We need to go back to our evolutionary roots and note that as the brain develops a different animal appears in the brain; first the snake, then the chimp, then the human. Each new structure/area incorporates and re-represents events imprinted on lower brain levels. Thus, there are spokes radiating out of our primitive nervous system that travel all the way to the neocortex (new cortex) via limbic structures to inform the higher levels of what happened on the lower brain levels. So when we feel helpless in the present—no one can process our application until we fulfill impossible requirements—we can begin to experience that feeling now in a session as “I can’t get through,” which will then take us back via the vehicle of feeling to the origins of that feeling. The feeling could be “there is nothing I can do to get through”. The basic feeling is hopelessness. And the prototypic event could be trying to be born amidst numerous obstacles. That is the heavy valence aspect of it. Before we get there, we first travel to childhood and feel that very same feeling on the second line, “I can never get through to my parents.” So the first thing we feel is in the present; we are at the DMV and the registrar is happily putting one obstacle in front of us after another. Next we feel the hopelessness of trying to get through to our parents in childhood. The feeling seeps in: it is all hopeless and I am helpless. We can stop therapy or go on to deeper levels over time; feeling the prototype is the final stop on our journey. There is no cure until all parts of our consciousness and unconsciousness are involved. The deeper we go the more powerful the feelings and sensations. That is why it should it should take some time to get deep down. We must avoid overload at all costs.
Once we are locked into a feeling the brain takes charge, it listens to its prototypic message and we must make no deliberate effort to go back into our past. We go back not deliberately but the opposite—by letting go of deliberation and giving into feeling. In therapy, the human first needs to have a long conversation with the chimp, who months later will deliver the message to the snake. Down deep, the conversation is neurologic and physiologic. It adds punch to our reactions and we are not sure why.
We feel helpless in the present but it is not a “normal” feeling; it carries with it the force of the beginnings of the feeling when it might have been a matter of life and death. We seemingly overreact, but we are reacting as well to our history, which has embedded itself into the feeling. When we relive that feeling completely we have automatically relived earlier origins of the feeling; and we can be liberated from its deleterious effects without once understanding what the primordial aspect of the feeling was all about.
Let me be clear about this because it is a significant point: each earlier event or trauma is registered (and methylated) so that how our genes behave or express themselves changes; our experience is imprinted epigenetically. And then as we evolve, the information of the early imprint is re-represented on each higher level. The snake speaks to the chimp about it, the chimp to the adult human, each in his own way. The problem occurs when the snake tries to communicate with the human neo-cortex. We don’t know what it is trying to say; all we know is that we feel antsy and anxious. That is the language of the snake. It forces us to slither and move but we are stuck. If it remains inside that force can produce an epileptic attack, a migraine, high blood pressure or what have you. It is powerful because it is the survival brain at work. Usually, repression sets in, blocks the sensation or feeling and creates maladies, including depression. It is the repression of those first line gestational events that lead to catastrophic diseases later on.
Each level, as it comes online, becomes mature. We now can be fully informed about our earlier life. The information is neurophysiologically coded by the kind of feeling so that similar feelings are combined in similar neural circuits.
At age thirty we might relive a feeling of hopelessness that seems to come out of nowhere, and the body temperature drops 3 degrees, as it easily can. When we check the scan we know the patient has dropped into a deep-brainstem-limbic trauma, touching preverbal events. That is why the big drop in temperature, with a commensurate drop in blood pressure. This is basically a parasympathetic nervous system response; we go into a “freeze” state, conserving energy. We become hesitant and unsure. We hold back, and that becomes our personal leitmotif, the matrix of our personality. And it started long before we could speak.
Where does it all come from? The mother may be smoking and drinking, harming the baby in the womb. He cannot evade the input and he begins to sense hopelessness. It is the template that is now installed—hopelessness and helplessness first started out as a sensation of impending death, and remains a sensation for the rest of our lives; it is not cerebral. Look closely: below every event in the present lie those impending feelings. It is only the strength of the gating system that keeps them at bay. But the pressure builds and the defenses give way a bit. Depression looms, as the building blocks of hopelessness and helplessness get close.
The vehicle of feeling will not let us drop too deeply all at once. The system knows that is dangerous. But we will automatically go back past defenses to earlier times as the pain level allows. So now the current hopelessness dredges up (resonates with) lower levels of the same feeling. When there is a reliving, all of the levels combine and produce a very heavy feeling. The current feeling at the DMV has brought up the earlier pain and it is all relived at the same time. That is, the current feeling brings forth the same feeling but with a different early event that has a much greater force to it, until the gating system gives way to the earlier imprints; the primordial hopelessness, perhaps of not getting out of the womb due to a cord obstruction.
