In my wanderings around the archives I have discovered a machine that purpots to measure emotions. It is called a Psychogalvanometer. When I learned that this critical piece of equipment was an essential feature of Western Australia’s Psychological Clinic, kept in the cupboard in the clinic’s Analysis Room, the psychogalvanometer became worthy of a post in itself.
The Mirror (Perth, Western Australia) Saturday 22 November 1930, p.1.
It had its uses. In his lecture to the Sydney branch of the Australasian Association of Psychology and Philosophy in October 1929, ( and reported in The Sydney Morning Herald 11 Oct 1929) psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Roy Coupland Winn explained that the machine had ‘evolved’ in the Psychology Department at the University of Sydney. In experiments with patients with spinal chord injuries, Winn had found, he said, ‘that patients suffering from complete anaesthesia due to organic changes such as follow injury…to the spinal chord gave no psycho-galvanic response following pin-pricks in the anaesthetic area. On the other hand, in cases such as hysterical amnesia or of malingering, a response always followed stimulation of an area stated to be anaesthetic’. Anything that causes emotion will give the psycho-galvanic reflex’.
The psychogalvanometer was a delicate and expensive piece of equipment. An article: ‘Some new apparatus for the psycho-galvanic reflex phenomenon’, composed conjointly by a team from the Department of Psychology at the University of Sydney and published by the Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy in 1928 described its workings in detail. Too long to publish here, the article was written by electronics experts, outlining its construction, the flow of electricity as it reacted to the subjects skin secretions as they altered and varied in response to their state of arousal. The machine was expensive, in need of constant adjustment but through the work of the team at the Department of Psychology it was, potentially, a useful instrument for the assessment of the true emotional states of respondents.
The machine linked mind and body and, it was supposed, enabled objectivity. It conceivably occupied the gap between the respective subjectivity of patient and doctor. This was what psychology was about, it seems, the gathering of evidence, and measurement.It aimed to exclude subjectivity.
For historians it is a glimpse into the what was assumed to be important and what was not; into early twentieth century British middle class sensibility. The authors explained:
A list of twenty words was made, so selected that ten might be classed by a normal person as tinged with emotional tone, and ten of no emotional significance to a normal person. These words were arranged in six groups, as follows:
Group I: Table, light, house, cloud.
Group II: Bible, holy, religion, to sin.
Group I I I : Bird, dog, day.
Group IV: Man, woman, love.
Group V: Knife, clock, pencil.
Group VI: Kiss, family, anxiety.
It will be seen that Groups II, IV and VI are composed of words which for most people are accompanied by some considerable degree of emotional tone, while Groups I, III and V consist of words which have for most people, so far as can
be judged, very little emotional significance. In addition to the words, three stimuli were used which might be classed as nocive or threatening; these were: (a) a loud sound immediately behind the subject; (b) a pinprick in the back of subject’s neck; (c) the application of a small piece of moist sponge to the back of subject’s neck.
These stimuli might reasonably be expected to arouse some emotional response, whether of fear, anger, curiosity, or amusement. The subjects were required to respond with a free association in each case to the twenty stimulus words, and the
galvanometric deflections and reaction times were recorded in each case.
There was a series of questions:
An attempt was made to discover whether the act of making a voluntary choice between two alternatives would cause significant galvanometric deflections. Cards were shown to the subject one at a time, first setting before him a definite situation in which he was to imagine himself, and then offering the choice of two alternatives, between which the subject was to choose. In the case of two of the choices the subject was asked to reverse his decision, and in all cases the time and deflections were recorded.
The cards used were typed as follows:
1. (a) The hour is late, and the day has been tiring; you are about to take the tram home, when suddenly you discover that you have lost your money.
1. (b) Would you choose to walk the distance home, or risk explaining your quandary to some decent looking stranger ?
2. (a) You are preparing to attend a social gathering at a home not previously visited.
2. (b) Would you prefer to go in evening dress, with a chance of being made conspicuous, or in ordinary dress, and perhaps feel out of place?
3. (a) You are convalescing; it is your first day out of doors, and the weather is bright but cool.
3. (b) Would you prefer to sit in the sun in an uncomfortable chair, or in the shade in a comfortable one ?
3. (c) Now endeavour to make a reversal of your choice, and arrive at a contrary decision.
4. (a) On returning home after making a purchase you discover that you have been given more goods than you paid for.
4. (b)They would never be missed, and their return involves the dismissal of the employee responsible. Would you return or retain them ?
5. (a) You have invited out to dine a new acquaintance, whom you wish to impress favourably.
5. (b) On finding you have forgotten your money, would you rather borrow from your companion, or risk the unpleasantness of an explanation to the management, to whom you are personally unknown?
It must be admitted, the authors concluded, the psychogalvanometer ‘does register some emotional changes. Physiological investigations have confirmed what was once surmised, that changes in the amount of discharge by the sweat glands are responsible for the deflections. For this reason it is desirable to know
what emotions actually do cause such changes, but this fact is at present unknown’.
Nevertheless, the authors noted:
we hold to the point of view that the psychogalvanic reflex does not register all emotions, for the “obstructed” situation of an attempted reversal of volition yields facial changes and bodily movements expressive of stirred-up mental conditions, far more pronounced than either free association responses or the act of volition itself. While of undoubted usefulness as one method of recording certain emotional change or changes, it does not appear that the psychogalvanic reflex may be regarded as a universal recorder of emotion. It ranks as a most important member among a number of methods of measuring somatic changes, but does not obviate other methods such as afforded by the pneumograph the cardiograph or manometer.
It seems that the authors conceded that subjectivity was difficult to measure, if not impossible.
Nevertheless the psychoanalyst Roy Coupland Winn found some use for the machine in his psychotherapeutic practice. It saved time, he wrote. ‘Supplying as it does objective evidence of emotional changes, it aids in the recognition of ” complexes “. He continued,
By having the patient attached to the psychogalvanometer during the recital of his experiences, or during free-association, a continuous indicator of emotion is provided. Owing to the common tendency of neurotics to adopt the method of facile superficial associations as a defence mechanism, the psychogalvanometer also saves considerable time by providing evidence of unemotional associations, which can be interrupted with confidence.
‘Anxiety, neurosis and hyperthyroidism give exaggerated psychogalvanic
reflexes’, Winn continued. ‘Patients with these conditions can be similarly compared with a control. It can be seen that the new psychogalvanometer is of considerable
practical value to the physician and the neurologist, as well as to the psychologist’
C.E.W. Bellingham, S. Langford Smith, & A.H. Martin, Some New Apparatus for the Psycho-galvanic Reflex Phenomenon, Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy, Volume 6, Issue 2, 1928, pp.137-148.
R. Coupland Winn, ‘The Psychogalvanometer in Practice’, Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy, Volume 7, Issue 3, September 1929, pages 218-219.