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Wilhelm Reich

By Charlotte Nickerson, published March 4 2022

Summary

  • Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was a psychoanalyst who apprenticed under Freud. He developed numerous theories around personality and the psychological and physiological origins of neuroses.
  • Reich conducted experiments on animals and plants that led him to conclude that there was an "orgone energy" that permeated phenomena ranging from weather and the formation of galaxies to physical health and human emotion. He proposed touch-based treatments that greatly diverged from those of contemporary psychoanalysts.
  • Reich had outspoken anti-fascist and pro-communist political views. As a result, received substantial criticism from both psychoanalysts and other leftists. He was barred from his psychological associations, his books and publications were banned by the United States Food and Drug Administration, and he died in a federal prison in 1957.

Biography

Wilhelm Reich was a psychoanalyst who developed a number of radical psychoanalytical and physical theories. An apprentice of Freud, he believed that neuroses, as well as physical illnesses such as cancer, derived from a lack of "orgone energy" in the body.

Reich proposed that this energy could be restored through treatments such as generating sexual organisms and sitting in an orgone-accumulation box.

Although his experiments were unbacked and largely explainable by other physical phenomena, Reich mostly received criticism for the role his Marxist political views took in his research.

Although his theories of personality remain popular and influential in psychoanalytic therapy, Reich's orgone theory is largely ignored and considered pseudoscientific in modern psychology (Morris, 1985).

Wilhelm Reich was born in 1897 in the eastern part of what is now Ukraine. Reich grew up on a farm and was tutored until age 13. The death of both of Reich's parents, as well as the outbreak of the first world war in 1914, provoked Reich to flee from the family farm and subsequently enroll in the Austrian army.

After the war, Reich enrolled in the medical school of Vienna, where he was indoctrinated by Sigmund Freud into the Vienna Psychoanalytic Association. Reich developed a close working relationship with Freud, becoming the first clinical assistant Freud's psychoanalytic polyclinic in Vienna in the 1920s.

Reich conducted research and gave lectures that, while conflicting with some of Freud's ideas, generally aligned with his written theoretical principles.

Following his apprenticeship, Reich would go on to develop theory with work with professors throughout Europe and the United States, before dying in a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (Morris, 1985).

Reich vs. Freud

Although the apprentice of another iconoclast — Sigmund Freud, Reich formulated ideas and theories that psychologists considered to be far more revolutionary (Morris, 1985).

However, Reich, unlike his predecessor, was ultimately met with silence and dissension. 

For one thing, Reich was an open advocate of communism during the late 1920s, while both Sigmund and Anna Freud were not. Additionally, Reich shared outspoken views against Hitler and the rise of the Nazi party, which provoked dissension in both his Freudian and communist circles (Morris, 1985). 

Reich also opposed Freud's death instinct. The death instinct is a psychoanalytic theory that holds that people have a drive to reduce tension in their psyches to the lowest possible point — death. The death instinct is first directed inward as a self-destructive tendency before later being turned outward as an aggressive instinct.

Freud used this death instinct theory to justify phenomena such as his patients' resistance to treatment and dreams about trauma after a trauma.

Unlike Freud, Reich believed that society should be built to conform to man's needs rather than man conforming to society's needs. Reich also, notoriously, gave lectures about woman's civil rights and advocated for sexual freedom (Morris, 1985).

Like Freud, Reich agreed that sexual development was the origin of mental disorder. Both psychoanalysts believed that most psychological states are dictated by unconscious processes: infant sexuality develops early but is repressed, and that this has important consequences for mental health.

A Marxist, Reich expanded Freud's theories in a more radical direction. He argued that the source of sexual repression was bourgeois morality and the socio-economic structures that produced it.

Because sexual repression, in Reich's view, was the cause of the neuroses, the best cure would involve an active, guilt-free sex life, and that such a liberation could only come about through a morality that was not imposed by a repressive economic structure such as capitalism (Morris, 1985). 

All in all, it was Reich's outspoken political views that set him apart from psychoanalysis. This led to his official expulsion from the international psychoanalytic association in 1934 and, as well, condemnation and denunciation by the communist party. 

Reich also employed a bodily therapeutic method that contrasted greatly from contemporary psychoanalysts.

