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Chapter 4: Electrical skin resistance -the key research

Maxwell Cade’s six-year collaboration with Ann Woolley-Hart laid the foundations for his future courses on biofeedback.  During this period they did the essential research that allowed him to link the training in Eastern disciplines he had received as a child and young man with the effect it had on the physical body - training which showed that the mind affects the body and the state of the body affects the mind.  Today it is accepted that our emotional state affects our immune system and is therefore an important factor in our health but in the early 1970s this was a very radical idea.

Ann Woolley-Hart, when Max met her, was a researcher into biofeedback in the medical electronics department of St Bartholomew’s Hospital,   London’s oldest teaching hospital. They met at a talk he gave to the Society of Psychical Research entitled Preservation of Health.  During the talk, he referred to Dr A H Morton Whitby’s studies in the 1960s and the reaction of the medical establishment to his ideas.

Dr Morton Whitby had made an electrical skin-resistance (ESR) meter which used a large contact for each hand, hoping that the reading of the electrical characteristics of the subject’s skin could be used to diagnose susceptibility to cancer.  Such a radical approach was not well received by his peers in the medical profession and this probably led to him advertising his work to get it better known.  For this, he was struck off the British medical register.  Morton Whitby came to Max’s talk and afterwards introduced him to Woolley-Hart.

At this time Max was interested in hypnotic states and psychological profiles and had developed a Cade Personality Development Inventory and Cade Hypnotic Susceptibility Inventory, which attempted to categorise different types of personality.  By now he was a member of the Medical and Dental Hypnosis Society through a meeting with Andrew Spencer Pattison, a Harley Street psychiatrist.

Max had also used word-association tests originated by the psychiatrist Carl Jung’s.  We can assume he knew Jung had used an ESR meter in about one fifth of his studies of the functioning of the unconscious (refs 4-1, 4-2).  Up to this point Max does not seem to have been interested in electrical monitoring but this was soon to change.  On the death of Morton Whitby in the late 1960s, his ESR machine came into the possession of Woolley-Hart.   In using the machine, she frequently called on Max for help and this developed into a close co-operation.

The collaboration brought together a powerful combination of knowledge and experience.  Woolley-Hart was born in 1927 and trained as a physiotherapist. In her late twenties she trained at the Middlesex Hospital, London, to be doctor. By her mid-thirties she was a radiation biologist with a deep understanding of medical intervention in the treatment of cancer patients. At the time she and Max met she was pursuing research at the Wolfson Institute at Hammersmith Hospital. Because of her specialised knowledge, she was asked to work at the government-run Radiation Research Institute in Germany and spent three years there, returning to Britain in 1965. She found work in London, in the medical electronics department at St Bartholomew’s.

Their partnership at this point was a natural one. At St Bartholomew’s, she was involved with helping patients suffering from a variety of conditions to learn how to relax using biofeedback as a self-help method.

For some years though, Woolley-Hart had found the medical approach to disease increasingly irksome, convinced that it was “too narrow”.   In a television programme later she said pointedly: “I’ve reached a stage in my self-development when it’s quite impossible to stick within the orthodox viewpoint of what's going on because something inside me will go bust if I do.”  The orthodox viewpoint, she said, “deals with somebody who is at the end of the line of health and not where it has begun to break down, and not with the mind-body concept of an individual in a holistic way. Technically it’s brilliant but that’s where it stops”.

The fruits of the research that Max and Ann Woolley-Hart carried out was a series of published papers covering studies of hypnotic and psychic phenomena. Their first studies, beginning in 1969, were an attempt to replicate Morton Whitby’s work.  As Max explains in The Awakened Mind, they spent two years “studying electrical skin resistance (ESR) as a possible clinical aid to diagnosis in preventive medicine for symptomless disease, that is, disease in its early stages before there are any overt symptoms”.

There had been conflicting studies of the usefulness of ESR in this context so he and Ann Woolley-Hart decided to repeat many of the early studies.   As she was fluent in German, they had access to many papers that were unknown in England and America, so they were uniquely qualified as a team to bring a fresh understanding to the subject.  It quickly became apparent to them that the ESR reading could not be used for clinical diagnosis because temporary emotional disturbances in the subjects measured produced much larger responses on the meter than any underlying pathology.   Their review of this early research was published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in June 1971 (ref 4-3), together with the first results of their own investigations.

Further studies were published during the early to mid-1970s. They included in the research subjects from any group they could find: Woolley-Hart took ESR readings from patients undergoing abdominal surgery at Chelsea Hospital for Women; they also approached London schools and enlisted 500 pupils in science classes to make their own ESR meters and record measurements.

They studied a group of meditators “and found several healthy-looking subjects with a remarkable ability to sit cross-legged with closed eyes absolutely motionless for ten minutes or more, without showing any objective evidence for change in their physiological state at all . . . We also found two alleged exponents of Transcendental Meditation who were proud of their ability to (as they said) ‘lose all touch with the physical world’.” The relaxation meter indicated that they were cat-napping.   They were “delighted” to be shown how to meditate properly, Max reported. Gunzi Koizumi’s rebuke to him many years earlier when Max believed he was he meditating must have rung in his ears.

Max and Woolley-Hart made two claims in their 1971 paper: 

First, that the original studies could not be replicated because differences of arousal occurring naturally between individuals tested were far too great to allow exact values of the ESR readings to be related to different states.  They also noted that the body’s natural daily rhythms, the circadian rhythms, also caused variations in the ESR reading.  By good fortune, Max continued the research in his classes held in the evening, which limited the circadian effect. 

