Saturday, June 20, 2009

More on Beliefs (Part 1/3)

All belief systems have something in common. They are maps, something to help us navigate through life more effectively. And belief systems all respond to an almost universal, hard-wired need. It is not that we need to believe; we believe because we need. The belief itself, whatever it may be, comes later when we have the conceptual apparatus for beliefs. A one-year-old doesn't have that possibility. The need/feeling doesn’t go away; it begins its subterranean life.

My task is to see how, when feelings are blocked and rerouted, they turn into defensive ideas. These ideas have a dual role; to reflect previous experience and at the same time serve to mask the pain of it. The ideas that flow out of feelings remain symbolic derivatives of them; for if one were to feel the real feelings behind them, one would be in great pain. One patient relived suffocating during birth. He wanted to leave his wife because she was "suffocating" him and not giving him any breathing space. Those feelings saved his marriage. Clearly it is not always one-to-one, but I underline it because it offers clues to understanding "les idées fixes." They are handmaidens of feeling.

The first thing to understand about ideas (and here I am always discussing defensive ideas) is that they evolve, just as our brain evolves. We don’t start out life with ideas, and mankind didn’t start out in its journey from reptiles with the ability to think and conceptualize. It all evolved. In the brain this is what happens. We start out with the deepest part of the brain, the brainstem, which houses instincts and basic needs and most survival functions (heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure), which evolve into a limbic, feeling system that offers us the capacity to feel; and then the brain produces the neo-new cortex, especially its front part (prefrontal), which allows us to think in words and ideas. Remember, the brain produces itself. There is no deity that does it, but it enables us now to call upon a deity to quell our pain. And lo and behold! It does. The need for more and more cortex meant that brain cells had to migrate to higher levels to take on new functions. Those functions included beliefs that allowed us to flee danger; only this time the danger was internal. We could flee "into our heads" and away from ourselves; from imprinted feeling/danger.

In our personal evolution we develop ideas out of our previous early experience that dictates who we are and what we believe and think. Ideas and beliefs don’t just stick out there waiting to be corrected and changed. Pain is never set down just as an idea; it is an experience, and it is that experience one must revisit and relive in order to understand the origin of one’s ideas. We must go back to finish the sequence that began with an angry look by the father when the baby cried loudly in the crib — feel that experience again, only this time feel the need that the baby dared not to express at the time. The need never just disappears; it is capped and sequestered under a lid of resignation and despair. Later, it becomes a "need for;" the idea that someone else can fill the bill, which is never true. Someone else can paper over, but not fulfill. The only fulfillment was possible at the time. Thereafter, all fulfillments become symbolic. What better symbols than words — I love you, will watch over you, guide and protect you. They are just sounds but sounds that have a meaning, and that meaning is surcease, relief and soothing. Sounds that now have a physiologic base.


  1. I liked the way you made the link between ideas and meaning. False (though defensively wanted) ideas create "artificial" feelings as a reaction to the brain processing meaning, that in turn creates new feelings that subjectively contradict the pain of negative neurotic feelings. That's the picture I get.

    I would suppose that the part of the brain that processes meaning (and I think there is a designated part?) is the "ball park" interface where ideas work to push back repressed feelings (I'm thinking in terms of neurological plumbing again).

    No doubt the more unconscious pain we have the more we tend to become consumed in defensive ideas/meaning - giving an easy birth to religion. Indeed, from a psychological perspective, maybe you could describe this functionality *as* religion. I don't think there is any substantial difference?

  2. Dr. Janov, is not every belief system a co-dependency? a diversion away from one self to serve others and a higher power, a very powerful early indoctrination?
    It always was and still is the opium for people to oppress individuality and keep their needs muffled, as obedient servants for a "common good".
    The deceptive implication that"someone/something" is watching over us and yet does nothing when danger arises, is an oxymoron.
    A belief offers pacifying temporary feelings, an artificial high, to oppress any uprising primal pain.

    President Kennedy said: "do not ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
    The priority seems to be always others. Very few ask: have you fulfilled your own needs?

  3. Dears,

    Yes, the beliefs are serious business. It occurs to me that beliefs in lieu of love are as important as love, and it hurts a lot to lose those beliefs, just as it hurts a lot to lose love. There is a Cat Stevens lyric. "Take your time, think a lot. Think of everything you've got, for you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not." That's from Father and Son, which captures the classic struggle between family males which usually ends in the younger one feeling the need to leave. But the main thing here is the fatherly advice, from experience, that knows the pain of a departed belief system and oh, just how much that can hurt.

    I guess I'm saying that personal dreams and belief systems are the same thing. I think they are.


  4. Dr. Janov, is belief system not a co-dependency? a diversion away from the self to serve others and a higher power, a very powerful early indoctrination.
    It always was and still is the opium for people to oppress individuality and keep their needs muffled as obedient servants for the ‘common good’.
    The deceptive implication that “someone/something” is watching over us and yet does nothing when danger arises, is an oxymoron.
    A belief offers pacifying temporary feelings, an artificial high, to oppress any uprising primal pain.
    President Kennedy said: “do not ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The priority seems to be always others. Very few ask: have you fulfilled your own needs?
    Sieglinde Alexander
    - German living in the USA
    working with adults abused as children

  5. Sieglinde. How about sharing some results with us of your work with early abuse? art janov

  6. Hi Walden. You made me think of my mother....

    My mother once told me it didn't matter that she was unhappy on earth. She told me it was important for her to do the right things on earth so that she can find happiness in heaven. This is a tragedy ofcourse.
    About 10 years ago she quickly lost her belief in heaven and God. I asked her if it was hard for her to lose that belief. She said "not really - I just grew out of it". She spent a lot of her religious life obsessing about doing the right and moral things, and would spend a huge amount of time questioning her own behaviour and other people's behaviour. You'd expect the loss of heaven to cause an avalanche in her head! Apparently not.
    Now she spends a lot of time by herself solving games and cross-word puzzles etc. She can't feel all the years that have gone by because she is so busy with her puzzles. Her puzzles are not just a distraction. They must be part of a new belief system. She believes there is a meaningful achievement with each puzzle solved - while real love remains meaningless to her. She hasn't felt any real pain and probably never will.
    There must be so many people who just cruise through life until it is all wasted. I don't want to be like that.

  7. Dr. Janov,
    sorry I overlooked your message.
    If you are still interested 20% of my childhood and youth experience are at:
    Thank you for asking.


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.