I recently came across the 1950 book Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard. I thought I would read it to see what the fuss was about.
Hubbard and the religion he later founded, Scientology, have been reviled for as long as I've heard of them. Nevertheless, I expected to learn something from Dianetics that would be worth knowing.
That's because just about every ideological movement, cult, and religion has at least some kernel of truth in them, some insight into human nature not found elsewhere - or, at least, not explained in the same way. I knew a lot of people had read Dianetics, and I know there are people who swear by Scientology. I didn't expect to discover The Truth in Dianetics, but I did expect to find something true.
And for much of the first 200 pages I often nodded in agreement. Some ideas were familiar, even if not stated the same way I found them earlier. Others were more profound. Though I'm leaving out much, I will summarize what I gleaned:
- Every unit of life follows one command, Survive!
- Humans have evolved an analytical mind to help in prolonging life.
- But humans also retain the "reactive" mind that animals possess, of stimulus-response, of the fight-or-flight instinct of survival.
- In times of physical pain, humans tend to lose "consciousness," that is, surrender the analytical to the reactive mind.
- Everything that happens during this time of trauma is recorded and imprinted in the reactive mind. Hubbard calls these recordings "engrams."
- The reactive mind determines what was the best survival/coping behavior among all the people involved during this time of trauma.
- When similar environmental signals are present, the reactive mind can take over: if you hurt your head then, you develop a headache now; if the strongest person the last time was aggressive, you become aggressive. If you were afraid then, you are afraid now. This happens even though, this time around, you aren't in any real danger; it's just that similar environmental signals were present.
Your reactive mind thinks it is aiding your survival in a given situation by duplicating what was felt the last time, because the last time you were indeed "successful" at surviving. But it misreads the signals as a false stimulus, and produces the wrong response - irrational or insane behavior. You dislike someone who may look like or have the same name as someone who was a threat to you in the past. Or you may grow irrationally attached to someone who looks like a sympathetic care-giver in the past.
The controversial aspect is that Hubbard alleges these engrams can date back to conception. For instance, if the pregnant mother bumps her belly on the table and swears, the fetus, which suffers a blow in the process, could get an engram. Through his "auditing" talk-therapy technique, the patient can be sent back in time, recognize these events for what they were, be "cleared" of his engrams, and go on to lead a rational, pleasurable life.
On its own terms, this may seem like a stretch. But Hubbard suggests (he doesn't know for sure) that our cells throughout the body, not the brain, record engrams. The fetus has cells, and they self-replicate, so that the offspring knows all that the parent knows. The cells would pass on the engram as they subdivide. The engrams remain after the original cells die.
Admittedly, I couldn't read through the whole book. It comes with its own tedious jargon, and for as long as I read it, it produced no documented evidence that any actual research ever took place. Hubbard may have made up all his experiments and anecdotes: no citation of places, colleagues, or funding was given. I gave up reading when it was clear no evidence was ever forthcoming. Creepily, he kept mentioning examples of fetal experiences in which the husband was a wife-beater or the mother attempted a homemade abortion, instead of citing more accidental engrams. Moreover, this "non-hypnosis" auditing procedure seems to take an inordinate amount of time, and the expense of such sessions today is provided by critics as evidence that Scientology's a scam.
I'm not sold on the auditing therapy. But there is a good deal of intuitive appeal about the theory of the engram. Hubbard's ideas, in my view, are in sync with cell biologist Bruce Lipton. Lipton discovered in the 1980's that the cell's membrane, or outer layer, is the receiver and processor of information - the mind or "brain" of the cell, and through it, not through inherited genes, the cell flees from danger and towards safety. Through the membrane, our cells react to signals from the environment. The environment determines cell behavior, which in turn controls much of human behavior.
An example of the similarity between Hubbard and Lipton is found in Lipton's The Biology of Belief. Lipton notes a video of a sonogram. The parents start to argue, and the moment they do, the fetus jumps. It won't be in the form of conscious memory, but I think it's quite believable that our cells can recall the episode in our subconscious.
