A Look at the Mathison Electropsychometer

Now sit back easily and think of a big rusty nail! Think of stepping on it and the excruciating pain as it enters the tender flesh of your foot.

If you're like most of humankind this image you conjure up will give a momentary flash of what is called in the vernacular the Screaming Meemies. Indeed, your stomach may even break into a finale of the Ballet Russe. But, among the more erudite who flit about in the highest ethereal reaches of Psychiatric theorizing, you are just experiencing a jolt and a jar at the loci of psychic trauma. If the image so upsets that you hurry angrily out hat in hand, to beat a hardware merchant about the head and shoulders the chances are that your loci is bigger than a watermelon and you ought to have it looked over.

Measuring the degree of psychic trauma is the function of a new machine called the "Electropsychometer" which was devised by Inventor Volney G. Mathison who is also active in psychoanalytical research. One day he set about designing a machine that would aid psychiatrists in measuring nervous reactions. First, he knew that when a person sees or feels or hears something unpleasant there is a spontaneous tightening of muscles. While this reaction is so finite that the person may not notice it, it can be measured. Similarly, a pleasant reaction causes a person to relax. So here was one human reaction which could be measured. Secondarily, the human skin is covered with approximately 400 sweat glands per square inch. On the thumbs and fingers, however, this rises to a dramatic 2700 per square inch. What is called the "psychogalvanic reflex" manifests itself in the jetting of droplets of saline fluid from subcutaneous glands. The sweat glands are closely allied with the autonomic nervous system and respond with extreme rapidity to nervous impulses originating in the autonomic nervous system. When a hand starts to clasp, for example, the jetting has already occurred.


With these two basic facts Mathison set to work. When the pilot model of his machine was built he started testing patients. The patient held two pads. The machine, delicately measuring muscular reaction, shows an upsurge on the dial when a question which was painful to the patient was asked. But the sweat gland measurement was still not so easily measurable. Mathison finally hit upon the simple idea of using an ordinary kitchen scouring pad for the patient to hold. The results were immediately satisfactory; the tiny fibers of metal measured the degree of "jetting" accurately and transmitted it to the machine.

A long series of tests began. The dial was adjusted to show pleasant and unpleasant reaction to questions. If there was a muscle-tightening and increased "jetting" it meant that the questioner had hit upon a painful subject. If there was relaxation it meant the patient found the question pleasing and soothing.

The dial registered, in effect, nervous tension. If a person is asked a question which is of no real concern to the patient the needle on the dial remains stationary. But, if a question is a painful one, the needle points toward a state of nervous tension and stays there. The "tone" of a patient is also measurable by the machine and the tone scale set up by Mathison runs from 4.0 (a healthy person in deep and dreamless sleep) to 1.0 (a state of acute physical and psychic disturbance). The "tone" scale measures the energy-consuming activity of the autonomic nervous system. It may be affected by such things as external stimuli, the patient's bodily condition or complex mental-physical activity such as "feelings" and "thoughts." Mathison found that it takes time for each new patient to adjust to the machine and, only by primary testing, could the accurate "tone scale" - or the rate of energy consumption - be ascertained. Once a patient became used to the machine and relaxed, the degree of tension could be judged. From that point on the reaction to questions becomes pertinent.


The review of painful past events then begins. The studies include not only sexual situations, but also illnesses, frustrations, losses of beloved persons, and a vast variety of other injurious occurrences in the person's life history.

It is also said that the instrument enables the therapist to avoid "running his own case" instead of the patient's case. In research both patient and analyst are connected to two separate instruments, and Mathison observes both instruments. The analyst will often "hit the pin" in response to one of his own questions, while the patient's instrument may surge slightly, or not at all. This means that the area in review is more painful to the therapist than it is to the patient. Erroneous evaluations on the case are then inevitable, Mathison thinks, without instrumentation.

Also under research is a technique whereby differentiations between psychosomatic anxieties and actual organic illnesses apparently may be observed.