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Medical Dowsing: Mesmer and Reich

Dowsing by Doctors


There is more to heaven and earth than ever you dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.
(Shakespeare, Hamlet)

 Look, this website is just going to get weirder and weirder. As if you haven't noticed.  Now we're going to talk about medical dowsing. That's right: like finding underground water with a forked stick and such. Wait until you hear who has been into this stuff.

 This next concept will be a hard sell, but it is true: I am not all that easily taken in.  In my pre-heretic days, I was trained as a biologist and a chemistry teacher. I've been a zoology and health science college professor and a doctoral-level clinical nutrition instructor. As scientist and educator, I've been well schooled in the scholarly and the reproducible. "Scholarly" means that you can find a pile of powerful people to back up what you want to say. "Reproducible" means that what you say will stand up to independent verification, that it works in real life, again and again.

 The problem with scholars is that they are too damned emotional. Not me, the other ones.

 Progress in the sciences goes like this old portrayal: When somebody has just proven a really revolutionary idea, everybody says it's too new.  When finally accepted as fact, it is said that everybody knows it now; it is no longer news.

 Acupuncture and accupressure are both old and now more or less accepted. But here is an aspect that practically nobody considers to be in the least scientific, and I saw it with my own eyes.

 I was attending a weekend seminar back in 1976 on pure healing, that is, prayer, touch, thoughts, and, er, dowsing. Rods, pendulums, sticks, wires, the whole gamut of raving quackery was covered, but seriously in this instance. As a practical test, participants were asked to draw their one of their hands over their other hand and arm, about an inch above it, and try to "feel" where the points were.

 "Just what will the point feel like?" was the universal question. "Doesn't exactly matter," came the answer, such as it was. "You will feel something: a bit of cold or warmth, like a draft; your hand may draw down or float up a bit; you may merely know by intuition, in a vague way,  that that is the spot."

 I for one thought this was a lot of hooey. On the other hand, I had paid my seminar fee and might as well learn something. I tried it, with no confidence.

 Hmm.  I "thought" I felt something on my hand there. Yes, just there. I localized the area by going back and forth, back and forth. Then, like a pilot locating a radio beacon, I crossed at a ninety-degree angle to localize it exactly.  All rubbish. of course, but there was my best guess, right... about... there.

 I pressed my finger to the spot, got up, and crossed the room to look at an authoritative thousand-year old acupuncture chart. There was indeed an acupuncture point at the precise spot I had located.

 Oh, bull.  Must have been pure coincidence. So I tried another area, on my arm.  Up and down, back and forth, ranging and homing in to... there.  Check and repeat. Yep, there's the spot.

 Get up, walk across to the chart, search and see if ... yes, there was a point there, too. Still not convinced.

 Third trial, on the leg. Quickly scan and quickly search, cross back and forth, and feel for something, la de da. OK, there. I didn't even half try this time.

 Back to the chart, and there was an accupressure point there as well. I pressed each of the points to be sure, and wow! Those were real points, all right.

 Reproducibility is important to a scientist, to me, to you. Thousands of years of study of acupuncture and multicultural traditions of dowsing are not to be discounted without seeing for yourself. I came, I saw, I dowsed.

 Months later, a woman and her husband came to my office. She was about 60, with considerable pain and stiffness in her wrist. Her larger problem was cancer, for which she was receiving conventional treatment. But her doctors had been unable to chemically relieve this discomfort for more than a few hours at a time. She was open to alternative approaches, and I was flushed with newfound enthusiasm for what I'd learned in charlatan class that weekend.

 So I showed her how to draw her hands over the wrist, floating them an inch or two above the skin. I had her repeat this, back and forth, crossing side to side as well. Then I had her husband course over her wrist with his hand.

 She felt better within minutes. Well enough to flex and bend. Well enough to smile with surprise and pleasure. Well enough to successfully and repeatedly continue the treatment at home.  Well enough that I remember it all so clearly, and it was two decades ago.

