The Un-Science of Radionics
To get a handle on a controversial, discredited, and generally bizarre medical technology called radionics, here’s a story about me as a horny teenager.
A radionics drawing by the author
To get a handle on a controversial, discredited, and generally bizarre medical technology called radionics, here’s a story about me as a horny teenager. As a kid, I’d look up sexual words in the dictionary, creating pathetic versions of pornography for myself. The words turned me on, even the medical/sterile ones like “penis.” The problem was I wanted more than what was on hand in most dictionaries, which were not cool enough to keep curse words as entries. So sometimes I’d just repeat sexual words out loud, over and over again. “Dick,” I’d say. “Dick, dick, dick.” Eventually I’d work myself up enough to masturbate, and everything would be okay until my next foray into the reference section.
Radionics works on similar principles, but unless you were a doctor working in the early 19th century, you might not be aware of it. Radionics is a cryptic healing technique developed in San Francisco (where else?) in the early 1900s. It works off the assumption that all matter, including the substances of illnesses and health, evince radiations or vibrations. If you could read those radiations, you might be able to heal a patient, assist farmers to grow better crops, or help engineers solve creative principles.
The system started as a collection of instruments developed by Albert Abrams in the early 19th century, including wooden boxes that looked like rudimentary stereos:
The idea was either too simple or too complex to make any sense. Abrams used wires, boxes and a series of intuitive taps to diagnose patients. The wires were non-functional; the boxes with dials had doorbell-like devices in them; the taps were not taps on the patient, but taps on a “subject”—someone who was meant to represent the patient. After diagnosis, the doctor would prescribe different treatments, some of which were simply turning the dials on the box to create some sort of counter-disease effect. Abrams also claimed that he could heal from a distance, by putting the blood, hair, or even the signature of a patient in a “witness well,” a small hole in one of his radionics devices. The technology was a like medical divination; Abrams intuitively used it to find the illness, and then addressed the illness with a symbolic “cure.”
It probably won’t come as a surprise that radionics was largely unsuccessful. But like a 1900s version of Scientology, it garnered popular and celebrity support, including support from Upton Sinclair and Arthur Conan Doyle. Despite this, Abrams’s machines and methods were eventually discredited by Scientific American, and his practice was dismantled.
In the 1940s and 50s, there was a resurgence in awareness of and attention to radionics, largely due to interest from the government and corporations in solving creative problems. But unlike Abrams, the newer radionics practitioners claimed their devices worked solely on intention. Their boxes weren’t filled with wires, but with nothing. In fact, many of the radionics users were just as happy to use drawings as boxes.
This is where my teenage curse word boners come in, and where things start getting really weird. There are a bunch of know-it-all cognitive explanations as to why saying the word “dick” gave me a hard-on, but looking back at it now, it’s pretty mysterious. A symbol, a word, had a physical effect on my body when I focused on it, and somehow the sound in my ears or the photons between the dictionary page and my eyes got me hard.
The updated concept of radionics (and one that persists) was that words and images are symbols that, when utilized, produce a material result. The external components (like the boxes) make radionics distinct from The Secret-style new age bullshit: Even if the concept behind them is questionable, radionic instruments are beautiful. The boxes are artful in that old-curmudgeon’s-library aesthetic you see in hipster bars, and the lines and circles of the drawings look like obsessive occult maps to the middle of nowhere.
“Information is greater than energy,” says Duncan Laurie, a sculptor, recording artist, and author of The Secret Art: A Brief History of Radionic Technology for the Creative Individual. I visited him at his studio in Rhode Island where he showed me his artwork and his experiments with sound-feedback machines hooked up to plants and rocks. Laurie is warm, brilliant, and weird in the best sense of the word. He owns a handful of early-20th century radionic instruments, and works with newer ones in his art.
Laurie is careful not to explain how radionics operates—when he says information is greater than energy, he’s trying to get at some sort of equation of aesthetics, something that can unearth the appeal of what radionics users are thinking. “This isn’t exactly a scientific discussion,” he says. “We’re talking about ordinary people using these things.” And in the post-Abrams phase of radionics, using them to demonstrable, if not prove, some effect.
One example is the case of Thomas Galen Hieronymus and what would later become Scotch tape. Hieronymus used radionics in the mid-20th Century to help out big business and even the FDA. One of the problems of the day was figuring out how to make tape sticky without all the sticky stuff coming off the strip. Hieronymus figured it out through engineering-divination, using his radionics devices. Divination devices aren't exactly uncommon in art—see James Merrill’s National Book Award-winning epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, written via Oujia board, or Phillip K Dick’s alleged use of the I Ching for some examples. But solving science problems by similar means was at least less reported, if not less common.
One of Hieronymus’s confidants, educated in physics, warned him in no uncertain terms about messing with the public perception of science when he used and talked about radionics. In his book, Duncan writes, “Physics has their territory too well mapped to allow the existence of (much of radionics)... Insist that they have to fit it into their territory, and they’ll know for a fact—and be perfectly correct—that you’re a crackpot. It is not science and cannot be explained within science.”
Well, sort of. It probably isn’t science, but even we don’t accept that radionics works, there’s still no suitable understanding of how aesthetics and artistic representation really affect us. None of the scientific or psychological explanations are very satisfying, and they’re usually annoyingly presented with arrogance and terrible book titles like How Neuroscience Explains… whatever. Science works by leaning heavily toward objective reality and hoping (but never totally succeeding) to eliminate the observer—radionics leans the other way, by keeping a lot of the subjective intact, and sort of hoping the objective will show up. In other words, radionics is a lot less like science, and a lot more like a form of precisely directed, functional art. Maybe that means it’s spiritual?
“It’s not the same as spirituality, it’s just a metaphor that points in that direction,” Duncan told me in a subsequent interview.
If it’s not science or spirituality, radionics is, at least, easily available to us. A few years ago, I made a radionics device hastily on a piece of paper with a black magic marker. A bunch of circles, some lines. As I drew it, I pretended it was a real machine. At the bottom of the page was a “rubbing plate,” the square that people who supposedly know what they’re doing with radionics say can be used for divination purposes or for charging the device. I charged the device and asked for... money. So much for spiritual enlightenment; fuck that.
Two weeks later, I got a weekly web show on Logo’s NewNowNext website. Now look, I know it’s either coincidence or the result of my own hard work. Right? I mean, it has to be. But something like that can screw with your head, and that’s part of the point. Radionics made me second guess the chains of cause and effect, confused me, and directed me to be more open. It didn’t ruin my appreciation for science, it just opened up my thinking.
So if you can draw a circle, a line, and a square, you can make a radionics device that will heal yourself, heal your pets, amplify your creativity, and detect the sub-frequencies of radiation that pulse out from all matter. Or, um, something.
Previously - Fap for Freedom