Friday, February 13, 2009

The Brain Doesn't Care What You Believe So Long As You Believe

The brain doesn’t care what the content of a belief system is so long as it exists. It can be Zen, Allah, God or the Republican Party — the force is there to keep us hooked. Again, the brain doesn’t judge itself nor second-guess its content; it just produces the ideas that it needs — God is watching over me and will protect me. Does that mean all ideas are superficial and simply transposed feelings with little validity of their own? Not at all. But if we don’t understand that ideas are built out of a structure, from a lower level of the unconscious, we shall never learn how to combat or change them. To remain in the realm of ideas alone is to lie in the domain of philosophy. Ideas that are in accord with one’s feelings — the environment is being polluted — is not what I shall be discussing because then we would have to analyze the validity of the idea: Are hot-house gases increasing, for example? Indeed, we recently treated a woman at the Primal Center obsessed with pollution; she would throw fits if someone smoked near her, a seemingly logical response, but it came out of a feeling that I would never dare to interpret on my own — there were toxic drugs given to her mother at birth, and also the mother smoked and drank during her pregnancy. The newborn sensed that her world was "polluted". This remained unconscious until she relived her birth and felt all the toxins surrounding her. She knew immediately the cause of her overreaction in the present. That understanding, however, did not invalidate her beliefs. Again I do not want to validate or invalidate anyone’s beliefs; I simply want to show how they help us cope in the world. As I pointed out, the brain doesn't care about what idea we have so long as we have them, and that the idea brings relief — hope against hopelessness, courage against fear, life against death, having someone there who listens to us instead of feeling totally alone in an indifferent universe. When we feel hopeless — when we have lost our best friend and life seems so dreary — we can appeal to an idea of someone or something that will help out. The idea may even keep us from killing ourselves. We can imagine a help and a love from a deity that never existed in our early lives; that imagination will work for the brain. Neurons (brain cells) do not distinguish between a good idea, a real idea and a false one. With pain, nerve cells go to work immediately calming it; they manufacture painkilling chemicals such as serotonin, and allow the force of the pain to be diverted into higher left-brain areas that are in charge of beliefs. It is an automatic process commanded by and servile to one’s painful feelings. Serotonin is what Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft manage to preserve in adequate quantities to keep pain away. Either we take 10 milligrams of Prozac or we take 100 milligrams of a very strong and persuasive idea — both have the same effect. Both gate pain in the brain and keep it barricaded in the unconscious. One is injected from the outside and the other is injected from the inside.


  1. Believing in a God who will carry you, is essentially the same as what is known as 'reparenting' in psychology. If your inner child has no ground under it's feet, then faith creates the safety-net you never had. But while reparenting is just a road to self-pity in my opinion, accepting God means so much more. Not only does faith create a safety-net, it teaches to give up control over your life as the next step. That you may accept there's a divine plan for everything that happens, so you do not have to fear anymore. It's actually the only way for the inner child to heal.
    Of course Freud suggested another way.The therapist should be a parent-figure in the transference, so that the patient has someone to trust upon. Whereafter the separation-individuation could take place. But in reality therapists are not eager to have patients relying on them totally, so we can safely rule that possibility out.
    I also contemplated on the role of God as a fatherfigure, filled with love. How is it that so many people have internalized the fatherfigure in the form of a negative, or self-mutilating, or sadomasochistic, or even persecuting superego? Fairbairn named the superego the anti-libidinal ego. As opposed to the life force, so equal to Thanatos (death-drive), or in christian terms: the devil. So the idea of accepting a loving father to 'erase' a violent or negative superego by superimposing a loving heavenly father as a way of salvation does seem to make sense!

  2. In evolutionary psychology there is this idea that genes and memes (ideas/beliefs/patterns of behaviour) can exist in conflict. In other words our ideas have a 'fitness' value just as genes do and the ideas don't always fit in well with our genetic propensities. e.g Christian abstinence and Gene propagation.

    Since ideas ultimately affect our natural and sexual selection chances over time there comes a point at which fitness of ideas/beliefs and genes are practically identical – a point of ‘fitness’ balance is reached between memes and genes.

