes in it or in Scientology.

  14. @Anonymous e-meter defender

    It really annoys me when people pretend I've said something I haven't, and then attack me for having "said that".

    I never said that the Pinch Test worked because someone believed in it. Don't pretend I said that.

    The Pinch Test works because there is real trauma, although quite small.

    And the Dating Drill works because people believe it works.

    All auditors know that the e-meter reacts to real incidents and false incidents. That's why they sometimes ask "was that a false read?"

    You can deny that all day long, but it is true.

    The e-meter is of very limited usefulness, especially in situations where you, the auditor, have no way to determine which is true and which is false. Most auditors err on the side of accepting as true -- which is why there are no Clears and there are no OTs -- too much "case gain" was just e-meter reactions to imaginary incidents.

    You want to argue my theory, then tell me, where are the promised abilities? Where are the promised Clears? Where are the promised OTs? A whole lot of auditing has accomplished some small gains, and none of the large gains.

    The biggest problem with the e-meter is that there has been no research to make it more accurate, or at least figure out how to better detect false "case gain".

  15. That is so incredibly insidious! Be ascairt! Be very ascairt! Or... put on a mask and hold signage.


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