Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Brain's Evolution and Therapy

Do you ever wonder why it is that we fall asleep in reverse order of evolution? And why we come out of it in correct order. It means, first of all, that we are prisoners of the brain’s evolution; and when we start to become consciously/aware we move to the highest level of the brain. We come out of antiquity into modern life as though we have gone through the centuries or the millennia in proper order each day in order to achieve consciousness. We do the same thing in Primal Therapy; and in doing so we must strictly obey evolutionary edicts. We can no more change that order than do so in our sleep. And when we trump that order in sleep, psychosis lurks. If we do not have enough dream (second-line limbic consciousness) sleep we suffer. And we develop physical and mental symptoms. Now what is crucial here is if we trump that order in Primal Therapy we suffer from those very same symptoms. That is why re-birthing is so dangerous; it trumps evolution. That is why cognitive therapy cannot work; it trumps the feeling areas of the brain; it forgets about evolution completely. That is why holotropic, deep breathing is dangerous; it again trumps evolution. It does not allow an orderly progression up the evolutionary ladder. Rather it stays stuck on the primitive nervous system level, (presumably the medulla of the brain stem) and does not climb the neuraxis to areas of awareness and integration. The brain is a complex proposition and to stay on any one level in therapy to the exclusion of the others means that any progress made in therapy is partial. To do reprogramming of the brain to achieve so-called “normal brainwaves” is deficient and cannot lead to cure. Because all parts of the brain are involved not just brainwaves. And those different parts control different parts of the body. That is why psychotherapy cannot work. Yes, we can get well in our heads, in the realm of ideas but that is where it stays; we think we are better but the body may betray us.

As with dream sleep, Primal Therapy enters the deep unconscious, slowly in ordered progression. But like in sleep we do not plunge immediately from current awareness down into the deepest levels of consciousness. Down on that deep level lies so many of our remote and life-and-death pains. It shows itself in our nightmares which are associated with terrible terror/anxiety states, and it is demonstrated in deep primals where just awful pains reside. What this tells us is that we are evolutionary beings who biologically must adhere to the history of mankind; there is an order to the universe of which we are part. I cannot stress this enough. We do not take patients into birth traumas in the first weeks of therapy anymore than in dream sleep we go directly into deep sleep. Evolution is an ordered affair.

Just a note to state that each new brain level in evolution helps out with survival. The brainstem and early limbic systems have everything to do with survival. Then full limbic structures continue the survival strategies, finishing up with the neocortex. As we travel through evolutionary time to the neocortex each adds its physiologic contribution. The reason that ideas cannot trump feelings is that feelings are integral to survival and we directed towards what feels good. The neocortex is also very important to survival but it is not as crucial as lower levels. This means that when we are in a coma without any cortex really working our survival functions (heart rate, blood pressure, etc), still are operational. Animals survive very well without a complex neocortex. They won’t survive if the brainstem is damaged. We have to breathe no matter what.

Each lower level of brain function is designed to keep us alive. We can use lower levels to modify higher ones but it does not work in reverse. Could you imagine if the higher level neocortex could permanently modify brainstem functions? We survive because it cannot. Thus feelings can certainly sway ideas but ideas can only suppress feelings, not eradicate them. We see in our therapy how physiology and limbic feelings directly affect ideas and beliefs. A very rapid heart rate can push someone to go and do, yet no matter how hard we try we often cannot alter the heart rate, especially the rate that is accompanied by anxiety. That is why we cannot “will” a slower heart rate over time. Ideas are hundreds of millions years away from physiological and emotional functions.

When we descend to deep unconscious levels we become conscious on that level. The unconscious is transformed into conscious. We do not become aware on a verbal level but rather we are conscious in terms of that deep level and no other. We have access to our inner states. We thereafter will not suffer from such things as a bleeding ulcer without being aware of it. Chances are, however, that we won’t suffer from such afflictions.

I remember seeing a patient who had just started therapy who told me that since he forgave his parents he felt much better; proof that ideas can trump feeling. Yet when he was measured his stress hormone levels (cortisol) never changed. Thus the neorcortex can trump what we think are feelings without ever touching feelings, per se. The neocortex is most apt at deceiving itself. It can produce the thought of being well without really being well. Ideas here function as anesthetics. In therapy we certainly don’t want to being anesthetized in order to get well.


