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The GSR Meter Course

By Peter Shepherd

Biofeedback monitoring skills in the context
of transformational psychotherapy

This edition dated 18.7.01
Copyright Tools for Transformation 1994-2001
Tools for Transformation


The Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) Meter is a type of biofeedback monitor
specially designed to assist in one-to-one (two hand-held electrodes) and solo
(single hand double-electrode) psycho-therapeutic and personal development
procedures. There are many situations in which it is extremely helpful to be able
to detect the presence of emotionally charged, suppressed mental content just
below or at the borders of subconsciousness. This is a tremendous aid in
assessing which of many specific topics is most relevant to be treated and at the
same time, such material is also accessible and readily viewable by the subject.
This can save many hours of wasted searching and discussion and when you
have used a GSR Meter for a short time you will wonder how it is possible to be
effective in developmental therapies without one!
Details of recommended GSR Meters are given at these Web sites (descending

Clarity Meter
Ability Meter, Int.
The Phoenix Meter

The Clarity and Phoenix Meters are USA-manufactured, the Ability and
Psychotechnics meters are made in UK.
The following GSR Meter Course presents the basic information you need to
understand the principles of GSR metering and to include the use of a GSR
Meter in both your one-to-one psychotherapeutic and self-administered personal
development sessions..CREDITS
The techniques of GSR metering in this course are described in the context of
Transformational Psychology. Further information about this approach to
personal and spiritual development is to be found in the on-line book,
'Transforming the Mind' , at the Heart Intelligence Web site and in the
New Life Course. The author, Peter Shepherd, based the materials of
Transformational Psychology and of the Bilateral Meter Course on principles
originally researched and developed by Gregory Unsworth-Mitchell, the
inventor of the Bilateral Meter. Considerable assistance was also given by Mike
Wray in producing the GSR Meter materials in the accompanying PDF manual,
GSR Meter Course. Of course, many eminent transpersonal and analytical
psychologists are underlying sources of these ideas and practical applications.
Whilst studying these materials be very sure that you do not pass by any word
or concept that you do not fully understand, and that you are happy with your
competence in each practical technique, before continuing further.
If at any time you are having difficulty, go back to where you were last doing
well and spot the word, concept or technique that was not fully grasped. When
that misunderstanding or inability to apply is sorted out, continue on from that
point. If there is a problem, please do not hesitate to contact Peter Shepherd for


Psycho-analytical procedures are greatly enhanced by the use of a simple
biofeedback monitor. This serves to point out to the practitioner those
emotionally "charged" topics which pass through the subject's mind, either
consciously or pre-consciously. Without this device the practitioner is relying
solely on body language; with the device, therapeutic procedures are so much
more effective that it is now possible to use powerful techniques much more
efficiently and successfully, and even to apply them upon oneself as the subject.
The monitor operates by the Galvanic Skin Response of the body.

The Galvanic Skin Response

The simple psycho-galvanometer was one of the earliest tools of psychological
research. A psycho-galvanometer measures the resistance of the skin to the
passage of a very small electric current. It has been known for decades that the
magnitude of this electrical resistance is affected, not only by the subject's
general mood, but also by immediate emotional reactions. Although these facts
have been known for over a hundred years and the first paper to be presented on
the subject of the psycho-galvanometer was written by Tarchinoff in 1890, it
has only been within the last 25 years that the underlying causes of this change
in skin resistance have been discovered.
The Tarchinoff Response is a change in DC potential across neurones of the
autonomic nervous system connected to the sensori-motor strip of the cortex.
This change was found to be related to the level of cortical arousal. The
emotional charge on a word, heard by a subject, would have an immediate
effect on the subject's level of arousal, and cause this physiological response.
Because the hands have a particularly large representation of nerve endings on
the sensori-motor strip of the cortex, hand-held electrodes are ideal. As arousal
increases, the "fight or flight" stress response of the autonomic nervous system
comes into action, and adrenaline causes increased sweating amongst many
other phenomena, but the speed of sweating response is nowhere near as
instantaneous or accurate as the Tarchinoff response.
The most advanced layers of the cortex, unique to Man, link to the thumb and
forefinger especially, and there is a further complex physiological response
which occurs when the forebrain is aroused. Changes in Alpha rhythms cause
blood capillaries to enlarge, and this too affects resistance.
By virtue of the Galvanic Skin Response, autonomic nervous system activity
causes a change in the skin's conductivity. The overall degree of arousal of the
hemispheres, and indeed the whole brain, is shown by the readings of the GSR.Meter, which does not differentiate between the hemispheres, or between
cortical and primitive brain responses. Higher arousal (such as occurs with
increased involvement) will almost instantaneously (0.1 - 0.5 sec) cause a fall in
skin resistance; reduced arousal (such as occurs with withdrawal) will cause a
rise in skin resistance.
Thus a rise or fall relates directly to reactive arousal, due to re-stimulation of
repressed mental conflict. Initially this may cause a rise in resistance as this
emerging, previously repressed, material is fought against. When the conflict is
resolved, by the viewing of objective reality - the truth of exact time, place,
form and event - there is catharsis and the emotional charge dissipates; the
release of energy giving a fall in resistance.
The Being or "Higher Self" is involved, because it is the Being that knows the
objective truth and therefore is in conflict with distorted mental contents. The
Being, however, is not part of the brain; it is a quality not a quantity, and is
essentially not anywhere, except by consideration. The Being is a non-verbal
knowingness that lies back of mental awareness and activity, but which is
capable of influencing the composite human being, through will and creative
choice, by postulate.

