A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of WILHELM REICH

As related to

Psychiatric Orgone Therapy (character-analytic vegetotherapy)

By Roger M. Wilcox

Last modified 20-July-2005

"My objection to vegetotherapy is not that it deviates from the cautious, interpretative techniques of classical analysis but that its underlying theory seems to me to be bad biology.  For instance, Reich's description of the segmental arrangement of character armor and his assertion that it 'represents the worm in man' (See Selected Writings p. 158 et seq.) seems to me to run counter to evolutionary theory and to comparative morphology."
    — Charles Rycroft, psychoanalyst, in The New York Review of Books, 12-Feb-1970

Orgone therapy was Reich's term for the therapeutic use of character analysis combined with a technique Reich called vegetotherapy.  Reich's second wife, Elsa Lindenburg, was trained in Laban movement analysis, and was a pupil of Elsa Gindler, who had started to develop a system of breathing and somatic responsiveness named Arbeit am Menschen in 1910.  It's likely through his second wife's exposure to these notions that Reich got the idea to get the body directly involved in therapy.  Reich first presented the principles of his vegetotherapy in a paper on "Psychic contact and vegetative current" in August 1934 at the 13th International Congress of Psychoanalysis at Lucerne, Switzerland, and went on to develop the technique between 1935 and 1940.  Vegetotherapy centers on Reich's theory that childhood suppression of ones emotional expressiveness not only stays with that person into adulthood, but is directly held in chronic spasms of the musculature called "muscular armor."  Vegetotherapy involves having the patient breathe deeply, gag, roll his eyes, stick out his tongue, hit and kick the "couch" with gusto, bite down on soft inanimate objects, and/or having the therapist directly "attack" what (s)he perceives to be the patient's tensed muscles with the fingers and hands in a manner reminiscent of acupressure.  Reich also claimed that contracting a "biopathic" illness in response to the therapy was normal, and should be viewed as a sign that the therapy was progressing.

Reich described vegetotherapy in some detail in the 1945 edition of Character Analysis, and in the greatest detail in what also happened to become his most well-known book in the English speaking world, The Function of the Orgasm.  He derived the term "vegetotherapy" from the vegetative (autonomic) nervous system.  Even he, though, realized there would be problems using a name like "character analytic vegetotherapy":

"This term had many disadvantages which, at the time, I could not help.  For one, it was too long.  Moreover, it contained the word 'vegetative,' which, while it is correct in German, is suggestive of 'vegetables' in English."
    — Character Analysis, chapter XIV, sec. 1
Thus, the moment Reich discovered orgone energy, he began referring to character analytic vegetotherapy as "psychiatric orgone therapy," or simply "orgone therapy."  Despite its name, orgone therapy had nothing to do with the therapeutic use of any of Reich's orgone energy devices, such as the orgone accumulator or the medical DOR buster.  Orgone therapy was accomplished entirely with the therapist's bare hands.

Vegetotherapy was built on the assumption of several distinct, and occasionally self-contradictory, hypotheses:

It seems that with vegetotherapy, as with his natural scientific work, Reich formed his theories out of whole cloth and then sought out only that evidence which would back them up, but then later claimed that the reverse was actually the case.  In a monograph written in 1940, Reich claimed of vegetotherapy:

"This technique for the therapy of neurosis was experimentally based on the discovery of the bioelectrical nature of sexuality and anxiety."
    — W. Reich, Further Problems of Work Democracy, Overview
However, Reich first proposed vegetotherapy in August 1934, before his biolelectrical experiments had even begun, and thus before any bioelectrical character to sexuality or anxiety could have been experimentally established.