    Ultimately, the history of the memes are controlled by the history of the genes though as ideas that seek to threaten our genes bring about the extinction of the body and therefore the harming ideas (memes) too.

    Dr Janov sees his patient's ideas about pollution as being in accord with her fears toward being polluted by the mother - therefore thoughts about fighting pollution possibly calm her primal pain and give her some sort of hope. But maybe, her ideas (and pain) derive more specifically from her genetic drive to adapt to an environment in which her genetic 'fitness' is being undermined.

    Of course, the formation of the patient's ideas operate in an automatic way and therefore the ideas appear and the subject can be unconscious of their origin. But if we are talking about the source of the anxiety itself it would seem to reflect a conflict that evolutionary psychology can reframe for us somewhat.

    Ideas can help us cope with handling the tensions produced by the conflict but in terms of improving 'fitness' this may not happen as the ideas may limit our genetic potential. Therefore, the brain or the cells that carry ideas and beliefs may not care what we believe but ultimately our genes may do.

  3. Re: Mahdiya's point that believing in God could be considered a 'reparenting' strategy is interesting. There may be data out there somewhere that suggests that children who have an excellent relationship with their need 'God' less as they have a real parent. Alternatively, there may be data that suggests that having a bad parent actually puts you off the idea of creating and praying to a surrogate parent. Of course there are so many variables attached to religious belief that such links with data are most probably impossible.

    But in terms of evolutionary psychology the father has an asymmetrical role in investing in a child - in short the mother contributes far more whereas the father's input may only go so far as providing the sperm. Anyway, no matter who your father is he is almost always going to me a less supportive figure than the mother. So maybe a paternal God tries to offset an imbalance that occurs in evolution.

    I think Dr Janov's ideas fit within an evolutionary psychological perspective well . be interesting to know if he feels whether his ideas do fall 'within' other fields.

  4. In terms of evolutionary psychology our collective superego will get stronger until it is about to choke our very souls.

    Yes, the assymetrical role of our fatherfigure, as Will put it, is contradictory to the love of the mother. We internalized it as rules, laws, obligations, planning, control. And it feeds on fear. This is the superego that Freud talked about. If the superego overshadows the self (child-ego), then a person lives under fear, like for instance with schizophrenics.

    In a sense, the culmination of evolutionary psychology must be described as the time of Tribulation in the book of Revelations. When the love has gone, when big brother is watching everybody, when people fear war, diseases and viruses and natural disasters. Which calls for even more control.
    It will lead to the spiritual death of the child-ego inside us, because life and love cannot flow freely anymore We'll all feel like robots and do whatever we're told, because we think it will save us.
    Ultimately, Jesus will come to save us, as the man without a mortal father. Think about the psychological depth of that fact for a bit...

  5. If What I Know,
    Is Nothing To Know For The Sake Of my Life,
    But To Not Know About My Life,
    Then What Do I Know That I know?

    Frank Larsson

  6. Re: Maydiya's comments, evolutionary psychology does not employ Freudian terminology and makes no mention of the super-ego. Nor is evolution a one way street so that no single outcome such as apocalypse is predicted - in fact mutation and variation prevent any such definitive statements. Secondly,whether Jesus comes to save us depends on how you define 'save', who you think Jesus is and what we are being saved from. But bringing in Jesus to a debate site like this is pretty unhelpful really as is Freudian terminology. i don't hold much faith the concept of the super-ego or Id or ego as such - these are just elements on an outmoded pyschological meta-narrative that post modernism has put to the sword - like the meta-narrative of Christianity and salvation. In short, no system can contain all the facts unless you close your mind to make them fit or disappear. Ultimately, Evolutionary psychology is a meta-narrative also and therefore is also doomed as such but hopefully it will produce some new leads and ideas and connections just as Dr. Janov has done through his writing. 'Fathers' are ultimately those we look up to and respect to my mind. To add, Jesus' father was mortal - to believe otherwise defies the laws of psychology and evolution and science which surely not what being on this site is about.