Reich accompanied his "talking cure" with touch, feeling his patients' chests to check their breathing, repositioning their bodies, and sometimes requiring them to remove their clothes. 

Bion Experiments

Based in Oslo, Norway in the mid 1930s, Reich conducted experiments seeking the origins of life. Reich examined protozoa — single-celled creatures with nuclei. He grew cultures using grass, beach sand, iron, animal tissue, and potassium and gelatin.

After heading the materials to incandescent with a heat-torch, be noted the presence of bright and glowing blue vesicles, which he claimed could also be cultured and gave off an observable radiant energy that he called orgone.

He called these vesicles biones and believed that they were halfway between life and non-life. When he poured the cooled mixture onto the growth media, bacteria grew.

Based on various control experiments, Reich rejected the idea that the bacteria came from contamination from the air, or in other materials used.

Rather than garnering objections as to its biological validity, Reich's The Bion Experiments on the Origin of Life (1938) largely led to attacks in the press based on his cultural background, accusing him of attempting to meddle with the origin of life.

T-bacilli experiments

In his 1936 book Beyond Psychology, Reich wrote that there were two types of single-celled organisms: life-destroying organisms that form through organic decay, and those that form from inorganic material that comes to life (Reich, 1945).

This idea of spontaneous generation led Reich to believe that he had found the cause of cancer. He called life-destroying organisms T-bacilli, T coming from the German word Tod, or death.

Reich wrote that T-bacilli formed as the result of the disintegration of protein, and that, when injected into mice, resulted in inflammation and cancer in mice.

From these experiments, Reich concluded that, when orgone energy diminishes in cells through aging or injury, cells undergo death.

At some point, t-bacilli form in cells, and the uncontrollable growth of these t-bacilli results in death from cancer (Reich, 1945). 

Character Analysis

Reich formulated the basis of a field called character pathology. Character, or personality pathology, refers to the enduring patterns of cognition, emotion, and behavior that negatively affect a person's adaptation to the social world.

These traits develop in childhood and, without treatment, persist throughout one's lifespan (Morris, 1985). 

Prior to Reich, psychoanalysis focused on the treatment of neurotic symptoms. Character Analysis became a major step in what is known today as ego psychology.

Reich believed that a person's entire personality consists not only of individual symptoms and traits, but of a whole neurotic system (Morris, 1985).  

The most important work that Reich wrote in this field was in "The Impulsive Character - A Psychoanalytic study of ego pathology. This work was later carried over into Anna Freud's book, the Ego and its Defenses. Reich's initial investigation into character pathology greatly influenced contemporary theories of personality. 

One of his influential ideas in personality theory was that of Body Armor — a stagnant set of pathological traits.

Reich argued that unreleased psychosexual energy could produce actual physical blocks within muscles and organs, and that these act as "body armor" that prevent the release of the energy causing these blocks.

Orgasms were one way of breaking through this body armor. These ideas around sexual and psychological energy developed into a general theory that emphasized the importance of a healthy sex life to overall well-being (Morris, 1985).

In his book, Character Analysis (1933), Reich addressed the idea of negative transference and formulated ideas about how to deal with latent negative transference.

Transference is the idea, first put forth by Freud, that people unconsciously redirect their emotions from one to another. This had great influence on contemporary therapeutic practice and technique (Morris, 1985).

Orgone Theories

Reich developed a theory that the ability for someone to feel sexual love depended on their physical ability to have sex, as determined by what he called "orgastic potensy."

Reich attempted to measure the male orgasm, noting four distinct physiological phases: firstly, psychosexual build-up or tension; secondly, the engorging of the male sex organs, with an accompanying "charge," which Reich measured electrically; thirdly, an electrical discharge at the moment of orgasm; and, lastly, the relaxation of the male sex organs.

He believed that the force that he measured was a distinct form of energy present in all living things. 

In psychoanalysis, Reich drew conclusions from working with patients and extrapolated his own experience into theory. Perhaps the most notorious of this extrapolation was "Orgasm theory."

Reich adapted Freud's theory of the sexual origins of neurosis, and believed that sexual orgasms could be used as a treatment for such conditions. 

