Emotions and Device-Oriented Psychiatry in the Early Twentieth Century

By Chris Rudge, The University of Sydney

In July 1907, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung and American neurologist Frederick Peterson published the results of their investigations into the galvanometer and the pneumograph in BRAIN, the journal of neurology. The pair had subjected various people to these instruments – people they had identified as ‘normal’ and ‘insane’ – in an attempt to record and quantify certain ‘emotional’ and ‘psychical changes’ in their moods ‘in connection with sensory and psychical stimuli’.[1]

At this time, only a few years into the twentieth century, these scientists – and many others like them – were eager to a develop a systematic means of measuring emotion. They sought to demystify and provide a scientific explanation for the enigmatic interface between the body’s nervous system (both the peripheral and central nervous systems) and the presentation of varied human emotions. To this end, instruments such as the galvanometer and pneumograph, then understood as effective ‘measurer[s] of the emotional tone’, promised to illuminate the physical meanings, mechanisms and perhaps even causes of what they called the ‘emotional complexes’.[2]

Among the most extreme of the ‘emotional complexes’ was the category of dementia praecox. This was a condition whose ‘chief characteristic’ was, as George H. Kirby noted, ‘a particular disturbance of the emotions’.[3] Kirby was the first American to develop a classification of psychoses, and his system was later adopted by the American Psychiatry Association in something of a precursor to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the authoritative diagnostic manual used by psychiatrists today. But Kirby was not the first twentieth-century psychiatrist to undertake a modern classification of the psychoses. That honour belonged to Eugen Bleuler, the Swiss psychiatrist under whose supervision Jung and Peterson had conducted their work on the galvanometer and the pneumograph. In fact, Jung and Peterson undertook their research in Bleuler’s laboratory, within the huge Clinic for Psychiatry at the University of Zurich known as Burghölzli (Figure 1), a building that was idyllically depicted in 1917 by Swiss painter Max Gubler (Figure 2), who would tragically later move and die there.[4] In Burghölzli, Jung and Peterson also used Bleuler’s apparatuses – his galvanometer and the pneumograph – to produce their study of the relations between the nerves and emotions. Jung had been awarded his PhD in 1902 based on Bleuler’s reports, and the tense relationship between the two men has been a subject of some scholarly interest.[5]


The Burghölzli psychiatric clinic in Switzerland, 1880s.
Figure 1. The Burghölzli psychiatric clinic in Switzerland, 1880s. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Max Gluber, Winterlandschaft Burghölzli [Winter Landscape at Burghölzli], 1917. Courtesy of the Eduard, Ernst and Max Gubler Foundation.
Figure 2. Max Gluber, Winterlandschaft Burghölzli [Winter Landscape at Burghölzli], 1917. Courtesy of the Eduard, Ernst and Max Gubler Foundation.

In 1911, only four years after the publication of Jung and Peterson’s investigation, Bleuler would coin the term schizophrenia, proposing that it should replace ‘dementia praecox’. That older term had been coined by the French physician or ‘alienist’ Phillippe Pinel in the early nineteenth century, and popularised by the influential German psychiatrist Emil Kraeplin in his 1896 textbook, Psychiatrie. In Bleuler’s 1911 monograph, titled Dementia Praecox or the Group of Schizophrenias, the Swiss psychiatrist would argue that the earlier term was misleading for practitioners, conveying as it did two deceptive associations. The term, he said, suggested that schizophrenia had something to do with the disease of dementia, as well with the concept of ‘precocity’, when in fact it had nothing to do with either. Moreover, Bleuler argued that it was impossible to express the phrase ‘dementia praecox’ as an adjective, which made writing about the disorder nearly impossible.[6]

Despite the fact that Jung and Peterson worked in Bleuler’s laboratory, the way in which these scientists described mental disorders differed markedly, at least in one respect. Strikingly, Bleuler’s paradigmatic psychiatric work of 1911, translated into English from the original German in 1950, almost entirely omits the word ‘emotion’ or ‘emotional complex’. By contrast, Jung and Peterson’s study of 1907 uses the term ‘emotion’ or ‘emotional’ some 108 times (in a study of roughly 18,000 words). Of course, this is not to say that emotions are altogether excluded from Bleuler’s understanding of schizophrenia. On the contrary, emotions lie at the heart of his symptomatological description of the disorder. At one point in his monograph, Bleuler writes that ‘many schizophrenic symptoms originate from emotionally charged complexes’ and that the ‘symptomatology is determined by the emotionally charged complex which, in turn, is often dependent on the Anlage [predisposition]’.[7] As such, the omission of the word emotion and the general concept of emotionality in Bleuler’s text is puzzling. Of course, it might be explained by the fact that there is no easy German equivalent to the word, and that the text would presumably employ the word ‘gefühl’ (meaning ‘feeling’) or ‘affekt’ (meaning ‘affect’) to denote the same concept.