Jung and Mathison

One of the first references to the use of GSR instruments in psychoanalysis is in
the book by Carl Gustav Jung, entitled "Studies in Word Analysis", published in
1906. Here the Swiss psychologist describes a technique of connecting the
subject, via hand-electrodes, to an instrument measuring changes in the
resistance of the skin. Words on a list were read out to the subject one by one. If
a word on this list was emotionally charged, there was a change in body
resistance causing a deflection of the needle of the galvanometer. Any words
which evoked a larger than usual response on the meter were assumed to be
indicators of possible areas of conflict in the patient, and these areas were then
explored in more detail with the subject in session. Jung used observed
deflections on the meter as a monitoring device to aid his own judgment in
determining which particular lines of enquiry were most likely to be fruitful
with each subject.
Without amplification, this device was difficult to use, thus it remained as little
more than a laboratory curiosity until the development of sophisticated valve
amplifiers in the 1930s. Once a portable psycho-galvanometer with
amplification was available, the idea of using a psycho-galvanometer was
picked up with enthusiasm by criminologists. These meters became known as
"lie detectors", and have been used by various police forces, in this manner, for
more than 60 years. On the other hand, little further work was done in psychotherapy with the psycho-galvanometer, until Biofeedback Research in
the 1970s using the psycho-galvanometer in connection with meditation and
relaxation became popular.
Biofeedback is the technique of self-regulation of awareness states by the
subject. The level of cortical arousal is central to a person's level of awareness,
so a machine that can measure this factor is of the first importance in
biofeedback. Many papers have been presented on this subject over the last 25
years, and the most important findings of this research are:
1. A low level of cortical arousal is desirable for relaxation, hypnosis, and
the subjective experience of psychic states and unconscious
2. A high level of cortical arousal gives increased powers of reflection,
focused concentration, increased reading speed, and increased capacity
for long-term recall.
3. Cortical arousal has a simple relationship to skin conductivity. Arousal
of the cortex increases the conductivity of the skin and conversely, a
drop in arousal causes a drop in skin conductivity. With a sensitive
meter the level of arousal can be brought under conscious control. With
a few hours' practice the level of arousal can be consciously controlled
over wide limits.
Volney Mathison was a pioneer in the discovery that all fears, feelings and
resentments - all thought and emotion - were electrical in their nature. He found
through experiments with lie-detectors during the 1940s that when a person was
reminded of certain past events, or when a change of mood was induced in him,
the needle in the meter would jump erratically; the degree of jump was in
proportion to the strength of unconscious reaction. In skilled hands the meter
could be used to locate a particular mental content, the nature of that content,
the location of that content in space and time, and the amount of force contained
within it.
His researches with lie-detectors in the 1940's made it possible for Volney
Mathison to go on and invent the modern type of portable transistorised GSR
Meter - a type that has survived with very little change, until the present day.
The Hubbard E-meter was based on its design; contrary to propaganda, these
early types of meter worked well. Mathison went on to develop a word-list to be
used in conjunction with the GSR meter. He would ask the subject under
analysis, to take hold of the meter-electrodes, then he would read this list of
words to him. Without fail, some of these words would trigger a response on the
meter, and in some cases violently. Whenever this was the case, Mathison knew
that these words were associated with violent and negative fear or resentment that had its origin in unconscious (reactive) complexes in the subject's mind.
Most of the time, the subject was completely unaware that he was reacting on
the meter in this way.