  1. Janov

    It's amazing the work you've do Janov…What I miss is that you translate your blog in to French ... Spanish ... German and Swedish ... ... I am convinced that your blog would be much more effective ... many of us can’t participate if it is not in our own language ... contexts and our mental health is so sensitive ... the need to fall into place in words that are familiar to friction should not stop us ... language becomes a friction because the interpretations made by the given system… my opinion is that it is of paramount importance ...

    Excuse me my language… I am Swedish… I hope you will understand my point.

    My best
    Frank Larsson

  2. Hello Dr. Janov,

    I have almost read all of your books, I only have two more to go. I remember when I recently read Prisoner of Pain, the chapter Long Night's Journey which talks about this topic of sleep and the brain evolution, it blew me away.

    When you say we cannot use higher level neocortex to affect brainstem functions, like to will a slower heart rate, how do we access the deeper parts of the brain? does the access happen involuntarily?

    Kaz from Toronto

  3. We DO have SOME conscious control over the lower levels of our brain. I think this is why this subject is so confusing, particularly for Cognitive/Behavioural therapists.

    If I want to, I can deliberately make my heart beat suddenly speed up, without standing on a piece of glass or anything like that. I do this by imagining only the physical feeling of anxiety. I am aware that the anxiety is not being triggered by a real threat, and this is why it is easy for me to stop the feeling quickly. I simply stop imagining the feeling, and my heart beat slows down.

    So I have shown an example of how I can consciously stimulate a lower brain response. The effect is temporary and shallow, and NOT an example of how the conscious mind can fully control the lower brain levels.

    Another way to affect my lower brain (I think) is to change my environment and behaviour. When I am sitting underwater (head submerged) in a warm pool, I feel very safe and relaxed. I get a similar pleasant feeling when I am sandwiched between two mattresses with lots of weight on top. (neither event was a womb experiment - they were just childhood games which I can still enjoy now). In both these cases I start to feel so relaxed I can almost fall asleep (until I start running out of air). I'm not sure what effect these events are having on each level of my brain, but it sure feels good.

    It's these little stunts that cause Cognitive/ Behavioural therapists (like the one I spoke to) to believe that deep feelings can be accessed and changed, without having to go to the extremes that Janov talks about. When the anxiety, or whatever, is noticed again, it is thought to have "come back". My anxiety ALWAYS comes back and kind of sits in the background permanently. The truth is, the cause of the anxiety never went away. If it did, why would it come back?

    Kaz, I think one must voluntarily allow the involuntary reactions to become fully conscious/felt. The patient's voluntary action is made easier by the Primal Therapist. The involuntary reaction remains involuntary while you are conscious of it, but you never lose your ability to voluntarily make it unconscious again. I think that's right? :D lol

  4. Dr. Janov,

    The final statement "In therapy we certainly don’t want to [be] anesthetized in order to get well". Is the wellness you refer to different from selective (specific) anesthesia? I don't mean to be perverse in asking this question. I ask because it is very hard to find specific differences. Let's say I had a forceps delivery and as an adult suffer from persistent pressure sensations on my temples. Let's say after years of Primal Therapy I gain access to the memory behind the symptom and give in to that memory sufficiently so that the symptom leaves. I now have enhanced reactivity in general, as well as fully normal sensation when touched on the head, and lower vital signs to boot. At this point I have improved wellness. Let's call this point B in time. Months later, my therapy resumes with another series of sessions which revisit the same delivery sequence, in which I again feel the forceps. This we'll call point C in time. Since at point C the sensation of forceps reappeared, that means it was always inside me, as opposed to being erased by the primal. That means at point B I experienced a state of forceps anesthesia: an intact sensory memory was there but did not intrude for the time being.

    I agree that lowered vital signs and stress hormones indicate that my resting physiology is different at point B than at the start of the therapy. I don't doubt that there is something profound to Primal Therapy. I think the distinction you are trying to draw out is a distinction between cortical suppression (anesthesia) of a neuronal trace versus some other, deeper suppression (maybe the wrong term) of that trace.

