Sunday, May 3, 2009

More on Life Before Birth

If you have trouble in your emotional life you need to examine your life before birth. When the whole system is gearing up for life on the planet, gestational life has already constructed a crucible for life outside the womb. Life in the womb is perhaps the most important time of our lives; so much of adult symptoms and behavior can be traced to that epoch.

I have written about the prototype, the “Now print” that is engraved in the neurophysiologic system even before birth. Any severe trauma while the mother is carrying can be imprinted into the baby's system where it may well remain for the rest of his life. Here it may change the brain circuits and cause a permanent deviation in the function of organ systems. There is much less possibility of that after birth. It is “now print” because it is setting down a prototype of heuristic value that will direct behavior thereafter. It is memory of survival, of what worked before to save our lives. And it worked when the input stimulus may have been a life-and-death matter as so many traumas during womb-life are. This will happen despite the fact that there is no functioning neo-cortex to remember the scene; it happens below the level of conscious/awareness, which is why we cannot get there through the vehicle of language. Here we have a learning system that is distinct from the verbal learning/memory system that we will develop later. It is neurophysiologic memory.

Now what does the prototype do? It folds all that surrounds a feeling/memory and distills it into a general principle. When confronted with an obstacle, for example, it is best to retreat, not meet it head on (the choice of the parasympath, passive individual where passivity was life saving in the womb). The principle is not struggling for air when the mother is anesthetized at birth, but retreating into less use of energy and oxygen—passivity. To undo that imprint, not so easily done, we need to return to the brain that registered it and relive it. If someone says that the patient must then be offered a new ending for what he relived, we understand immediately that we have enlisted the aid of the adult brain and undercut what the patient has felt during the session.

We know that in reliving gestational life or the birth trauma we are succumbing to deep and long, slow-wave, brain signatures which denotes life before birth. To then appeal to the late developing new-comer, the neo-cortex, to finish off the sequence and add a good ending confounds the work of the deep unconscious. Essentially it takes the patient out of the deep brain imprint and places her back to the neocortex. The same can be said for early childhood pain where the brain that should be employed, the right feeling side, is abdicated for the left brain explanatory, understanding one. In short, we continue to talk to the wrong brain.

A patient with a very rapid, left frontal cortical signature cannot be feeling until we bring her into the feeling zone. The frontal thinking apparatus must recede for a time. And again, language only plays a secondary role. One way we do that is offer tranquilizers to the patient for a short period of time to push down some inordinate pain from gestation or birth. The overload of pain and all levels prevents one from integrating feeling by feeling. We must remember that in dealing with very early life we are mostly describing the work of the right brain. The left brain focus will not get us there. Yet after a year of therapy it will help to also use the left brain for understanding so that each side is more in equilibrium with the other—a more harmonious brain.

To offer patients an understanding of his motivation by the therapist or to propose a different ending of the pain by a therapist means an appeal to the wrong brain. It negates the whole notion of the critical window, where there is a time to fulfill need and only that time. So to utilize the more advanced, later evolved brain cannot allow for integration. The only way to resolve the earlier trauma is put yourself back there (or to be lead there by a therapist) neuro-physiologically and resolve on that level.

Integration means that reliving memory will affect nearly every system in our lives. So we measure natural killer cells, serotonin and brainwave function to test whether there has been integration; and we have found profound changes in all of those over time in our therapy. So we ask, “does it matter if we don’t relive events during womb life? Yes, because that reliving can produce a change in many physiologic parameters and in behavior. So the answer is clear. Yes, it matters because we have seen engraved patterns (migraine, high blood pressure, impulsive acting-out)from early childhood on that get resolved and integrated decades later in therapy. If patients needed to do more than relive, then they would feel worse, not better, months and years after therapy. And their physiologic changes would not hold up.(The stress hormone, cortisol, would again diminish to pre-therapy times). I think the only time we can rewire deviated set-points is when the brain retreats to an earlier prenatal time and deals directly with the original causes of deviation.

To imagine that some kind of explanation by the therapist to what a patient has relived will help, is to forget about the critical window, as I have mentioned. We have to be on that level to integrate; it cannot be done from “above.”(the neocortex). It cannot be the adult watchng the child go through it all. It must go from the bottom to the top in the order of evolution. In so doing we are back in the trauma, completely, feeling each component of the event and putting it back together in a new way. Here is cohesion and resolution.