Reversal Theory

It has long been known in biofeedback research, that meditation and relaxation procedures cause a rise in skin resistance. It has therefore been assumed that high and low skin resistance correlate directly with relaxation and stress respectively, and that a high resistance indicates a pleasant relaxed state of mind, whereas low resistance indicates tension. However, the reverse is true in a psychotherapy session. When repressed material is coming to the surface (e.g. material associated with guilt or pain), the skin resistance rises and the client experiences feelings of tension; thus in a therapy session, high skin resistance indicates tension, and not relaxation as in meditation. Then, when the repressed material reaches the surface and the negative emotion discharges, there is usually a sudden large drop in skin resistance and the client experiences relief. This demonstrates a correlation between low skin resistance and relaxation of tension, which is in contradiction to the pattern of research findings in meditation.

This contradiction has been noted by Dr. Apter of Bristol University in his book "Reversal Theory". He refers to this as Paradoxical Arousal. His discoveries are that high arousal can be pleasant and exciting when a person is in the (active) Paratelic state, whereas high arousal is experienced as unpleasant in the (thinking) Telic state.

Apter's findings are that a person with a heavy traumatic history experiences high arousal as unpleasant, because the cortical arousal is unequal due to restimulation. It can be demonstrated in many cases that one hemisphere is aroused more than the other, as seen on the Bilateral Meter (a special type of Biofeedback Monitor using twin electrodes). In contrast, when cortical arousal is uniform this is experienced as a pleasant state of high energy (the Bilateral meter reflects this).

This is similar to Freud's early findings, that high arousal in a neurotic is experienced as internal excitement, which is unpleasant, whereas a person who is substantially free from neurosis experiences arousal as energy for incitement, i.e. energy for action. Our findings substantiate Freud's early findings. Proportional to a client's erasure or transcendence of traumatic material there is an increased capacity to operate at high arousal, in a relaxed state without discomfort, and at a high emotional tone.

In order to resolve the paradox, I suggest that it would be more effective to correlate high and low skin resistance, not with "relaxation" and "stress" but with "withdrawal and "involvement" respectively; both these terms can refer either to a relaxed or to a tense state. The state of withdrawal is relaxed when it means detachment from worldly cares or abandoning responsibility (Telic); and withdrawal is experienced as tense when it means an inability to confront repressed material (Paratelic).

Involvement is experienced as tense when it means over-reach or anxiety (Telic), and is experienced as relaxed when it means enhanced awareness, or when there is a flash of insight and the sudden clearing away of a mental blockage caused by repressed material (Paratelic). A client who is involved in the session of analysis will be in the Paratelic state; if he goes "out-of-session" this will be a reversal to the Telic state:

It is for the above reasons that a fall of the meter needle, i.e. an increase in arousal, is usually more useful than a rise, i.e. a decrease in arousal, when a list is being assessed to find a case entry point - the most appropriate item to handle. Usually, unless the arousal is too high due to overwhelm or terror, the fall of the needle indicates involvement, hence increased awareness and the ability to access and confront charged material. However, when the needle rises in response to a particular word or concept, this indicates withdrawal; it indicates in most cases that the client does not wish to take responsibility for this area of address.

Towards, Against & Away

Suppressed emotional conflict causes a build-up of stuck energy in the mind, where conflicting flows (such as 'must do' versus 'can't do') form a mass or 'ridge' of energy. When such material is restimulated by events or by bringing up that topic in a psychotherapeutic session, the Biofeedback Monitor may respond in several ways. If the material is too hard to experience or confront, it is repressed and there will not be an instantaneous response on the meter, but as the energy builds up the client becomes dissociated and falls in arousal as a defense, and there is an increase of basal resistance. The ridge will remain in restimulation but out of consciousness, until attention is directed to the item and it is confronted. This is a flight away from the material.

If the client is able to view the material, some of the suppressed emotional charge is released, causing a fall in resistance. This happens instantly and means that the material is accessible to the client. However the mental defenses may kick in and cause a backing off or resistance to the material, because its content may be hard to face with equanimity. This stops the release of charge and the resistance may then rise. The material is still accessible but the client is fighting against it.

A rise, then, relates to material which is being confronted but is also fought against. If viewed directly, the contents may overwhelm the client, and the client moves away from it in fear, which causes a high emotional arousal and fall in resistance, followed by a blocking off of the material and subsequent rise in resistance and suppression of the experience. This is what might happen outside the safety and guiding control of a therapist. But if the material is discharged gradually and safely by appropriate therapeutic techniques, the client becomes able to move toward the material, confronting and experiencing it openly, and gradually letting go of his defenses against it. The release of charge - energy previously used in suppression - increases arousal and there is a fall in resistance that is experienced pleasurably. The client is able to integrate the experience and so is not fighting it or fleeing from it but rather going towards it.


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