Reich divided the body into seven segments, one on top of the other: the ocular (eye) segment, the oral segment, the cervical (neck) segment, the thoracic (chest) segment, the diaphragmatic segment, the abdominal segment, and the pelvic segment.  The arms were considered part of the thoracic segment, while the legs were considered part of the pelvic segment.  Orgone energy within the body was supposed to move upward, from the pelvic segment up through one segment after another, until it reached the top of the ocular segment and escaped out of the top of the head.  A "block" (muscular armor) in any segment would shut off the flow of orgone energy to the segments above it.  The therapist's job was to dissolve these blocks starting from the topmost (ocular) segment and working his way down.  Reich felt that if a lower block were dissolved while a higher-up block were still in place, the energy released by dissolving the lower block would rush up and slam into the higher block, resulting in all sorts of nasty problems for the patient — thus the need for the therapist to work his way down from the top.

Dissolving one block didn't always mean that a segment had been completely freed, however.  A person's armoring could be "layered" one block on top of another, each one of which held a different emotion and was expressed as a different character trait.  Many psychologists and philosophers, Freud included, have divided personal behavior into the persona and the shadow.  The persona is the social façade a person presents in public; according to this theory, it is in fact a "false" layer.  The shadow is supposed to be a person's "real" emotions, which aren't shown in public either because they are too socially unacceptable or because the person would feel vulnerable if (s)he showed them.  Reich took this theory and went further, claiming that even the "shadow" was merely a vast secondary layer, perhaps composed of several sublayers of blocks one on top of the other, which in turn sat on top of an even deeper "primary" layer of basic natural functioning.  If all of these outer layers could be removed, so Reich believed, the person revealed underneath would be so wonderful that he wouldn't need a "persona" — he would behave like a decent person spontaneously.  He would also be a far more capable individual, self regulating, orgastically potent, and all sorts of other great and desirable things.  With a promise like that held out before the public eye — even if Reich himself never tried to "sell" his therapy as any kind of a panacea — it is no wonder that many people have been drawn to orgone therapy over the years, regardless of the therapy's actual track record in eliciting improvement in its patients.

Vegetotherapy, and the theory of muscular "holding" of the emotions that it is partly based on, seems antithetical to the conventional model of emotions as being "brain" phenomena.  If emotions are the expression of energy moving through various parts of the body, and can be physically stored in the musculature, then the presence of emotions should not have any specific brain activity associated with it — or at most should only be reflected in brain activity (i.e. the brain activity should follow a tiny bit after the onset of the emotion, and it should be impossible to cause any emotion merely by artificially creating some specific brain activity).  This is at odds with the body of evidence we've accumulated in studying brain activity since Reich's time.  When aggressive emotions are experienced, the hypothalamus shows increased activity — not just on occasion, but every single time.  The thalamus seems always to be involved in the experience of the more complex, strong emotions, such as loneliness and longing.  The October 2000 issue of Nature Neuroscience contains a report studying four emotions — sadness, happiness, anger, and fear — and showing a consistent correlation between each emotion and activity in various specific areas of the brain, including those brain areas responsible for homeostasis (the regulation of body temperature, blood pressure, and other internal activity).  More importantly, it is possible to make someone experience aggressive emotions by electrically stimulating the hypothalamus — a cat that normally ignores mice can be made to attack and kill mice by sending a small current down an electrode into the cat's hypothalamus. Evidence like this shows more than a merely incidental correlation between emotions and brain activity, it shows an outright cause-and-effect relationship.

Furthermore, it's pretty easy to demonstrate that thoughts can trigger emotions, and that some of these emotions can cause short-term muscle tension whether expressed or not.  If I think about sex, I get horny; if I think about food, I get hungry; if I think about that pompous know-nothing git at the triple-A DMV counter who talked down to me while she was reading off my registration record even though she had no clue how to read it properly and tried to charge me an extra 23 dollars, I get angry.  And when I get angry, several muscle groups tense up.  They tense up in expectation of imminent conflict, making themselves ready to lash out at any instant.  Later, when the thoughts have passed — regardless of whether I acted on these thoughts or "pushed them aside" — the muscle tension is no longer there.

