Back to the Secrets of the E-Meter page

Biophysics and the E-Meter

by Chris Schafmeister

An E-meter is a Wheatstone bridge, an electronic circuit that measures electrical resistance relative to a standard resistance. It is used by the Cult/Church of Scientology to tease out what they consider to be essentially useless and dangerous program instructions (they call them "Engrams") in what they call the "Reactive mind", a part of a scientologists brain which has the single purpose of storing and executing such programs.

Scientologists believe that once they have yanked out all these "Engrams" that they will develop god-like abilities.

Now I don't buy any of this, I think Scientologists are being deluded by the author of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard and ultimately by themselves.

In the following paragraphs I hope to describe what I believe to be a complete and comprehensive theory for how E-meters operate on a physiological and psychological level.

It is important because the way a Scientologist interacts with an E-meter is the very basis of Scientology.

A Scientologist typically holds on to two electrodes, one in each hand and is asked a series of questions by an "Auditor". The meter reactions are monitored by the "Auditor" who continues to repeat a question until what they consider to be a satisfactory meter response occurs.

I originally thought that the E-meter functioned by measuring the change in resistance caused by slight changes in hand pressure on the electrodes. But I had a chance to play with an E-meter for several minutes and was able to quickly determine that this was not the case. Beyond a light hand pressure the meter reading was invariant to pressure.

One thing I did notice while I was holding onto the E-meter electrodes is that the needle would tend to jump up and then back down after erratic intervals of several seconds.

The person who was showing me the E-meter administered the standard Scientology "Pinch test". The "Pinch test" consists of pinching the E-meter holder and watching the meter react. Then about 30 seconds later the pincher tells the "pinchee" to remember the pinch and both watch the meter react. This can be repeated several times.

What I noticed was that the needle remained as erratic as before the "Pinch test" and that we would watch the meter until a needle movement of appropriate size was registered before I was asked again to "remember the pinch".

The response was far from instantaneous and personally indistinguishable from the meter response before the "test".

I began to think about the physics of how the electrical resistance of a body could change over the course of a few seconds.

Homer Wilson Smith, an ex-scientologist did a few simple experiments with a variable resistor, an e-meter and a standard multi-meter that allowed us to determine exactly how sensitive an E-meter is.

What he determined is that at the least sensitive setting an e-meter reads:

     7000 ohms   far left of dial 
3000 ohms far right of dial
and at the most sensitive setting an e-meter reads:
     5000 ohms   far left of dial
4500 ohms far right of dial
Now, I am a biophysics graduate student at the University of California in San Francisco. I work with membrane proteins which act as channels to allow ions to pass through the essentially impenetrable cell membranes.

First a little physiology:

There are no wires or anything running through our bodies and thus electrical conductivity cannot be due to the movement of electrons as in a wire. Within solutions, electricity can be conducted by ions, electrically charged atoms, moving through the fluid. This is how electrolysis works and how your car battery works. Within the body tissues there is a great deal of water (greater than 90% of our bodies is water) and a great deal of dissolved ions (salts, metabolites at a concentration of about 0.145 Molar (1 Molar = 6.02*10^23 ions/liter) ). Now while ions will travel through water with relative ease, this is not so through human tissue. Human tissue is made up of cells all held together very tightly allowing very little to pass between the cells.

The cells themselves are essentially bags of chemicals surrounded by a membrane that resembles a soap bubble. This membrane is made up of fatty molecules that are impervious to ions. In order for cells to live they must allow material and ions to pass in and out of the cell through the membrane. They do this via special molecules that they construct called membrane proteins which sit within the membrane and allow small molecules to pass through them. There are both pumps and simple channels.

Both pumps and channels are opened and closed by chemical and electrical signals from inside and outside the cell. Since pumps pump either in or out of the cell, they are probably not important for conducting ions through the cells. However, electric fish use pumps that on one side of the cell pump out and on the other side of the cell pump in in order to produce up to 650 volts at 1 ampere which can stun and kill other fish.

Channels on the other hand can allow ions to travel both into and out of the cell and thus can act as conduits for ions passing through the cells.

So you can essentially think of human tissues as electrical resistors whose resistance is directly related to the number and types of membrane ion channels that are open.

Now, what controls these channels?

Well, all sorts of things. Blood borne chemicals, signals from nerves, and internal signals such as clocks from within the cells.

Blood borne chemicals like adrenalin and signals from nerves can either be completely controlled by the brain or are under semi-automatic control.

WARNING: Following is some simple arithmetic that roughly estimates the number of membrane ion channels that would have to open and close in order to be easily detected on an e-meter at the least sensitive setting. If arithmetic puts you to sleep, it does me sometimes, skip to the part that starts with CALCULATION CONCLUSION.
A single open ion channel can conduct a current of about 1.5 picoampere. (1.5*10^-12 amperes).

