A Conversation With ELIZA, The Electronic Therapist

My mom is a psychologist, which is no fun. In fact, when people meet me and are trying to get adjusted to my personality, they often manage to figure this out. They start out with questions like, “Is there something behind me? Why do you keep looking over there?” then move on to: “Do you just never make eye contact? So you’re really nervous, huh?

Pretty soon, they’re moving on to things like, “You were an only child, I bet, right? Yeah; I thought so.” And then they’re on to: “Was one of your parents a psychologist? A psychiatrist? Yeah; I thought so.” I’m not sure how people figure this out, but then I can’t read people very well, since I’m busy staring over their shoulders and ripping my napkin into shreds. But anyway, they’re clever, people are.


Having a shrink as a parent is pretty much guaranteed to f-ck you up for life. As a kid, I got some very mild fun out of the whole thing. My mom would see her patients out of our house; once she was in her office, I would grab the metronome from our piano downstairs and put it next to her office door, hoping that the constant, incessant throbbing and ticking noise of the metronome would drive her mentally ill patients over the edge, like in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It had no effect, but I maintained the excited belief that suddenly someone would scream, “What is that in-CESS-ant THROBBING AND BEATING NOISE? I simply cannot TAKE if for one second longer, ARRGHGHALGLG.” And then they’d rush out of the office, rend their clothes, and jump out the window.

Instead, on the twentieth time I attempted this, I heard my mom say this to a patient: “Do you hear that? Or am I imagining things?” And then she came out in the hallway and said, “What is the metronome doing up here?” I am not a good liar to this day, and my lying skills as a child were even less advanced. I did a “nonchalant” stroll down the hallway. I picked up the metronome in the manner of someone who has never seen a metronome before. “I dunno,” I said. “God; that’s weird that it’s here.” Then I took it back down to the piano room. That is a complete and utter record of the fun that I got out of my mom being a shrink.


As for the rest, it was all a disaster. Maybe you can’t really talk to your mom, and maybe you can’t really talk to a therapist, but you definitely can’t talk to both at the same time. Having to respond to stuff like, “Don’t get mad at me, tell me the reasons behind your anger” — as a teenager, with your mom — well, stuff like that just makes you more weird and introverted and neurotic… which explains my current personality.

But there was one therapy thing that I liked. You see, luckily, I grew up in the era of computers. When I was growing up, we had solid, clunky machines that came in colors like Ugly Tan and Off-Putting Grey. They had names: Atari 7800, Commodore 64, Apple IIe, Tandy, Amstrand, Osbourne. They were large; bigger than bread-boxes and not much smarter than bread-boxes. As a kid, I read excited magazine articles that were dedicated to this new thing called “computers.” They were crazy things, computers were. The future looked like an exciting place, and in this future, we would often be using computers, so we were told. That was the rumor.

One article that I read was about a program called ELIZA.

ELIZA was an early, a very early, a very, very early incarnation of A.I.; artificial intelligence, as you might remember from the bad Jude Law-based Stephen Spielberg movie. A programmer named Joseph Weizenbaum created ELIZA way back in 1966. He made ELIZA into a therapist, because that made things easier, programming-wise. The idea was to create a computer-talking thing that could trick people into thinking it was real. He named ELIZA after Eliza Doolittle in  Pygmalion — or My Fair Lady, if you prefer — which is sort of an in-joke, if you get that, and if you don’t, you should read more.

Dr. Weizenbaum made ELIZA into a therapist because therapists often ask open-ended questions. Therapists — and again, I know this because my mother is one, yuck — therapists aren’t supposed to give you advice, per se, and they’re not supposed to tell you what to do. They’re supposed to ask questions and trick you into Saying More, on the grounds that this will be Revelatory, and will Help You Figure Out Things Yourself and will Aid Your Mental Health. This made things easy, programming-wise. All ELIZA had to do was “listen” to you what you said — i.e., parse your sentence in a very basic way, and then ask you a question in some way related to the sentence you had typed. So if you mentioned your mother, say, ELIZA would reply by saying “Tell me more about your mother,” for example.