 Placebo effect? Faith healing? Therapeutic touch? Here we walk the line bordering the Twilight Zone. Yet favorable results with so little risk deserve follow up. Scientific double-blind placebo controlled studies show that prayer helps people heal more quickly even if the patient does not know that he is being prayed for, and the prayer-offerer isn't even acquainted with who she is praying for. Your personal religious faith can probably rest comfortably with that. But wagging your hands over your own wrists is perhaps another matter.

 Let's take the argument to its extreme.  Carefully controlled studies show that prayer influences bacteria. And in one of my favorite bits of research (reported in Supernature, by Lyall Watson), plants hooked up to amplified lie-detector apparatus showed readings not only when their leaves were dipped in hot liquids, but when the experimenter was thinking of dipping their leaves in hot liquids.

 To further stretch this, apparatus was devised (and you've got to love this) that would mechanically and randomly drop tiny brine shrimp into boiling water.  A plant remotely gave readings each time a shrimp hit the water.

 Run, don't walk, away from this whole arena. Not because it is fascinating enough for a Fox TV special, but rather because I ask you to take it seriously, and further.

 Not that you'd be the first.  Radiesthesia, the medical and more-or-less scientific study of dowsing and "personal magnetism" has been under investigation for generations.

My first contact with this pseudoscience was via Bruce Copen, Ph.D. of Sussex, England. Dr. Copen had the twin distinctions of being the parent of several correspondence schools that have reputations as diploma mills, and of selling radiesthesia equipment. Not only did he sell pendulums, dowsing rods and how-to books, he also sold and manufactured radionic machines. They were expensive, costing hundreds of pounds each.  They are probably illegal in the United States, as they "cannot" work. Open one up, it is said, and you will note that the power cord is not directly connected to any of the potentially functional parts inside. Radionics machines are supposedly amplifiers and transmitters of specific healing vibrations, sort of a short-wave homeopathy. In a culture that struggles to accept prayer healing, even with the credentials of Him whose life reset our very chronology of history, we cannot reasonably expect any response but skepticism to reinforced hardboard, simulated leather-covered, costly and electrically illogical quack devices.

 Radionics is even too far out for me, but any book on quackery cannot avoid a mention of the way politicized science has met with the likes of this.

 One of the most famous legal cases against blatant quackery also remains what is arguably the most infamous case of violation of the United States' Bill of Rights. And it all started out so reasonably.

 Wilhelm Reich, MD, was an associate of Sigmund Freud at Freud's Psychoanalytic Polyclinic in Vienna, Austria. He later did research at the University of Oslo, Norway, and in 1939 became Associate Professor of Medical Psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York City. But Dr. Reich also claimed to have discovered a new form of energy, fundamental to life and health. Previously unknown and since ignored, Reich successfully demonstrated his "orgone energy" to no less than Albert Einstein at Princeton University, on January 13, 1941. They discussed the matter for somewhat under five hours. 

 Dr. Reich made devices to collect the stuff, called, appropriately enough, "orgone accumulators." He sold them, referring to their ability to dissolve cancerous tumors, and thereby ran smack dab into the might of the FDA. In Appendix C of his very unusual and now very rare 1972 book Orgone Energy, author Jerome Eden provides a bibliography of twenty scientists who verified the existence of orgone energy. Freud and Einstein are not among them.  Perhaps Dr. Reich's other research on the human orgasm (that is not a typo) took him just too far out of the scientific orbit.  (Not that Freud should have any scruples about that subject.) The fact that Mr. Eden's books include Planet in Trouble: The UFO Assault on Earth does little to establish his literary reputation. Too bad, for Eden is the translator of two of Franz Anton Mesmer's works: Memoir of F. A. Mesmer, 1799 and Maxims on Animal Magnetism. Eden also authored Animal Magnetism and the Life Energy, a biography of Mesmer and his methods.  Reich and Mesmer were separated by time but were probably closely joined in principle.

