Confirming Freud’s libido theory, Reich made clinical observations that led to his discovery that there was a specific function of the orgasm: it is the regulator of the flow of energy that is built up in our bodies and then released. This, Reich’s first major contribution to psychiatry, was first published in 1927 as, Die Funktion Des Orgasmus -- much of which was later included in his 1942 work in English, The Discovery of the Orgone, Vol. 1: The Function of the Orgasm.
The understanding of the function of the orgasm begged the question, “Where does energy stasis and neurosis comes from?” Freud postulated an inborn death instinct to explain it. From his work with patients, Reich saw that instead, it results from a sex-negative, anti-pleasure upbringing, forcing him to conclude that society itself must be sick -- especially regarding sexuality.
Understanding the Problem of Character
Reich’s work, especially with impulsive patients in the public clinic, led him to conclude that the neurosis was more than just the person’s symptoms: it was the entire way the person lives and functions and meets the world, both healthy and neurotic. In other words, Reich began working with patients' actual character structures. This was in contrast to the prevailing view that the neurosis was a circumscribed, symptomatic condition in an otherwise healthy individual. At the same time, Reich realized that the character of the typical inhibited and repressed, psychoanalytic patient was also neurotic. While the psychoanalysts dealt with problems of neurotic symptoms, Reich began to focus more on the character, or the “soil” in which the neurotic symptoms grew.
Up to this time, “character” was viewed largely in moralistic terms. Someone had either a good character or a bad character. In contrast, Reich took a scientific, therapeutic and compassionate approach to the problem of character, concluding that the character develops as a protection against intolerably intense emotions and sensations. He used the term, “character armor,” to describe this entire rigid but dynamic defense structure. In his therapeutic work he also found that the neurotic character structure must be addressed because it interferes with sexual satisfaction. Therefore, during this period, out of necessity in his treatment of patients, Reich developed character analysis, which is still regarded by mainstream psychoanalysts as one of the most important advances in psychoanalytic technique. The first edition of Reich’s Character Analysis was published in 1933.
The Social Basis of Neurosis
Reich concluded that prevention of neurosis was essential and believed that social problems must be addressed with social programs rather than individual psychoanalytic therapy. He was the first psychoanalyst, therefore, to take his theories out of the medical office to try to effect social change when he started the Sexual Hygiene Movement in 1929, in which he distributed sex education and contraceptives to hundreds of thousands of people. In 1930 he joined the Communist Party in Berlin believing they would fully support his attempts to improve people’s lives. He was expelled from the Communist Party in 1933 because his activities did not follow the party line. Following this experience, he became an unrelenting opponent of communism and what he felt were its false promises of freedom.
Also, in 1933 he published his classic, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, on the characterological basis of fascism. In the face of a Nazi ban of this book he left Berlin and moved to Scandinavia. His 1936 classic and well-known book, The Sexual Revolution, came out three decades before the “Sexual Revolution” of the 1960s and 70s.
Reich’s view that society itself must be treated put him at odds with Freud, who felt that the individual must accommodate to society. Freud became uneasy about Reich’s mixing of social issues and politics with psychoanalysis, and their friendship began to cool. Ultimately, Freud sanctioned Reich’s expulsion from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1934.
From this point Reich was on his own path and not beholden to any established organization or set of theories.
Emotional Problems are in the Body
By the early 1930s Reich observed that when helping patients overcome character rigidities they also showed either a physical softening in their bodies and/or a reported awareness of muscular tension. From these observations, Reich concluded that the character rigidities also manifested in muscular tensions. In other words, someone with a "stiff-necked" attitude actually has a stiff neck which may hold back, for instance, the emotion of crying; someone who is “tight-lipped” actually has tension around the mouth which may hold back a host of oral expressions. These character attitudes, held in the body in muscular rigidities, Reich called somatic or muscular armor. He also observed that people block their emotions by inhibiting their breathing. With these discoveries his therapeutic method began to include direct work on the tensions in the body. He also began to work on enhancing the depth of his patients' breathing. Reich thus put psychiatry on a solid biological basis -- the biology of emotions in the body -- a much deeper and more comprehensive understanding than mechanistic, modern psychiatry’s approach that regards biochemistry as the basis of biology.
Reich was, therefore, the first to develop a mind-body therapy and is now widely regarded as the source from which most body-oriented, emotion-based psychotherapies or “bodywork” therapies are derived, ranging from Lowen’s Bioenergetics, Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream Therapy, Fritz Perls’ Gestalt Therapy, John Pierrakos’s Core Energetics, Barbara Brennan’s School of Healing to Rolfing and dozens more.
The Biological Life Energy is a Form of Physical Energy not Previously Described
In the 1930s as Reich, the man, who cared deeply about human suffering tried to help the masses of people with their emotional and sexual disturbances, Reich, the scientist, continued to investigate the energy source of neurosis. Reich reasoned that If libido stasis causes biological effects then the libido must be a real energy. He conducted basic scientific bioelectric experiments and other laboratory work to try to understand the energy that is discharged sexually and blocked in neurosis. From this research he determined that the libido is more than a concept; it is a real energy that is related to electricity but different from it. He concluded that he had discovered a new form of energy, that he called orgone energy, which he postulated was the life energy. Reich had thus bridged the gap between psychology and biology.
In 1939 he also found evidence of this energy in the atmosphere, and developed a device he called the “orgone energy accumulator” to collect this energy. Reich was the first scientist to use western scientific methods to study the life energy that eastern traditions identify under various designations such as “prahna”, “Chi”, “Ki”, etc. His research into the physics related to this energy predated by several decades the recent theories in physics about zero point energy, and holds promise for addressing some of physics’ unsolved questions.
Exploring the physics of orgone energy took Reich into areas such as preatomic chemistry, an orgone motor, and theories about weather and galaxy formation, as well as gravity. But even as he got into basic questions of cosmology in the 1950s, he decided he had to return to the problems of human life. He returned from his laboratory in Maine to New York City and formed the Orgonomic Infant Research Center to study, right from the beginning of life, about human health and its disturbance by armoring, again focusing on prevention of neurosis rather than treatment once neurosis has occurred.
Reich named this energy, “orgone” from “organism” and “orgasm,” because he had discovered it in living organisms in the process of researching the function of the orgasm. If orgone is the energy he was dealing with, then “orgonomy” is the science of the study of orgone energy -- just as “astronomy” is the science of the study of “astros” or stars.
Summary of Concepts
To summarize some of Reich’s key discoveries in the psychiatric and the medical sciences:
1. The libido is a real physical energy that is the life energy called “orgone.”
2. In the healthy individual, this energy builds up in the organism, and is then discharged through orgasm.
3. Character and somatic (muscular) armor can interfere with the normal orgastic discharge of this energy.
Reich concluded from his studies that spontaneous movement is a basic quality of the life energy -- orgone energy. The implications of this are widespread and profound. It means that nature moves by itself. That fact alone is a bombshell that violates physics’ second law of thermodynamics as the basic law of the universe. Traditional mechanistic science views the universe as a machine that must be made to move by some outside source of energy. Reich’s discoveries and theories say that the natural state of things is spontaneous movement.