— Portion of article yet to be written. —

Several different techniques are used by the character-analytical vegetotherapist to attempt to mobilize, or "free", the blocks in the musculature in the order that they're supposed to be freed:

Deep breathing

Reich felt that there was a natural, "right" way to breathe, and that shallow breathing or breathing with the chest or abdomen held rigid interfered with the healthy movement of orgone energy within the body.  Thus, it was important to get the patient to breathe deeply and "naturally" so as to get his internal energy moving.

Reich encouraged his patients to make noise when they exhaled, and to exhale all the way; he sometimes assisted by pushing down on the abdomen near the end of expiration.  There was nothing peaceful, calming, or relaxing about this deeper breathing.  Reich's intent during character-analytic vegetotherapy was precisely the opposite.  He sought to get his patients "worked up," to get them feeling the stronger, more aggressive emotions normally kept under wraps beneath their "social façade."  Such an effort would doubtlessly liven up the muscle tissue around the body with extra oxygen, and would probably have the effect of encouraging muscle groups here and there to tense up more than they would otherwise — exactly the effect Reich claimed was a sign of emotional blockage and holding, not of enlivening!

An orgonomist would argue, though, that one purpose of enervating the patient via deep breathing is specifically to bring this muscular tension out into sharp relief.  These regions of muscular tension are in fact where the blocks are, they would argue, and the more energy that flows through the patient's body, the more the blocked muscles will contract in order to "fight it."

— Portion of article yet to be written. —

Gagging

When someone experiences extreme anxiety, it can cause him or her to vomit.  Reich may have assumed that vomiting — or more to the point, the convulsive gag reflex that accompanies vomiting — acts to release the pent-up anxiety.  Thus, one of his therapeutic techniques was to have a patient stick his own finger down his throat and gag.

There is a possibility that frequent gagging, even without vomiting, may damage the esophagus.  While it is well-known that bulimics, who often gag to make themselves vomit, can get esophageal damage similar to that of acid-reflux disease because of the stomach acid they regularly regurgitate, what is not so well-known is that bulimics can also get tears in their esophageal lining from the physical stress of vomiting alone.  Although I have not been able to find any research in the area of the long-term effects of gagging without vomiting, the fact that the muscular contractions of the gag reflex are part-and-parcel of the vomiting process may mean that gagging by itself might be physically stressful enough to cause esopahgeal tears too.  Tears in the lining of the esophagus can become a life-threatening condition if they bleed profusely or cause the esophagus to rupture.

— Portion of article yet to be written. —

Rolling the eyes

The ocular segment was not only the topmost segment of the body; the eyes, in Reich's view, were erogenous organs, in the same way that the mouth, anus, and genitalia were erogenous organs.  And since in Reich's view all muscular armoring was ultimately a defense against the patient's natural sexuality, the eyes would be particularly prone to developing muscular armor.  If Reich sensed a blocking in the eyes, he would tell his patient to roll his eyes around, looking to the farthest corners of their range of motion, as a kind of eyeball calisthenics.  Reich also insisted that his patients not merely "point" their eyes off at extreme angles, but that they also really "looked" at what was there (usually the corners of the therapy room's ceiling) and "made contact" with what they were seeing.

Many modern orgonomists also use a penlight to elicit eye movement in their patients.  They position the light near the patient's face, shine it toward the patient's eyes, and move the light around while it's close enough to the patient's face that the patient has to move his eyes to or near the farthest reaches of their tracking range.  The patient is not to "cheat" and move his head toward the light while this is going on.  There is little or no agreement among orgonomists as to how long this should go on for.  Dr. Elsworth Baker, a colleague of Reich's and founder of the American College of Orgonomy in 1967, wrote a book describing character-analytic vegetotherapy called Man in the Trap.  In chapter 4 (p. 50, 1980 softcover ed.), he quotes Dr. Barbara Goldenberg, who says that she could dig up a strong release of unconscious material in her patients if she had them follow the light for 15 minutes or more.  (This may be because the patient had gotten bored, or even entered a state of hypnosis, after following a light pen back-and-forth for such a long time.)  Another orgonomist, who edited one of the editions of Man in the Trap, insisted in a footnote that such long periods of following the light were terribly bad for the patient, and that it should never go on for more than 5-10 minutes.