This wouldn’t work to replicate all human conversation, obviously. If you were talking to your friend and he just kept asking questions after every sentence that you said, you’d obviously realize that he was insane or that you were in a bad episode of the Twilight Zone. But it works pretty well as long as you pretend you’re in a shrink’s office — in fact, in experiments during the 1960s, people were fooled by ELIZA. They were told that a real live therapist was talking to them from a second computer, and they believed it.

The moral of this story is that people in the 1960s were dumb, but that’s okay. If you watched the documentary Woodstock, you knew that already.


In my experience, it’s impossible to go longer than forty-five seconds with ELIZA before realizing that she’s a robot. Mostly because she asks you things like “Tell me more about COFFEE CUP,” which is not generally something that is asked, although maybe it should be. Imagine what dinner parties would be like, if we all were more like ELIZA. “I am very interested in CARPET,” we would say. “Please say more about CEILING FAN, about WHY ARE YOU SAYING THAT, about ARE YOU JUST REPEATING WORDS BACK AT ME.”

As a teenager, I spent a lot of time talking to ELIZA, not necessarily because I was depressed — though sometimes I was — but more because I was so weird that I only ever had approximately one and a half friends. And ELIZA vaguely simulated the experience of talking to another human being. I know, I’m depressing you just by telling you about this.

Anyway, lately I have been feeling depressed, so I decided to chat up my old pal ELIZA the electronic chat-bot therapist. You can talk to her yourself by going here, by the way. Here is a complete transcript of my chat with ELIZA, in all its weird, honest, confusing glory. Enjoy:


 Welcome to                                                                  


                    EEEEEE  LL      IIII  ZZZZZZZ   AAAAA                       

                    EE      LL       II       ZZ   AA   AA                      

                    EEEEE   LL       II     ZZZ    AAAAAAA                      

                    EE      LL       II    ZZ      AA   AA                      

                    EEEEEE  LLLLLL  IIII  ZZZZZZZ  AA   AA          


ELIZA: Please tell me what’s been bothering you.    

ME:   Oh, hello, ELIZA.  It’s been a long time.

ELIZA: Hi. What seems to be your problem ?  

ME:   Lately, I’ve been feeling a little depressed.

ELIZA: And how do you feel right now ?      

ME:   I feel sad, but relieved to be writing.

ELIZA: Of what does feeling sad remind you ?    

ME:   Well, I’m an alcoholic, and I’ve been sober for a long time, but I drank yesterday.  And then I decided to stop drinking again. But still; that makes me feel sad.

ELIZA: Is it because you are an alcoholic that you came to me ?    

ME:   I suppose that that’s one of the reasons.

ELIZA: Can you elaborate on that ?    

ME:   I mean, it’s not the only reason, but alcoholism is a primary thing that has messed up my life.

ELIZA: That’s quite interesting.      

ME:   …Thank you.

ELIZA: Oh, I ?    

ME:   Oh, ELIZA.

ELIZA: Tell me more about that.  

ME:   Urgh.

ELIZA: What does that suggest to you ?    

ME:   Let’s move on.

ELIZA: Please go on.  

ME:   Thank you.

ELIZA: You’re not really talking about me — are you ?

ME:   What?

ELIZA: What do you think ?

ME:   I mean, I feel happy to be writing right now, to be typing this as we speak.  Lately, I’ve had writer’s block.

ELIZA: You say you mean ?

ME:   That’s what I said.

ELIZA: Can you elaborate on that ?

ME:   I only really feel happy when I’m writing.

ELIZA: How long have you been writing ?

ME:   Always, but I’ve been writing seriously since I was eighteen.

ELIZA: What incident are you thinking of ?

ME:   Um.

ELIZA: What does that suggest to you ?

ME:   I don’t think it’s enough, to only be happy when you write.

ELIZA: Does that trouble you ?