There are certainly differences between Hubbard and Lipton. Hubbard talks about information gleaned from painful experiences; Lipton talks about lessons imprinted in childhood. Hubbard talks about engrams, Lipton about the subconscious mind. Hubbard wrote before the genetic code was even discovered; Lipton writes in opposition to the idea that genes explain everything.
Yet I couldn't help but combine their insights. The "mind" goes beyond the brain's functions. Our membranes pick up environmental signals that may suggest "flee!" or "fight!" because our cells want to survive, which means they want the entire organism to survive. But their signals are probably misreading the situation. If they take over our thoughts and intentions, we do irrational things. If we feel these signals but use our analytical mind to overrule them, we behave "rationally" and, in the eyes of others, perhaps courageously.
Also, the engrams or imprints in our cells record how we felt in a certain situation, and bring up the same feeling when they pick up similar environmental signals. These are beliefs that the cells "think" will aid us in our survival. If we are in the midst of a deadly blaze, they are probably correct because they remember when we touched the hot stove when we were little. But if we act as if we have something to hide or fear embarrassment, we are in fact sabotaging ourselves. We are protecting something that doesn't really exist.
From early on, we are taught when to fear ridicule and embarrassment, what to value as praiseworthy, what to hide as shameful. That is, we are taught to value the esteem of others and to fear their condemnation. And I believe these values become beliefs, imprints, or engrams, at the cellular level, where they become the ego. The ego is that place where we are committed to protecting ourselves from non-existent threats. We think the praise of others will strengthen us. We think the condemnation or ridicule of others will harm us. But they don't; they just harm the ego which in turn commands the body to feel bad. When our evolved, analytical selves break social situations down analytically, we know they can't hurt us. Nevertheless, these engrams, or imprinted subconscious beliefs, well-up in certain situations, seemingly uncontrollably. In addition to biological aversion to death, we must deal with artificial threats coming from false signals in society. Otherwise known as fear.
Animals, in contrast, have a reactive mind, but they don't seem to have our irrational imprints. They don't have egos that inhibit their will to survive. They are "sinless."
In times of real danger, instinct saves their lives, and it saves our lives. Fear, on the other hand, sucks the life out of us by sensing danger where none exists. Misperception is the cause of fear, which in turn is the cause of all habits designed to ward off illusory threats. Fear is the manifestation of the ego, always afraid of what other people think.
In contrast, Hubbard noted that fully sane people are not oppressed this way. He noted that a balanced person thinks of his own survival and welfare, but also realizes these are linked to the survival of his mate and family, of his tribe and nation, and of the entire world. The rational man is not just an individualist, but is also a family man, a patriot, and a humanitarian.
Fear seems to be the original "sin," which we humans have imprinted within ourselves at the cellular level from very early stages of our development. (Remember that because of the Original Sin, God told Eve that child-bearing wouldn't be easy!) It is at the root of our hate, anger, violence, greed, and lust for power. We seek to dominate for fear of being dominated. We want what we don't have, we resent what others have.
In contrast, the word that best describes Hubbard's vision of sanity and balance is love.
Concern for one's own survival, which is self-love.
Concern for the survival of one's mate, family, and friends, which is love.
Concern for the survival of one's tribe, culture, and country, which is love.
Concern for the survival of the species and planet, which is love.
Fear leads to death. Love leads to perpetual life.
Hubbard's controversial auditing therapy is his way of purging ourselves of our irrational engrams. Lipton, too, suggests methods of liberating ourselves from the irrational beliefs that spring up from our subconscious mind on his website.
I'm not suggesting what the cure or cures may be. But however we describe it - salvation from original sin, death of the ego, separating reality from illusion - the therapy can't help but have spiritual aspects and ramifications. Lord Acton said that liberty is the highest political end of man. Likewise, I believe that liberation is the highest end of spirituality, in that we are freed from our fears of non-existent threats so that we can live and love more fully.
Biologically, our evolved rational state has merged with our reactive-mind state to create false fears, which in turn leads to all kinds of evil. The next state of evolution may be to purge the reactive mind once and for all.
Related article: Taking a Trip Through the Brain