— Portion of article yet to be written. —

Sticking out the tongue

Sticking the tongue way out as the patient exhaled was one of Reich's ways to work on the muscles in the oral segment.  This action also pulls slightly on the top of the throat, and so would have a mild effect on the cervical segment as well.

— Portion of article yet to be written. —

Hitting and kicking, biting, etc.

Reich encouraged his patients to hit and kick the "couch," bite on soft objects, and otherwise lash out at tough, inanimate objects when they felt anger — and sometimes when they didn't feel anger but seemed relatively "immobile."  This "punching bag" approach is hardly unique to orgone therapy.  If nothing else, it makes for good exercise.

Reich usually encouraged his patients to yell and scream while they were lashing out.  This was supposed to help free all that pent-up rage they'd been holding in their cervical segments.  One thing this certainly does is reinforce the feelings of rage brought about by the hitting and kicking.  Thus, the therapist can feels justified that he's "brought out" a patient's suppressed rage, because by yelling the patient is encouraged to go at it with that much more gusto.

There may also be something to the notion that physical activity (including hitting and kicking) may encourage the expression of more aggressive emotions.  I sometimes experience more thoughts centered on confrontation when I've been under a small degree of stress or frustration and then go jogging.  Perhaps hitting, kicking, biting, and screaming, because they involve physical activity, work in a similar fashion.  Several possibilities exist for why this should be so, and most of them do not require any of the theories behind vegetotherapy to be true.

Among psychiatrists, the expression of violent emotions in order to "vent" or "purge" them is called catharsis.  Many people who have gone through catharsis-based therapies, such as vegetotherapy or primal-scream therapy (whether genuine Arthur Janov brand Primal Therapy or otherwise), report a tremendous sense of satisfaction and well-being at having been given an arena to vent these strong, socially-taboo emotions.  The problem is, this improvement doesn't last very long.  The next week, they're usually right back where they started, ready for another dose of their violence-venting "medicine."  When engaged in therapy of this sort, one must evaluate, as objectively as possible, whether there is any real long-term improvement or if instead the rage-venting sessions are little more that a drug providing an ephemeral high.  And whether the same high can't be had by hitting and kicking and yelling on ones own bed at home, or sprinting around the block a few times at full tilt without anger being involved.

The catharsis hypothesis that underlies catharsis therapy holds that acting aggressively is an effective way to reduce anger and aggressive feelings.  Psychological research into whether the catharsis hypothesis actually has any merit is woefully sparse.  One relatively recent study (Bushman et al., 1999) claimed to find that catharsis can actually make people more prone to violent and antagonistic behavior, not less — however, this study was performed by a group with an axe to grind against violence in the popular media, so its conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.

Attacking the muscular armor

If chronics spasms of the musculature are responsible for "holding back" emotional expression, an obvious therapeutic technique would seem to be to press on the tensed muscles hard enough to force them to "let go."  Reich found that if he pressed hard enough on the tensed muscles with his fingertips, his patients would react with anger or anxiety — sometimes quite violently — and in many cases the muscles did indeed seem to relax.  More importantly, according to Reich, in many instances the patient being worked on would re-experience emotions from other, earlier epochs in his/her life.  Reich took this as a sign that the emotions themselves were held in the tensed musculature.

This technique, carried forward into modern times by practitioners from the American College of Orgonomy and other places, resembles a cross between acupressure, the techniques of the Kyoto School of Pain Control (founded in the 1940s), and the more-recent technique of Rolfing.  It is quite painful, often excruciatingly so.  Orson Bean, who described being subjected to this technique in his book Me and the Orgone, said it brought to mind Franchot Tone in the torture scene form "Lives of Bengal Lancer."