  1. Dr JanoV,

    Probably I understand what you are saying about the adult watching the child go through it all and buttom to the top.
    My point is that I experienced in the deepest level of a primal also a bit of an adult observing the body going through all kinds of stuff.One is an adult not a child so the adult is also there in a primal even when reliving childsensations.I remember that I could take some small breaks during the process because it was very demanding for my body,in those inbetweens I could also communicate some words with my therapist as a grown-up.For me that was an indication that I was in it confidently and allthough it was tuff I felt very good and connected afterwards.
    The strange thing is that I talked to others years later on who had almost the same experience but they discribed it as a hell where they never wanted to go ever again.
    Maybe that is discribed by the notion of that psychiater a mentioned earlier,that you can be in a primal in three ways,completely in it,half in it or not in it.
    I know you have written about what is a real primal or not,from the primal scream I remember that you said that it feels good afterwards and not bad. You gave a list but I havenot been able to find that again.

    Unfortunately I lost track of those deep primals.
    In my own words I would say that back then with those primals the doors in my head were open,they got blocked because of an event and allthough I tryed hard I couldnot reverse it.


  2. Is it possible for a patient to begin therapy with birth/prenatal primals, and later deal with the second-line stuff? I think I would like to try that. Last night I was imagining something sexual and I decided to totally relax and go with it (I will spare you the details). As I relaxed I plunged into a first-line sensation (not sexual). I have experienced this many times before, but other times were more scarey. This time I felt more confident as it was happening. (I have been feeling more confident with the idea of entering first-line feelings after reading people's comments in this blog.) I could have EASILY gone deeper by relaxing more but I decided to pull out because I knew I should be with a therapist. My adult brain was working the whole time during the feeling, so I guess I was no way near deep enough.
    During the feeling I lost all sensation in my lower arms and lower legs. There was a loud ringing in my ears and also a low rumbling sound. My body felt like it was moving fast every time I relaxed more, and there was a constant vibration (like in a car on a bumpy road). The feeling was creepy, but not overly scarey. Ironically, I started to feel more scared AFTER I pulled out of the feeling (not that I was ever deeply in it). When I pulled out, I started to focus on the shadows in the room (I used to worry about the shadows when I was a child). I started to feel like something in the shadows was hiding from me, but I knew it was nonsense. I knew it was just my neocortex being tempted to invent a story to explain the feeling. Because of this knowledge, I was able to easily avoid a feeling of panic.
    I am feeling very confident that I can go much deeper into first-line stuff without being too overloaded. I hope my therapist will agree that I am ready to do that. I know that the first-line stuff is the most important, and I would prefer to feel it instead of pushing it down with tranquilisers to make way for second-line feelings.

    Janov says "In order to feel deeply unsafe one has to feel totally safe in the present. That safety, dialectically, turns into its opposite."

    I absolutely agree.

  3. Hello Dr. Janov,

    I know that my son suffered birth trauma, but I'm not sure about trauma during pregnancy. Post partum, he cried frequently and only slept for short durations. Could this be an infant's way of primaling? If womb-life can so easily become truamatic (I'm sure our early ancestors must have faced many stressors during pregnancy and childbirth) would it not make sense that we'd have also developed a biological way of dealing with it? If an infant is held, and stroked, and breastfed, and sung to, does this ease any of the trauma? Why have we developed in a manner in which we can so easily be screwed up for life (or at least until we can take primal therapy)?


  4. Richard: I leave it to my blogophiles to answer this, and then later I will. dr. janov

  5. Hilary.. Yes love always helps and it can lower the overall pain level so that symptoms do not appear. Love will not erase the early trauma, however. It just adds to the defense system keeping symptoms at bay. arthur janov

  6. Replying to Richard - I'm currently a patient at the center. My experience has been that my first line (birth) is very strong and was one of the first things to come up. In fact, this gets in the way of 2nd line (also perhaps because I find it easier to deal with). It seems many things will trigger me back to this such as anger (rage to get out), any situation of vunerability (which leave me curled in a ball and shaking) and massive body tension. My therapists tell me the overload from the first line can block the second line and and I've found that after these kinds of primals, I can get to the 2nd line better and find it easier to cry.
    It's also like the 1st line stuff left me open to further injury along the same lines and when I'm on these tracks (such as anger) I'm led straight down to the 1st line - the orignal imprint, I guess.