 But that was certainly no endorsement worth having. In 1954, FDA had Dr. Reich charged with fraud in United States District Court for Maine, Southern Division, for claiming that orgone existed, could be collected, and could then prevent and cure disease. The FDA won. Reich's orgone devices were seized and destroyed. Closer to any Constitutional issue, all his written literature, scientific papers and articles, and books were burned if they had anything to do with orgone accumulators.

 "Reich's monumental sociological work, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, was ordered destroyed in Hitler's Nazi Germany, and Reich himself was forced to flee that country." (Eden, p 65)  For a man who fled from Hitler in 1938, and became an American citizen to ensure his freedom, the burning of his scientific works in 1956 by the US Government seems oddly poetic punishment. Our First Amendment specifically safeguards freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

 Unless you sell orgone accumulators, that is. Even Mein Kampf enjoys the protection of the First Amendment. 

 And just try to find a copy of Reich's Function of the Orgasm, for that matter.

 This scientific soap opera is not over yet. 

 The FDA's prosecuting attorney, Peter Mills, had just recently been Dr. Reich's own personal lawyer, and had in fact drawn up the Reich Foundation's incorporation papers. Mills left the foundation in 1952, and joined the FDA the very same year. (Eden, p 68)  There was evidence of perjury on the part of the FDA witnesses and talk of a communist plot. Orgone was said to be an antidote to nuclear radiation and fluorescent lights. Reich was brought to court in chains. He talked of UFO's.  A court-ordered psychiatric examination found him to be perfectly sane.  The Supreme Court refused to review the case. (p 69-72) 

 In contempt of the court's judgment against him, Dr. Reich refused to allow FDA agents access to his private notes.  In contempt of a court injunction, he persisted in his promotion of orgone accumulator technology.

 This landed him in federal prison, where he died eight months later. He was 60. "FDA never produced any evidence to substantiate their contention that the accumulator was worthless." (p 89)

 The canon of science knowledge is a heavily edited affair. I finished college chemistry and physics and no one told me that famous scientists were also devout deists. For example, the great mathematician and astronomer Johann Kepler first described the elliptical orbits of the planets, but also said they stayed in these orbits because of "Holy Spirit Force." Convenient how we embrace one of his conclusions, and disdain the other.

 And then there is my favorite Sir Issac Newton story. Sir Issac, it is said, was once demonstrating a brass mechanical model of the solar system to a friend. 

 "Who built it?" asked the friend, who happened to be an atheist.

 "No one," replied Newton.

 "What?" responded the man.  "Of course someone made it, Sir Issac. Look at the intricacy, the precision, the construction."

 "But no one made it," said Newton. "Why do you assert that someone did?"

 "It is clear just from observing its complexity, its perfection of motion, its beautiful operation, that this machinery obviously had its creator." 

 "Is it not interesting," said Newton, "That you ascribe a creator to this model, and not to the real solar system itself?"

 Albert Einstein is said to have stated that God does not play dice with the universe. Later in his life, Einstein also said this:

 "As I grow older, the identification with the here and now is slowly lost. One feels dissolved, and merged into Nature.  It makes me feel happy.  The greatest  experience we can have is the mysterious."

 Dr. Reich challenged even Einstein's conception of mystery and has left us with the eternal question as to whether there is a discernible, operable link between our living body and the boundless heavens. "Animal magnetism," "orgone energy," or whatever it be called, and however muffled it may be, continues to intrigue original thinkers. Call them alchemists in search of the Philosopher's Stone, or just quacks in search of a simple answer. Still, even pirates leave a map. Is there more to the human body than we wish to believe?

Copyright C 2004 and prior years Andrew W. Saul.

Andrew Saul is the author of the books FIRE YOUR DOCTOR! How to be Independently Healthy (reader reviews at ) and DOCTOR YOURSELF: Natural Healing that Works. (reviewed at )

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Andrew W. Saul


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