And it is no wonder.  Applying hard pressure to many areas of the body, whether tensed or not, can be very painful.  Nor is it surprising that an orgone therapist, such as Reich, should get a strongly emotional reaction out of his patients when he applies a painful pressure.  As Lucy van Pelt once observed in the Peanuts comic strip, "Pain hurts!"

When a muscle group is poked at, it's a natural, instinctive reaction to contract that muscle group, to prevent whatever is poking you from damaging the organs underneath.  Orgone therapists conflate this notion of a physical defense mechanism with emotional or psychological defenses.  Much ado is made among orgone therapists about how, after a muscle group is attacked and "its" emotions are released, the muscle group is softer and less rigid and does not hurt nearly as much if attacked again.  This is seen as evidence that the attack worked.  The thing is, relaxation of a muscle group can also be accomplished with a gentle deep-tissue massage that does not involve intense pain or the release of strong emotions.  A relaxed muscle, by putting up less resistance to the poking and digging-in of an orgone therapist's attack, will also experience less pain, no matter how that relaxation was accomplished.  And of course, even if the muscle group doesn't relax, it will still feel less pain over time due to the release of endorphins.

But what of Reich's claim that old emotions and memories are revived because they were stored in a particular muscle and the therapist's attack released them?  Reich wrote:

"The patients in whom one succeeds in getting directly at the vegetative sexual energy bound in the musculature produce the affect before they know what affect they are dealing with.  Furthermore, the memory of the experience which originally produced the affect automatically emerges without any effort.  . . .  This fact cannot be over-emphasized; it is as important as it is typical.  It is not that under certain circumstances a memory brings about an affect, but that the concentration of a vegetative excitation and its breakthrough reproduces the remembrance."
    — The Function of the Orgasm, ch. VIII, sec. 3 (p. 315, 1973 trans.) [emphasis in original]
The concept of memories lying dormant is a common theme in many metaphysical systems and "alternative" cures.  Homeopathy, so say its proponents, works because water molecules "remember" whatever substance they last came into contact with.  Repressed memory therapy hinges on the notion that memories of traumatic events, such as childhood sexual abuse, are often sublimated because they are "too painful" to remember but may be later brought to the surface by sufficient encouragement.  Some hypnotists go so far as to claim that humans have total recall and that hypnosis can bring otherwise "hidden" memories to the forefront.  Paul Pearsall believes that each cell of the body has a cellular memory that can explain why organ-transplant recipients might suddenly acquire a craving for foods that the organ donor liked (perhaps these memories are stored in the midi-chlorians).  Reich's theory of muscular-armor emotional memory seems to fit in well alongside these others.

A little bit of the appearance of emotional memories stored in the musculature may be caused by the therapist leading the patient; the therapist expects to see old, unresolved emotions brought to the fore by his efforts, and so he asks the patient "What are you reminded of?," which encourages the patient to dredge up old experiences.  And some of this may be because the musculature really is involved in some of the trials and tribulations of growing up; a child who endures harsh toilet training may have to "hold it in" by keeping his bowels constantly constricted, and this may indeed carry forward into adolescence and adulthood, for example.

But the bulk of this apparent emotional-release reaction does not require any notion of "emotions stored in the muscles" to understand.  When going through an unpleasant experience, it's not uncommon to remember similar unpleasant experiences from ones past for comparison.  The muscular pain the orgone therapist inflicts probably acts as nothing more than a reminder of similar pain felt in the past.  And the more emotionally traumatic the circimstances were surrounding the pain, the more strongly they will be remembered.

The attacks on the muscular armor are probably the most controversial aspect of orgone therapy.  And since Reich's time, orgone therapy has not been the only therapy to use hard, direct pressure on the musculature to allegedly achieve therapeutic ends.