  7. Dr. Janov: Thank you for crystal clearly pointing out that the "corrective emotional experience" - the corrective intervention of a therapist - is not only superfluous but even detrimental to the reliving process. In the end, the reliving of old traumatic feelings and sensations is in itself a highly corrective emotional and physiological experience, because it corrects so much in our systems!

    And when people start feeling better and therefore change their behaviours then they themselves will create the conditions for gaining more positive (interhuman) experiences. No outside person is necessary to correct our old traumatic experiences. The reliving process itself is the best therapist ever in the history of psychotherapy!

    Reading some of the comments to your former postings it sometimes seemed to me that Primal Therapy is the most complicated matter in the world. It was like wandering around an highly intellectual and sophisticated labyrinth like a lost soul. Clearly, it's also necessary to find out psychotherapy aspects such as "defense", "transference", "corrective intervention", and so on, into the last detail but we must not forget that Primal Therapy is an empiric process. Unfortunately, the empiric skills of our thinking minds are very limited.

    Therefore it's also necessary to move to the right hemisphere, go a little bit deeper, and confide ourselves in the old nonverbal brain. If we solely remain on the neocortical intellectual level we may be spared deep pain but we cannot get ahead in therapy and we will be forced to spoon up the same old neurotic life soup till the end of our days.

    Going deeper into the brain and feeling old pain may be very hard sometimes - often a true challenge - but as you said elsewhere: "No pain - no gain" This is and will always be the essence of Primal Therapy

  8. Arthur Janov wrote: "Richard: I leave it to my blogophiles to answer this, and then later I will. dr. janov"

    As a "blogophile" I'll attempt an answer. Richard, I'm afraid the short answer is "no". AFAIK, patients are never allowed to go straight to first line traumas at the very beginning of therapy, because those traumas are simply too powerful. Janov has said that PT is neurosis in reverse, and, in a sense, evolution in reverse. You can't challenge evolution. To undo a lifetime of trauma, you must start with the most recent and less painful traumas, so that connection and integration can take place (instead of some disconnected state brought on by too much first line pain coming up).

    But oh boy, do I wish it was safe to start PT by feeling first line pain. Unfortunately for me, my gates are so leaky I have to take quite large doses of Klonopin daily (and of course 40 or 50mg of Paxil) just to function daily and not kill myself. And I have to take considerably more Klonopin than I am prescribed if I have to spend some time in car or a bus or a train. Those are enclosed places where you can't get out when you need to. My panic attacks... it's like they're on a whole different level than other people's panic attacks.

  9. Ferdinand: Ah! the truth will out. dr. janov

  10. AnttiJ: Hi, Most panic attacks come from very early and are horrific for all of those who suffer them. It is the fetal/infantile terror pure and simple. Why not get rid of it once and for all? It is what we do. dr. janov

  11. Ferdinand,

    How does your therapy deal with the situation in which you put your therapist into the position of being your dad?


  12. Walden: We tell them to stop it and get over it. No no. If you take the feeling back to origins and direct it where it should go all will be well. We deal with the subtext.....the feeling, not the words directed to the therapist. I teach my therapists the language of subtext. art janov

  13. Antti
    First-line stuff can be felt in order of 'evolution'. Art uses that term to describe how the pain (first or second line) is accessed. The conscious mind must travel in the way the brain has designed it to, otherwise psychosis can occur. I don't think he is talking about which pain must come first?

    I often have dreams where I am trapped in a fast moving car and I have no control over it. For you it is worse. I hope you do primal therapy too.

  14. Is it possible that people who are predominantly "right brain" are always drawn to simple (too simple, and therefore unrealistic) dichotomies when considering their life choices, unable to appreciate the nuances of elements which can appear both in healing and non-healing situations?

  15. If anything the right brainers are far more realistic than the lefties. art janov


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.