  7. There's a well known experiment on memory, as follows:

    Subjects were given a list of words to remember whilst underwater (with scuba gear) for a given time. When tested on their recall it was found that they could recall the words better underwater, than when on dry land. It showed that memory is related [and linked to] context.*

    My point is that I think this 'function' also relates to beliefs. I am suspicious that belief systems help us to establish a *different* context [or maybe better described as 'psychological relationship' to our world] that allows us to "get out" of the original context that our pain was laid down, and to therefore avoid being triggered by associated memories.

    A person might live inside a given religion, for example, to help them to avoid living in their childhood ("real") world/context.

    So again, I think that beliefs may help us to run away from our past by helping us switch from the original "here be dragons" context.

    *For the sake of saying, I think that when we try to remember something, what we are functionally doing is trying to imagine ourselves in the original context that we first recieved the the subjects in the first example might try to imagine themselves underwater again, to recall the words.


Review of "Beyond Belief"

This thought-provoking and important book shows how people are drawn toward dangerous beliefs.
“Belief can manifest itself in world-changing ways—and did, in some of history’s ugliest moments, from the rise of Adolf Hitler to the Jonestown mass suicide in 1979. Arthur Janov, a renowned psychologist who penned The Primal Scream, fearlessly tackles the subject of why and how strong believers willingly embrace even the most deranged leaders.
Beyond Belief begins with a lucid explanation of belief systems that, writes Janov, “are maps, something to help us navigate through life more effectively.” While belief systems are not presented as inherently bad, the author concentrates not just on why people adopt belief systems, but why “alienated individuals” in particular seek out “belief systems on the fringes.” The result is a book that is both illuminating and sobering. It explores, for example, how a strongly-held belief can lead radical Islamist jihadists to murder others in suicide acts. Janov writes, “I believe if people had more love in this life, they would not be so anxious to end it in favor of some imaginary existence.”
One of the most compelling aspects of Beyond Belief is the author’s liberal use of case studies, most of which are related in the first person by individuals whose lives were dramatically affected by their involvement in cults. These stories offer an exceptional perspective on the manner in which belief systems can take hold and shape one’s experiences. Joan’s tale, for instance, both engaging and disturbing, describes what it was like to join the Hare Krishnas. Even though she left the sect, observing that participants “are stunted in spiritual awareness,” Joan considers returning someday because “there’s a certain protection there.”
Janov’s great insight into cultish leaders is particularly interesting; he believes such people have had childhoods in which they were “rejected and unloved,” because “only unloved people want to become the wise man or woman (although it is usually male) imparting words of wisdom to others.” This is just one reason why Beyond Belief is such a thought-provoking, important book.”
Barry Silverstein, Freelance Writer

Quotes for "Life Before Birth"

“Life Before Birth is a thrilling journey of discovery, a real joy to read. Janov writes like no one else on the human mind—engaging, brilliant, passionate, and honest.
He is the best writer today on what makes us human—he shows us how the mind works, how it goes wrong, and how to put it right . . . He presents a brand-new approach to dealing with depression, emotional pain, anxiety, and addiction.”
Paul Thompson, PhD, Professor of Neurology, UCLA School of Medicine

Art Janov, one of the pioneers of fetal and early infant experiences and future mental health issues, offers a robust vision of how the earliest traumas of life can percolate through the brains, minds and lives of individuals. He focuses on both the shifting tides of brain emotional systems and the life-long consequences that can result, as well as the novel interventions, and clinical understanding, that need to be implemented in order to bring about the brain-mind changes that can restore affective equanimity. The transitions from feelings of persistent affective turmoil to psychological wholeness, requires both an understanding of the brain changes and a therapist that can work with the affective mind at primary-process levels. Life Before Birth, is a manifesto that provides a robust argument for increasing attention to the neuro-mental lives of fetuses and infants, and the widespread ramifications on mental health if we do not. Without an accurate developmental history of troubled minds, coordinated with a recognition of the primal emotional powers of the lowest ancestral regions of the human brain, therapists will be lost in their attempt to restore psychological balance.
Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D.
Bailey Endowed Chair of Animal Well Being Science
Washington State University