A webpage maintained by a modern practitioner of "Muscle Effect Therapy," titled Body Armour - Wilhelm Reich, makes the following claim:

"Reich's use of forceful touch to break down body armour and with this, emotional blocks to healing, is very similar to a therapy called Bindegewebearbeit (translation: connective tissue work) developed by a Czechoslovakian doctor around the same timespan, 1930ish, in Bratislava.  This town is on the border between Austria and Czechoslovakia, and barely 50 miles away from Vienna.  Given the proximity, and the fact that Vienna at that time was a major centre for medical and psychological research, it is more than likely that the two men met and exchanged ideas.  In fact, looking at the similarity between their theories and working methods, I feel that it is probable that one of them used the other's ideas in his own practice.  This could have been either way, or indeed there could have been a level of joint though later unattributed developmental work."
Unfortunately, the author does not know the name of this Czech doctor.  The author does claim that the Czeck doctor founded a school in Germany, and one of his pupils was Dr. Ida Rolf, the inventor of Rolfing.  However, none of the Ida Rolf biography webpages I've searched for makes any mention of Ida Rolf ever having studied in Germany.

— Portion of article yet to be written. —

Biopathic reactions

"Biopathy" is Reich's term for degenerative diseases caused by a chronic malfunction in the organism's energy.  He considered cancer to be a biopathic illness in most cases, which is why I address the subject of biopathies more thoroughly in my cancer biopathy critique.  Reich was quick to label any degnerative disease as a biopathy when he was unable to diagnose a conventional (infectious) cause.

One of Reich's claims about character-analytic vegetotherapy was that the patient's chronic armor would react against the therapist's attempts to dissolve it — so much so that the patient's energy flow could become even worse than before (s)he started therapy, and thus the patient could contract a biopathic illness for a short time.  He came to this conclusion as the result of seeing many patients get sick during the course of their therapy.  Sometimes this sickness would even seem "connected" to what Reich diagnosed as the patient's character armor, i.e. a patient with a chronically-contracted abdomen might get cancer in his abdominal region, or a patient with a "blocked" optic segment might develop schizophrenia (Reich believed that lack of eye contact was central to schizophrenia).

The thing is, Reich's therapy could take years for a patient to complete.  It's to be expected that at least some of his patients would contract a serious illness during that time.  Reich never kept count of how many of his patients developed "biopathic" illnesses, or how many of these illnesses were "related" to a previous diagnosis of character armor, or how severe these illnesses were.  He only kept good records in cases that caught his attention.  Like many other of Reich's endeavors, he had a tendency to count the hits and ignore the misses.

The proof is in the pudding

Reich's hypotheses aside, the only way to judge the efficacy of any therapy is to apply objective standards for patients' emotional health and improvement, and compare them to a control group that received either no therapy or a different therapy.  Such studies are very hard to come by, even for well-established therapies like psychoanalysis.  To my knowledge, no clinically-controlled study of the effectiveness of character-analytic vegetotherapy has ever been attempted.

However, studies of the "cure rate" among neurotics who received no therapy have been made.  One of the earliest appeared in a 1946 issue of the New York State Journal of Medicine.  R. Denker followed 500 cases whose neuoses were severe enough that they were receiving disability payments from their life insurance companies.  He found that after one year of receiving no treatment at all, 45% of the cases recovered from their neuroses.  After two treatment-free years, a total of 72% had recovered; after three years, 82%; after four years, 87%; and finally, after the full five year run of the study was completed, a grand total of 90% of the formerly-severe-neurotics had recovered.  Later studies questioned Denker's criteria for recovery and the possibility that his sample was biased; a 1976 report by Bergin (cited in Dennis H. Karpowitz's The Effectiveness of Psychotherapy), for example, reports only a 0-46% overall rate of recovery from neuroses among the members of the various no-treatment control groups it cites.  Nevertheless, one thing is certain: at least some neuroses go away without therapy.

Ultimately, we simply don't know whether, and to what degree, character-analytic vegetotherapy is effective or not.  Organizations like the American College of Orgonomy, who claim the the therapy is the Way and the Truth and the Light, simply lack any studies to back up claims of the therapy's effectiveness, and — with their insistence that nebulous, subjective criteria like orgastic potency are the only way to determine "true" emotional health — they lack even the ability to make such an objective test of the therapy's efficacy to begin with.


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