Reich believed that the libido was not a psychotic disturbance, but a system with a somatic function. He drew from Freud's idea that sexual neurosis is like neurosis resulting from an intoxicating chemical substance.

He believed that the substance that Freud alluded to was a detectable substance and the driving force of sexuality in which a block (or a stasis) could lead to neurotic symptoms. To Reich, the orgasm was a way of liberating the libido and sexual energy in a human (Morris, 1985). 

Reich said that Orgastic Potency "is to be understood as the ability to achieve full resolution of existing sexual need-tension" (Reich, 1980).

Reich connected the mind and body and eventually deviated from psychoanalysis, believing that talking cures were not as effective as treating the body directly.

Reich's experimentation revealed that there were charges at the skin's surface that fluctuated with both anxiety and pleasure (Reich, 1971).

He called this charge fluctuation a biological type of energy which existed throughout the body and the atmosphere: Orgone. By working directly with the body, Reich believed that he could cure ailments and neuroses related to the stress that a person experienced and retained in the body (Reich, 1949).

Reich claimed that this energy helped maintain a homeostasis in humans and the environment, a disruption and lack of which could result in cancer developing in the body or the desertification of the earth (Morris, 1985). 

Reich (1961) built boxes intended to concentrate atmospheric orgone energy called orgone accumulators. These were built in various sizes to accommodate lab animals and humans alike.

Reich believed that orgone is a primordial cosmic energy that was omnipresent and responsible for phenomena such as the weather, the color of the sky, gravity, galaxy formations, and emotion and sexuality. Reich believed that his orgone accumulators could provide a treatment for cancer and other conditions.

Reich conducted clinical tests of the orgone accumulator on people suffering from a variety of illnesses. During these tests, a patient would sit within the accumulator and absorb the "concentrated orgone energy."

Reich claimed that these orgone boxes could boost the immune system, even to the point of destroying certain types of tumors.

Ultimately, Reich's tests on mice with cancer, and plant-growth, convinced him that orgone was a grand unified theory of physical and mental health.

Orgone Experiment with Albert Einstein

Reich collaborated with Albert Einstein on an orgone accumulator experiment. Einstein agreed with Reich, arguing that if an object's temperature could be raised without an apparent heating source, it would violate the laws of thermodynamics, constituting a major discovery (Reich, 1961). 

Reich supplied Einstein with two of his orgone boxes, one of which stripped down, to compare temperatures. Einstein confirmed Reich's finding, observing a rise in temperature.

However, upon discussing the matter with one of his colleagues at Princeton, Einstein interpreted the phenomenon as resulting from thermal convection currents, rather than a novel orgone energy. 

Reich also designed a "cloudbuster" which he believed could manipulate streams of orgone energy in the atmosphere to induce rain by forcing clouds to form and disperse. 

Controversy

Reich received criticism both at the journalistic and legal levels. In 1954, the Food and Drug Administration of the United States filed a complaint ordering that a number of Reich's materials and books could no longer be distributed, resulting in the incineration of a large amount of Reich's works.

Among these destroyed works was Reich's Character Analysis, written before any reference to orgone.

Because Reich did not respond to the court, the injunction was issued by default — without any investigation as to the validity of the Food and Drug Administration's claims (Morris, 1985).

Reich is seldom mentioned in lieu of other psychoanalysis in mainstream psychology.

There have been no objective scientific studies widely recognized by academia or the scientific community to clarify the validity or falsity of Reich's more controversial claims.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2022, March 04). Wilhelm Reich. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/Wilhelm-Reich.html

References

Morris, B. (1985). The rise and fall of the human subject. Man, 722-742.

Reich, W. (1933). On character analysis. The Psychoanalytic Review (1913-1957), 20, 89.

Reich, W. (1945). Experimental Demonstration of the Physical Orgone Energy. Int. J. Sex-Economy and Orgone Research, 4(2-3), 133-146.

Reich, W., & Wolfe, T. P. (1961). The discovery of the orgone.

Reich, W. (1971). The function of the orgasm: The discovery of the orgone (TP Wolfe, Trans.). New York: Meridian.(Original work published 1942).

Reich, W. (1979). Bion Experiments. Macmillan.

Reich, W. (1980). Character analysis. Macmillan.

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