Sunday, December 18, 2011
On Rearing Decent People: How the Imprint Works
A kid acts up and acts out and we ask, “who does he take after, his mom or dad?” Maybe his grandmother? Or maybe none of them or all of them. I will need to explain. The point I am going to make is that we are pretty much driven not so much by our genes but by our epigenes; that is, what happens to our genes as we mature. Because experience, especially while we live in the womb, channels those genes into diverse circuits, turns them on or off, and generally, controls their behavior. Is it nature or nurture? It is what happens to nature through our nurture, and that is not a play on words. What happens to us early on doesn’t change our genes but changes how and when and if they are expressed. And there are chemical processes that help explain all this, as well. I won’t make this complicated but it helps us understand ourselves and others if we take a little effort to suss out how this all works.
So it is not surprising how signals from the environment change the expression of our genes. What may be surprising is how early all that takes place; from the earliest months after conception on. The fetus (and embryo) changes according to its environment; we are too used to thinking about environment as what happens on the playground, in school or at home. But what is crucial is that the mother is the key and only environment for the fetus in the womb. What happens to the mother happens to the baby, as well. When she is anxious her stress chemicals are dumped into the placenta and affect him. He is born into a world of stress; he anticipates a stressful environment throughout his life, and it doesn’t take much later on to set him off. His latent stress level is already very high. When the mother is depressed the fetus can be down-regulated so that many of his biochemicals are also depressed. He will be in the “hypo” mode where his vital signs are low and there may not be enough key chemicals, such as thyroid, produced. His physiology duplicates his mother’s. He is a reticent and diffident child with little aggressive, little energy and drive and little enthusiasm for life.
I have been writing about the imprint for over forty years. It is how early experience becomes engraved in our system and endures, driving behavior and symptoms for years to come. We now know a bit more about that imprint. It is a chemical signature, actually two of them. One is methylation, and the other is acetylation. Very early on when there is stress, the carrying mother and father are arguing all of the time, there is the release of part of the methyl group which attaches to the DNA of the baby. It is like a “stop” or “caution” signal that says, “go slow.” “hold back,” “do not express yourself.” It “speaks” in biochemistry but it still speaks; it just has not words for it as yet. There will be words for it years later. Meanwhile, when there is serious trauma while we are being carried the genes are being methylated; and once that happens there is a greater tendency to depression and suicide later on. In the brain study of suicide cases there was a much greater incidence of methylation of the genes that turn off stress than those who died of other reasons. It would seem that in stressed babies there may not be enough steroid chemicals to overcome the methylation, and then there is overt anxiety. The stress system is in overdrive and cannot adjust properly. It may be that there is insufficient serotonin secreted to bind or gate the stress. Higher levels of methylation adversely affect the output of serotonin. . We need serotonin to help in repression and gating in order to keep us feel comfortable. What analysis of serotonin often reveals is not only trauma but the fact that it is unresolved. I believe we have found a way to resolve pain.
In early loss of a mother or in early abuse there is increased methylation. And I wonder if when we resolve those pains we also decrease or reverse methylation. It is true that genes and epigenes change us but it may also be true that we change them. And then they are visited upon our offspring. One thing has been found. If deprived babies are later licked a lot by their mothers there is a reversal of methylation.
In short, methylation is one major factor in the imprint that I have been putting forth, lo these many years. It endures and can cause major serious symptoms as we go through life. Not the least of these is cancer. Cancer cells most often have changes in the epigenomes which become abnormal; that is, there seems to be trauma to the cells that may cause them to go out of control. Cells that ordinarily prevent the appearance of cancer are heavily methylated and less efficient while the genes for cancer cells themselves seem to be less methylated. So we have a reverse function; cells which shut off are not, and cells which should be functioning are not. We do not want a “go” in developing cancer cells.
There is also a “go” signal that can attach, as well. It is called acetylation, and the genes are infused with acetyl chemicals. The “gates” are more open and there is greater expression, for the moment. That is, activation is enhanced. So we seem to have repressor activity (methyl), and activating processes (acetyl). Love, or positive rapport, tends to enhance acetyl production (animals who were licked a lot after birth by their mothers). And it can sometimes overcome an excess of methylation. The point in all this is that early life trauma can change the baby for a lifetime. It puts an indelible tag on the cells. We are thereafter programmed. It is now a memory trace; an embedded memory that affects so many aspects of our neurophysiology. This methylation is a record of our past, our history of adversity. Remember, it is not just a tag affecting recall of early life circumstance, impacting only the top level cortical memory processes. It is neurophysiologic, with its effects everywhere in our system. When we remember trauma it needs to be physiologic, as well. And it is that kind of memory that is resolving and curative. Because it is the embedded memory we are after, not the detached, disembodied, eviscerated, devitalized, etiolated memory that is never resolving. How we behave, in short, gives us clear clues to what happened to us very early in our history.
We behave according to the imprint; and we will not make major changes until we revisit the origins of that imprint. It can be done.
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.