Indeed, as psychiatry developed in the following decades, the concept of ‘feeling’ and specifically of the ‘praecox gefühl’ – the praecox feeling – would become one of the most important in the diagnosis of the psychoses. First named by the Dutch psychiatrist H. C. Rümke in the 1940s, the praecox feeling described the way in which the diagnostician would, in some circumstances, need to rely on intuitive reasoning – on their highly attuned and sensitive emotional senses, refined as they were by clinical experience – to reach a diagnosis of schizophrenia. It would be necessary to use this method when a patient was, for reasons related to their pathology, ‘fundamentally inaccessible’, such as when, because the basic structure of their ‘being-in-the-world’ had altered, the practitioner could identify something about them that was hard to describe in words but ‘definitely incomprehensible’.[8]

Perhaps one of the reasons that Bleuler’s work so rarely refers to emotions and emotional states, whereas Jung and Peterson’s study describes ‘emotions’ so often, is due to the divergent aims of and influences on the authors. Despite presenting itself as a work of psychiatry, Bleuler’s study inherits much from psychoanalysis and Freud, routinely referring to such Freudian concepts as symbolisation, resistance and the Oedipus complex, among others. Jung and Peterson’s study, by contrast, focuses almost entirely on the quantification of emotions by means of their instruments; it is less a study in taxonomy and more an attempt to break away from those symbolic concepts that Freud had introduced only six years earlier. Using instruments and devices, Jung and Peterson seek to bring these disorders of the mind out of the realm of the ‘invisible’ and into the clear light of day. This, as Jeffrey Lieberman notes, was precisely what distinguished the work of neurologists from psychiatrists: ‘Physicians who specialized in disorders with an observable neural stamp became known as neurologists’, he writes, whereas ‘those who dealt with the invisible disorders of the mind became known as psychiatrists’.[9]

Historians and philosophers of science have identified the rise of a ‘device paradigm’ in psychiatry from the mid-twentieth century onwards. They point to the invention of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), the emergence of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and, from the mid-1950s, the use of psychopharmacological drugs as evidence of this newly device-oriented science of the mind.[10] However, Jung and Peterson’s investigations – together with some similar, though more controversial, experiments with x-rays in chiropractic medicine – illustrate an earlier turn towards devices. In fact, not only was the shift toward devices well underway in the first decade of the twentieth century, but devices were, at this time, central to the study of emotion. Before psychiatrists such as Bleuler and Kirby established psychiatry’s classification systems, subsuming ‘emotional complexes’ into their systematic taxonomies, measuring human emotions by means of physical tests had been a central object of neurological enquiry.[11]

The most recent version of the E-Meter.
Figure 3. The most recent version of the E-Meter. Courtesy of Scientology.org.

Ironically, Jung and Peterson’s methods would be revived in the 1950s, when, after attending a lecture delivered by L. Ron Hubbard, an American inventor named Volney Mathison patented a new device that he described as a ‘bio-electronic instrument which registers human dynamic emotion in a more accurate and sensitive manner than has been possible with any previous device of comparable simplicity’.[12] Hubbard quickly embraced the device, which is now known as the E-meter (Figure 3), and a modified version of this same galvanometer today forms part of the Church of Scientology’s official practices, used to ‘audit’ the emotional complexes of the Church’s adherents.[13]

Chris Rudge is an early-career researcher who works at the intersection of literature, the mind sciences and the law. Chris holds bachelor’s degrees in Arts (Honours 1) (2006) and Laws (2008), and received his PhD at the University of Sydney in 2015. Undertaken as part of the Biopolitics of Science Research Network and awarded by Department of English, Chris’ thesis compared and examined representations of psychopathology in various medical and literary texts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He is currently a Project-to-Publication Fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, working on a project titled ‘Pain, Nervousness and the Neurology of Emotion, 1650–1750’.

[1] See Frederick Peterson and Carl G. Jung, ‘Psycho-Physical Investigations with the Galvanometer and Pneumograph in Normal and Insane Individuals’, Brain 30.2 (1907): 153–218.

[2] G. H. Kirby, ‘Galvanic Reactions and Associations’, Psychological Bulletin 5.8 (1908), 272.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Rosemarie Tillessen, ‘Das Museum zu Allerheiligen zeigt das bisher unbekannte Spätwerk von Max Gubler’ [‘The Museum zu Allerheiligen shows the previously unknown late work of Max Gubler’], Südkurier, 5 November 2011.

[5] See Anders Möller, Christian Scharfetter and Daniel Hell, ‘Development and termination of the working relationship of C. G. Jung and Eugen Bleuler, 1900–1909’, History of Psychiatry 13.52 (2002): 445–53.


[6] See Eugen Bleuler, Dementia Praecox or the Group of Schizophrenias, trans. Joseph Zinkin (New York: International Universities Press, 1950).

[7] Ibid., pp. 391–92.

[8] See Josef Parnas, ‘The Clinical Core of Schizophrenia’, Schizophrenia Bulletin 37.6 (2011): 1121–130.

[9] Jeffrey A. Lieberman, Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015), p. 26.

[10] See James Phillips, ‘Technology and Psychiatry’, in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry, ed. by K. W. M. Fulford, Martin Davies, Richard Gipps, George Graham, John Sadler, Giovanni Stanghellini and Tim Thornton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 178.

[11] For the use of x-rays in chiropractic, for instance, see B. J. Palmer’s inventions, as summarised in Simon A. Senzon, ‘Chiropractic and Energy Medicine: A Shared History’, Journal of Chiropractic Humanities 15 (2008): 27–54.

[12] Volney Mathison, ‘Electropsychometer or Bioelectronics Instrument,’ US Patent 2,684,670 A, filed 1 August 1954 and issued 27 July1954.

[13] On scientology and the E-Meter, see Hugh B. Urban, The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), pp. 62–63.

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