Now heavy pain is on its way. If you are an advanced patient, you can feel and integrate it; the therapy has been done correctly. But if the therapy is not done correctly or drugs have been used, the feeling rises abruptly and forces its way into the top level, where the thinking and believing cortex has to manufacture symbolic beliefs to accommodate the pain; it must be symbolic because there is an overload. If there is no overload the feeling can be felt, experienced fully, and finally integrated: the pain is resolved. Thus, when the therapy proceeds in a logical, evolutionary way there is no danger and the person is getting well. When the process is hurried, there is great danger because overload always produces symptoms, often of mental derangement.
This brain circuitry is a two-way affair: the lower levels get re-represented on higher levels, while access to the feelings on higher levels allows us to descend lower down through our chain of pain. It is an integrated circuit, not haphazard and not by chance. We rely on the veracity of evolution to guide us. If we leave evolution behind we will lose our way for sure. The correct way is to follow how our brain evolved and what lies on the various brain levels.
The brainstem doesn’t speak; that is why in a reliving of very, very early events, if there are any words it is a false experience. So there may be a body temperature of 96 degrees that informs us that it is preverbal. If we try to get a patient to express her feelings verbally the session is ruined. You see why? Discussing a feeling and experiencing it are two different brain structures. We must not ask one area of brain tissue to do the work of another. We can only heal where we are wounded. If the wound happened during gestation we will eventually have to go there, and in the manner I have described—slowly, in increments, deeper and deeper. And we may never know that we are also reliving a time in the womb; the first line response is purely physiological. It makes our heart race while we are reliving something far removed in time from the womb and by comparison a bit innocuous. It is one aspect of the experience that is wordless. So we relive the criticism by one our teachers in high school, and the response is inordinate. We are plunged into an anxiety state and can’t imagine why. Resonance has taken place. Old sensations have been triggered off, and now we can see how something trivial in the present can set off rage or terror from the past. We see how someone loses control.
In these situations, we must eschew verbal explanations or cerebral understanding because the body is speaking an entirely different language. And when high blood pressure or a racing heart normalizes after a session, we can assume that we dipped into ancient origins of the feeling and have resolved aspects of the prototypic imprint itself. That I have observed this kind of reliving resulting in the resolution of serious symptoms is considered by some in the scientific community as not enough. It is believed to be anecdotal and unworthy of science. Lately, however, there is a plethora of research to bolster the point. K.J.S. Anand is one of the premier investigators of this research. (“Can Adverse Neonatal Experiences Alter Brain Development and Subsequent Behavior?” Biology of the Neonate, 2000(77):69-82).
He and his associates have produced a compendium of many research studies on the subject. He begins: It is “suggested that imprinting at birth may predispose individuals to certain patterns of behavior that remain masked throughout most of adult life but may be triggered during conditions of extreme stress.” (p. 70) This seems like a direct quote from some of my writings. The reason they are similar is because we are describing the same event, they from a scientific research point of view, I from my clinical observational post.
Anand goes on to observe: “for suicides committed by violent means (firearms, jumping in front of a train, hanging, strangulation, etc.), the significant risk factors were those perinatal (around birth) events that were likely to cause pain in the newborn.” The harmful factors included forceps delivery and other neonatal complications that were significantly correlated with adult suicide attempts. Lack of care just after birth was also heavily correlated with later suicides, especially adolescent suicide attempts. Sedatives and/or other drugs given to the mother during delivery were noted to increase the incidence of drug addiction. Karen Nyberg also found that drugs the mother took during pregnancy or at birth led to a greater tendency to drug addiction as adults. More recently, Sonja Entringer and her associates found intrauterine stress led to shortened telomeres in young adulthood (“Stress exposure in intrauterine life is associated with shorter telomere length in young adulthood.” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 108:33, E513-E518). Shortened telomeres are associated with premature aging and the development of cancer. In short, experience in the womb has, as we have noted for decades, enduring effects. If we want to know the whys of certain behaviors such as suicidal tendencies or drug abuse, we need to go way back into our remote history to find the answers. What Anand points out is that we need to study in humans the long-term changes in the brain from traumas in utero. We know, for example, that certain kinds of cells (NMDA receptors) are permanently altered as a result of lowered oxygen levels in the womb and during birth. The effects of low oxygen on the brain are particularly profound in the womb and during birth because the prenatal and neonatal periods are marked by very rapid brain growth.
I have written extensively about critical periods: those times in life when irreversible changes occur that we cannot change no matter how hard we try. I no longer think that the major critical period is in infancy. It seems irreversible changes are most apt to occur during our life in the womb, and secondarily around birth when we have peak brain growth. It is here that the neuronal circuitry and gene expression can be altered forevermore. In a number of experiments with animals, those who were delivered in pain or deprived of a mother’s care just after birth had a greater tendency to drink alcohol. In other words, very early pain persists as an imprint and leads to all manner of deviate behavior. Clearly, for any therapy to be successful we need to address those early imprints, the origins of the deviation.