Dr. Janov’s essential insight—that our earliest experiences strongly influence later well being—is no longer in doubt. Thanks to advances in neuroscience, immunology, and epigenetics, we can now see some of the mechanisms of action at the heart of these developmental processes. His long-held belief that the brain, human development, and psychological well being need to studied in the context of evolution—from the brainstem up—now lies at the heart of the integration of neuroscience and psychotherapy.
Grounded in these two principles, Dr. Janov continues to explore the lifelong impact of prenatal, birth, and early experiences on our brains and minds. Simultaneously “old school” and revolutionary, he synthesizes traditional psychodynamic theories with cutting-edge science while consistently highlighting the limitations of a strict, “top-down” talking cure. Whether or not you agree with his philosophical assumptions, therapeutic practices, or theoretical conclusions, I promise you an interesting and thought-provoking journey.
Lou Cozolino, PsyD, Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University

In Life Before Birth Dr. Arthur Janov illuminates the sources of much that happens during life after birth. Lucidly, the pioneer of primal therapy provides the scientific rationale for treatments that take us through our original, non-verbal memories—to essential depths of experience that the superficial cognitive-behavioral modalities currently in fashion cannot possibly touch, let alone transform.
Gabor Maté MD, author of In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction

An expansive analysis! This book attempts to explain the impact of critical developmental windows in the past, implores us to improve the lives of pregnant women in the present, and has implications for understanding our children, ourselves, and our collective future. I’m not sure whether primal therapy works or not, but it certainly deserves systematic testing in well-designed, assessor-blinded, randomized controlled clinical trials.
K.J.S. Anand, MBBS, D. Phil, FAACP, FCCM, FRCPCH, Professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology, Anatomy & Neurobiology, Senior Scholar, Center for Excellence in Faith and Health, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare System

A baby's brain grows more while in the womb than at any time in a child's life. Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script That Rules Our Lives is a valuable guide to creating healthier babies and offers insight into healing our early primal wounds. Dr. Janov integrates the most recent scientific research about prenatal development with the psychobiological reality that these early experiences do cast a long shadow over our entire lifespan. With a wealth of experience and a history of successful psychotherapeutic treatment, Dr. Janov is well positioned to speak with clarity and precision on a topic that remains critically important.
Paula Thomson, PsyD, Associate Professor, California State University, Northridge & Professor Emeritus, York University

"I am enthralled.
Dr. Janov has crafted a compelling and prophetic opus that could rightly dictate
PhD thesis topics for decades to come. Devoid of any "New Age" pseudoscience,
this work never strays from scientific orthodoxy and yet is perfectly accessible and
downright fascinating to any lay person interested in the mysteries of the human psyche."
Dr. Bernard Park, MD, MPH

His new book “Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script that Rules Our Lives” shows that primal therapy, the lower-brain therapeutic method popularized in the 1970’s international bestseller “Primal Scream” and his early work with John Lennon, may help alleviate depression and anxiety disorders, normalize blood pressure and serotonin levels, and improve the functioning of the immune system.
One of the book’s most intriguing theories is that fetal imprinting, an evolutionary strategy to prepare children to cope with life, establishes a permanent set-point in a child's physiology. Baby's born to mothers highly anxious during pregnancy, whether from war, natural disasters, failed marriages, or other stressful life conditions, may thus be prone to mental illness and brain dysfunction later in life. Early traumatic events such as low oxygen at birth, painkillers and antidepressants administered to the mother during pregnancy, poor maternal nutrition, and a lack of parental affection in the first years of life may compound the effect.
In making the case for a brand-new, unified field theory of psychotherapy, Dr. Janov weaves together the evolutionary theories of Jean Baptiste Larmarck, the fetal development studies of Vivette Glover and K.J.S. Anand, and fascinating new research by the psychiatrist Elissa Epel suggesting that telomeres—a region of repetitive DNA critical in predicting life expectancy—may be significantly altered during pregnancy.
After explaining how hormonal and neurologic processes in the womb provide a blueprint for later mental illness and disease, Dr. Janov charts a revolutionary new course for psychotherapy. He provides a sharp critique of cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, and other popular “talk therapy” models for treating addiction and mental illness, which he argues do not reach the limbic system and brainstem, where the effects of early trauma are registered in the nervous system.
“Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script that Rules Our Lives” is scheduled to be published by NTI Upstream in October 2011, and has tremendous implications for the future of modern psychology, pediatrics, pregnancy, and women’s health.