    It seems key to be able to identify what that deeper suppression actually is, in terms of the moving parts of the brain. There are two reasons why this seems particularly important:

    (1) There is brain research going on in the area of synaptic plasticity -- how to induce long term potentiation ("imprint"?), and how to allow the same neuronal trace to become depotentiated. This research would be used to help PTSD patients. It may be as simple as removing norepinepherine from certain areas and inducing low frequency activation of specific pathways. What if this is precisely what's actually already happening during a primal?

    (2) In the continuing refinement of Primal Therapy, the underlying neurological facts can be helpful. For example, it may prove that insights are less important than the level of exhaustion reached in a given primal session, in making sure that the past stays in the past. Perhaps the neurology would shift attention toward repeated transient exhaustion, then, and away from insight gathering. Just a for instance.

    Best regards,


  5. Hi again Dr. Janov

    "When we descend to deep unconscious levels we become conscious on that level. The unconscious is transformed into conscious. We do not become aware on a verbal level but rather we are conscious in terms of that deep level and no other."
    Does this mean that when we are deep in a first line primal, we are not aware that we are in the company of a therapist, and we are not aware that the feeling is from the past, and we are not aware whether the feeling is going to be survivable (particularly as the feeling probably wasn't). Does it also mean that we lose our ability to will ourselves out of the feeling? Are we at the mercy of the body's most primitive life-saving mechanisms and the 'invisible' therapist to decide how much is too much?

    You only check the vital signs before and after?? Yikes! When I do the therapy (don't get me wrong, I want to do it), I'll be asking for constant heart monitoring if that's possible. I have already experienced a panic attack that was so intense, it was CLEARLY life-threatening if I had continued at the same intensity. The shock was just too much.
    If my heart can't withstand reliving a feeling at the 'true' intensity, will it be impossible to resolve the feeling? Is there no way to do a 'low intensity work-out'?

    You have already said that your therapy is 100% safe, so I am glad to hear that. I just want you to describe what kind of control the patient has while experiencing first-line pain.

    I would prefer it if you would publish this post and not publish my previous post (I didn't think hard enough in that one!)

    Thanks again for your time.

  6. Thanks for the detailed explanation Richard! That makes a whole lot of sense, I guess my impression was that the higher brain structures had zero influence over the lower ones.

  7. Re: Richard

    I don't think Dr. Janov has stated anywhere that his therapy is "100% safe". That being said, I understand that at the Primal Center they do the best they can to their knowledge and ability.

    As a person with panic disorder myself, I can understand the worry about the safety of feeling first line pain (what if too much is dredged up? What if I really do go crazy?)

    As I understand it, the staff at the Primal Center will take measures so that a patient won't be delved into too much pain in therapy, and that first line pain is not felt early in therapy, and when it is felt, it is felt in "appropriate amounts".



  8. Thanks for the reply Antti.

    Regardless of how hard my heart will beat, I will be doing Primal Therapy. It is real to me. Hense, my slight concern about all of this.

    My biggest concern is that I will not be able to allow myself to experience a trauma in which I did not know whether I was going to live or die.

    Imagine someone telling you you won't die, but you won't know that while you are feeling the trauma. It would be impossible for me to allow that feeling to effectively become real. If I think I might die, I will pull out every time. The only way I wouldn't pull out of the feeling, is if someone else is keeping me in the feeling, or if my brain simply doesn't respond to will-power.

    If it is possible to hold on to an awareness that the trauma is not really happening, then that would be good. I have had dreams and night-terrors in which I knew it was not real. I did have one dream though, in which a person was killing me and I actually thought I really was dying....and ofcourse I woke up and it took me some time to settle down.

  9. I would be fascinated to hear from any patients or ex-patients who have experienced a birth primal. I am particularly interested in the conscious perception of the pain, rather than the pain itself. Did you find it easy or hard to pull out of the feeling? Did you know you were primalling?

    I am not asking because I am afraid. I am asking because I am curious, and I am hoping I will be able to do it.

    If anyone wants to reply, I would appreciate it very much.

    - Richard


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.