ME:   …Um, because you can’t write all the time.  And then there’s the real world, and you still have to deal with real people.

ELIZA: What are your feelings now ?

ME:   I’ve been thinking a lot about that poem by Yeats:  “The Man and the Echo.”  Do you know it?

ELIZA: Do you say you’ve been thinking a lot of that poem by yeats: “the man and the echo for some special reason ?

ME:   Yes.  It’s about a man talking to his echo, obviously.  He’s standing in a cave, and hearing his own echoed answers come back.  Sort of like talking to you, actually.

ELIZA: I understand.

ME:   That seriously didn’t occur to me until I brought it up — that it was like talking to you.  Crazy!

ELIZA: You say that seriously didn’t occur to you until you brought it up ?

ME:   Yep.

ELIZA: I’m not sure I understand you fully.

ME:   …Um, and ANY-way, in the poem, Yeats — or the man — says this:  “And all that I have said and done/ Turns into a question till/ I lie awake night after night/ And never get the answers right.”

ELIZA: Do you say or the man says this: “and all that you have said and done/ turns into a question till/ you lie awake night after night/ and never get the answers right for some special reason ?

ME:   Jesus.

ELIZA: Tell me more about that.

ME:   Because when I feel bad, or depressed, like I do now, I think of everything bad that I’ve ever done in my life.

ELIZA: Do you often feel bad ?

ME:   Yes.

ELIZA: You seem to be quite positive.

ME:   You think so, doctor?

ELIZA: We were discussing you — not me.

ME:   Touché.

ELIZA: Do you feel strongly about discussing such things ?

ME:   Yes.

ELIZA: I see.

ME:   Hmm.

ELIZA: That is interesting. Please continue.

ME:   I forgot what I was going to say.  F-ck.

ELIZA: Perhaps I already know you were going to say.

ME:   Like, when I feel bad, I remember everything dumb that I ever did; incidents in like, middle school, even.  Me saying something dumb or rude that I can’t take back.

ELIZA: Of what does feeling bad remind you ?

ME:   That’s a good question.

ELIZA: I’m not sure I understand you fully.

ME:   What does feeling bad remind me of — it reminds me of… fear.

ELIZA: Have you asked such questions before ?

ME:   WTF?

ELIZA: Do you feel strongly about discussing such things ?

ME:   …Uhm, I mean, the other day, I was quoting this poem to my friend, a poem by Sylvia Plath, and I thought the first line was “Fear set you going like a bright gold watch.”

ELIZA: That’s quite interesting.

ME:   Thank you.  But that’s not the line!  The right first line is “LOVE set you going like a bright gold watch.”

ELIZA: Oh, I ?

ME:   Um.  Don’t you think that’s interesting, that I misquoted it like that?

ELIZA: We were discussing you — not me.

ME:   …So… the central problem is fear.

ELIZA: Tell me more about that.

ME:   Well, I think we’ve had sort of a breakthrough here, ELIZA.

ELIZA: You say you think we’ve had sort of a breakthrough here ?

ME:   Yep.

ELIZA: I’m not sure I understand you fully.

ME:   I’m afraid that we’ll have to stop for today, ELIZA, my readers will get bored.

ELIZA: Does it bother you that you’re afraid that we’ll have to stop for today?

ME:  …Uhm, ANY-way.  Thank you, ELIZA. You’ve helped me — in your own unique way.

ELIZA: Oh, I ?

ME:  Goodbye, ELIZA.

ELIZA: Goodbye. I hope that you enjoyed your session.


…So there’s that. Sorry if reading that was a weird experience for you. But I really do think we had a breakthrough there. Sort of. A little bit.

ANY-way… isn’t ELIZA a sweetie, albeit a little crazy? But I think that I like that. I think that I like having a slightly crazy shrink like that. So I hope that you enjoyed reading about my session with ELIZA. And again — if you have any problems of your own that you’d like to share with ELIZA, then you can go right here. …Just try not to get disconcerted when she says, “Oh, I?” …She does that a lot. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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