In the last article, Wilhelm Reich – Putting the Body in Mind-Body Medicine, Part 1, I discussed how Reich, an Austrian-American psychiatrist who trained under Sigmund Freud, is the person most responsible for uniting mind and body and pioneering mind-body medicine.
And as I mentioned in the article, he is largely forgotten now. Reich died in 1957 a broken man, in prison, having been persecuted by the U.S. government.
The year he went to prison, in 1956, the U.S. government burned tons of his writings and papers. And as a consequence of that, Reich wrote in his will that his remaining papers were to be sealed and not opened for 50 years, in 2007, because he felt that by then a more enlightened society would exist that could appreciate his ideas better.
And what was Reich’s terrible crime that had the U.S. government coming after him?
His crime was his promotion of what he called orgone energy. In the 1930s Reich discovered a physical, biological energy in all living matter that he called “orgone,” and for the next two decades devoted his life to the investigation of its laws and properties.
Through his research, Reich confirmed the existence of this energy in the human body, verified its presence in the atmosphere, developed instrumentation to observe and collect it, and harnessed it for a variety of purposes from cancer treatment to motor power to weather experimentation.
This is what he had to say about orgone energy:
“I am well aware of the fact that the human race has known about the existence of a universal energy related to life for many ages. However, the basic task of natural science consisted of making this energy usable. This is the sole difference between my work and all preceding knowledge.”
Reich had started his career as a protege of Sigmund Freud, but broke with him over differing views of libido and sexual energy.
Freud had originally discovered that neuroses are caused by the conflict between natural sexual instincts and the social denial and frustration of those instincts. Freud had also hypothesized the existence of a biological sexual energy in the body. He called it “libido,” and described it as “something which is capable of increase, decrease, displacement and discharge, and which extends itself over the memory traces of an idea like an electric charge over the surface of the body.”
But over the years, Freud and his followers diluted much of this concept, reducing the libido to little more than a psychological energy or idea. By 1925, Freud had concluded that “the libido theory may therefore for the present be pursued only by the path of speculation.”
But Reich’s clinical work and research led him to believe otherwise. He observed that sexual energy is more than just an idea, and that sexual gratification, in fact, alleviated neurotic symptoms. He discovered that the function of the orgasm is to maintain an energy equilibrium by discharging excess biological energy that builds up naturally in the body.
As he continued his research into primordial sexual energy, using technical equipment to measure biological activity and phenomena related to sexual energy, what he found was at the root of this energy was a type of radiation emitted that did not obey any known laws of electricity or magnetism. Reich called this energy “orgone,” because its discovery had evolved from his investigation of the orgasm function, and because this energy could charge organic materials.
He determined that orgone radiation seemed to permeate all substances, which led him to constantly confront questions about the origins of this energy. Where did orgone energy come from, he wondered?
To isolate and collect orgone, Reich relied on the results of several laboratory experiments. These experiments demonstrated that organic or non-metallic materials—such as cotton, wool or plastic—attract, absorb, and hold the energy. Metallic materials —like steel and iron—attract the energy and quickly reflect it in both directions.
On the basis of these findings, Reich constructed small boxes with alternating layers of organic and metallic materials, with the inner walls lined with metal. By looking through a specially designed lens inserted into a wall of each box, one could observe orgone radiation within the enclosure.
Reich now faced the daunting possibility of having discovered a biological energy that seemed to be everywhere, while still pondering the perplexing question of where orgone energy originated.
Reich was living in New York City by this time, and the accumulator quickly became an increasingly vital tool for his research. The accumulator’s organic layers attracted the atmospheric energy which was directed inward by the metal layers. Any energy reflected outward by the metal layers was immediately re-absorbed by the organic material, attracted back to the metal, and directed toward the inside of the box. The result was a higher concentration of orgone energy inside the box. The more layers, the stronger the concentration.
The accumulator now allowed Reich to test the effects of orgone radiation on cancer mice, by simply placing the mice inside the metal-lined enclosure. Because his results with cancer mice were so promising, Reich decided to test the effects of orgone radiation on humans. He constructed accumulators large enough for a person to sit in, and in 1941 began experimental treatments with cancer patients.
They were all terminal cases. Reich promised no cure nor charged any money, as shown by the affidavit that his patients and/or their family members were required to sign:
“I state herewith that I came to see Dr. Wilhelm Reich for possibly helping the case of my _____ who suffers from cancer. I came because I was told of the experiments that Dr. Reich has made with cancer mice and human beings. Dr. Reich did not promise me any cure, did not charge any money, and told me that only during the last few months has he tried the orgone radiation on human begins who suffer from cancer. Death or abscesses could occur as a consequence of the disease. I told Dr. Reich that the physicians have given up the case of my _____ as hopeless. Should death or abscesses occur during the time of the experiment, it will not be because of the treatment.”
Over a period of time, the patients showed marked improvement: relief of pain, healthier blood condition, weight gain, and the shrinkage and elimination of tumors. Despite these positive results, the patients died, reinforcing Reich’s conviction that cancer is a bio-energetic shrinking following emotional resignation, and that the tumors themselves are not the disease, but merely a local manifestation of a deeper systemic disorder. Once again, Reich’s focus became prevention.
Next time: Why the U.S. government, threatened by the concept of orgone energy, went after Wilhelm Reich.