How many channels have to open or close to change the body resistance from 7000 to 3000 Ohms?

If we assume an e-meter voltage of 5 volts then the current for each of these resistances is: (remember V = I R)

    I = V / R

    I = 5(volts)/7000 (ohms)  = 7*10^-4 amperes

    I = 5(volts)/3000 (ohms)  = 17*10^-4 amperes
That is a current change of (17*10^-4 - 7*10^-4 = 10*10^4 amperes).

That requires about (10*10^-4)/(1.5*10^-12) or 670,000,000 channels to open at once. Let's round that up to 700,000,000.

Now that sounds like a lot, but remember, channels are small, they are made up of only a few thousand atoms and if you want a sense of scale: comparing an atom to the size of an apple is like comparing an apple to the size of the earth.

A typical channel is about 30*10^-10 meters across. How large of a surface would be covered by 700,000,000 channels?

    Sqrt(700,000,000) ~=  26,500 per side.

    (26,500 * 30*10^-10)^2 = 6.3*10^-9 square meters
                           = 6.3*10^-5 square centimeters
                           = 1*10^-5 square inches (for the metric impaired)
This is roughly the surface area that would contain enough ion channels that need to open or close to be easily detected on an e-meter at the least sensitive setting.

Membrane proteins make up about 50% of cell membrane weight and I'd say that easily 1% of this is membrane ion channels.

Even if I'm off by a factor of a thousand it is still very very small.

This is a vanishingly small surface area which demonstrates that it is easily within the realm of possibility that the opening and closing of membrane ion channels within one layer of cells can easily change the resistance through those cells enough to register on a resistance meter.

Now resistance through a whole human body is a much more complex affair. The body would look like a complex collection of resistors in series and in parallel. Exactly what path the electrons take is not clear to me, but I would guess that it would either travel into and then through long muscle cells, long nerve axons, or through the bloodstream; all places where there are few or no membranes to traverse. That leaves the few layers of skin and cells that the current must cross in order to reach these other places and in the case of muscle cells and nerve axons the membranes it must cross between these long cells.

I propose that it is at the few membranes that the current must cross that the modulation of the current by opening and closing of membrane ion channels takes place. And from the above calculation we see that very few channels actually need to open or close to modulate the resistance by a degree large enough to be detected on an e-meter.

Now for the psychology

The crux of my theory is that a scientologist learns through feedback during auditing and feedback from the E-meter to exert control over the semi-automatic mechanisms that control enough membrane bound ion channels to change their body resistance enough to provoke a measurable response in the E-meter.

It is biofeedback in its most basic sense.

The stimulus for the scientologist to develop this control is the "Wins" (warm fuzzy feelings) that they develop during auditing sessions when they obtain the approval of their auditor and when they obtain E-meter responses which Hubbard said were correct responses which move them closer towards god-hood.

Hubbard's writings are laced with statements like: (From the OT III materials)

I have lately been C/Sing a number of failed OT cases and have found them all running well on solo now. The errors are made as follows:

(1) The solo auditor cannot audit, needs more training.
(2) Cases are not well prepared with Dianetics.

Here Hubbard states very clearly, if you can't produce the proper E-meter responses then you have to go back and work with an auditor to train yourself until you can.

Now, scientologists have told me that it doesn't matter, that if the E-meter is reacting to their emotions then they don't care that they are controlling it.

I respond: If you control the E-meter, then the E-meter can not tell you anything that you don't already know. Using an E-meter to tell how you feel is just silly, but the real self delusion comes in when you use the E-meter to "verify" the many bizarre statements Hubbard made about ancient evil space emperors, evil spirits crawling all over you and past lives where you spent all your time wandering around biting things (I'm not joking) or polishing bricks (again, no joke).

Other scientologists have told me that if you connect any person off the street to an E-meter you can obtain reproducible meter responses.

I respond: Yes, that is the basis of a police "lie detector", that if you provoke strong emotions within a person that body resistance is one of the physiological indicators that can be used to detect the stress. It is important to note that lie detectors which include galvanic skin response meters are not accepted as legal evidence in many (all?) courts because they are too unreliable.

Also, this does not invalidate anything I have said, it simply demonstrates that untrained people change their body resistance due to stress. I would also add that my experiences with the "Pinch test" led me to conclude that at least this one test was not nearly as reproducible as scientologists would have me believe.



- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Christian E.A.F. Schafmeister               Biophysics graduate student
University of California, San Francisco      UUCP: ucbvax!ucsfcgl!schaf
"Biophysics . . . THE future."             INTERNET:

Back to the Secrets of the E-Meter page