The second claim was that the relative change of the reading was more important than the precise reading.

 It was probably during these studies that Max realised the ESR readings could be an invaluable aid in another field of interest - his experimental hypnosis studies.  He showed there was a considerable difference between authoritarian hypnosis and gently guided hypnosis.   He concluded that authoritarian hypnosis made it harder for the subject to help him or herself subsequently while suggestions of deep relaxation, in which the subject is aware of retaining control, and which can barely be distinguished from meditation, provided a method they could use for themselves.  For expressing this view, Max was asked to leave the medical and dental hypnosis society.  It also objected to his involvement at that time with an unusual educational college, the Franklin Institute, where he later gave courses – described in chapter 6.

Max and Woolley-Hart also reported an unusual experiment as part of a comparison into depth of relaxation in hypnotic and self-hypnotic states. In 1970 Max was visited by Dr Allen J Hyneck, Professor of Astronomy at Northwestern University, Illinois, who for 24 years was civilian consultant to Project Bluebook, the United States Air force official body for the investigation of unidentified flying objects. “Professor Hyneck, like psychologist Carl Jung,” the paper reported, “had come to the conclusion that ‘flying saucers’ were probably of a ‘psychic nature’ and he wanted to know what would happen if a person were given an unstructured suggestion that he would see a strange object in the sky. Would he see an unusual bird, a novel aeroplane or balloon, a meteorite, or perhaps a detailed flying saucer?”

A volunteer was put into deep trance and told he would see a strange object in the south-eastern sky; that he should carefully note as much detail as possible in the few seconds it was visible; and he should also draw the others' attention to it.  “The subject drew everyone's attention to what he later described as ‘a fast-moving hunk of rock, travelling in a straight line and followed by several smaller rocks’.” With some disappointment, they observed: “No little green men were reported.”   The experiment, they concluded, had been “moderately successful”.  Perhaps an American subject would have been more likely to see flying saucers.

The last of the joint research showed how changes of the subject’s ESR reading could be linked to different depths of relaxation.  This was based on Terry Lesh’s paper Zen Meditation and the Development of Empathy in Counsellors (Ref 4-4).  In his paper of 1970, Lesh, a student counsellor working at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, collected together many subjective reports of experiences during meditation.  Max and Woolley-Hart were able to relate these descriptions given by Lesh to changes of ESR reading and thus present subjects with an objective description of their relaxation depth which the people could verify this for themselves - internally by examining what was happening in their mind, then externally by checking with the Lesh scale marked on the meter.

Based on these studies, they claimed that a 50% relative change of the ESR meter reading was needed before the subject’s description of the effect of relaxation showed that he or she had experienced a first “taste” of a different experience of consciousness.  They claimed this degree of change was necessary before the effect of mental stress on our immune system could begin to be minimised.

Proof of Ann Woolley-Hart’s belief in the methods they were exploring in their research came when she was diagnosed as having cancer in 1973.    Her consultant advised her to have radiotherapy but she refused.  She pointed out she had studied radiotherapy’s effects for her advanced medical degree and was in no doubt that radiation was harmful to the body’s whole system. She told Max the consultant replied: “If you were my wife, I would force you to have radiation or chemotherapy.” To which she retorted: “Well, aren’t I lucky.”  At this, the consultant was furious and gave her no choice but to discharge herself from the hospital.  The fact that she was as medically qualified as he was irrelevant to him since she was there in the role of patient.

She presented herself to Max asking, “What do I do now?”  Max was already working on a one-to-one basis with clients to induce very deep relaxation and at that level make suggestions of empowerment that could activate a person’s ability to heal themself.  He used this technique with her and she reported eventually that the cancer had disappeared.  Woolley-Hart died 20 years later, but not of cancer.

Returning to their research, as their work progressed they had begun to use friends as subjects, checking changes of ESR reading with various relaxation procedures. These trials were carried out at Hampton, on the western outskirts of London, where Max and Isabel came to live in 1968.  Among the friends who joined in was a neighbour, Marianne Cartwright, who recalls that though the research was in earnest, the trials themselves generated a lot of hilarity among the participants because of the effects of the relaxation exercises.  “Max took the whole thing very seriously, but some of us found the sessions an occasion for levity which he endured with great good humour.”   This was a constant theme in the courses during the following years: Max’s unconditional ways of promoting relaxation left his subjects feeling very liberated.

The research was conducted on a very low budget, ie, whatever they could afford. To begin with Max had only one meter with which to take readings, making it difficult to work with larger groups.  Needing more meters, he and Isabel made their own on the kitchen table at home using suitable plastic boxes obtained from high-street stationers.  The hand contacts - metal buttons sewn on to pads - were made by Woolley-Hart’s friend Christina Rankl.

Nevertheless the research showed clearly that traditional methods of spiritual training could be enhanced by the use of meters.  So Max began to develop courses that would provide him with more subjects and a small income with which to buy machines.  Thus he fulfilled a prophecy made by his master, Gunji Koizmi, when Max was quite young, that he would become a teacher.


4-1  Collected Works. Vol. 2 Experimental Researches. CG Jung. Routledge & Kegan Paul. London, 1973.

4-2  Studies in Word Association.  CG Jung.  Routledge & Kegan Paul 1969.

4-3  Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.  Vol 46 No 748, June 1971

4-4  Zen Meditation and the Development of Empathy in Counsellors. T. Lesh. Reprints from Student Counselling Services, University of  Lethbridge, Alberta.