Friday, July 29, 2016

On the Difference Between Abreaction and Feeling (Part 2/15)

The basis of Primal theory and practice is the concept of the three levels of consciousness, corresponding to an individual’s stages of development from gestation to adulthood. The first line is pre- verbal consciousness from the womb through birth and early infancy. The second line is laid down in childhood as the brain is still evolving. And the third line is current-day awareness, the top-level consciousness of adulthood. Those three levels of consciousness correspond to the structure of our triune brain – the primitive brainstem (first line), the limbic system (second line), and the neocortex, our thinking brain (third line). Pain is experienced and repressed at each stage, stamped into the brain as an imprint on the level where it occurs.

 The essence of Primal Therapy is unveiling the old events so we can live in the present. Those embedded memories contain painful and frightful feelings that needed to be repressed and kept from consciousness due to their overwhelming valence. But they are never forgotten. They leave biochemical traces serving as markers that say there was damage here and a hurtful event there. Through therapy, we can retrace our lives and our embedded memories and revisit them in orderly fashion, undoing the traces and (hopefully) reversing history by obeying evolutionary dictates. So we go back into those evolutionary stages methodically, feeling a bit at a time; beginning with the lightest pain in the recent past moving down to the deepest brain levels. In proper Primal Therapy, pain must be relived and resolved in the same evolutionary way it was created on all three levels, but in reverse. If we neglect evolution and do not deal with lesser pains first, we will again make a serious biologic error and force a feeling on a patient that he is not ready for.

 There is an adage in science: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. The history of the species is run again in our personal evolution. We can see our ancient history in how we evolve from the embryo on (fish fins, wings, tails, etc.). Each evolving individual re- runs the archaic life of the species. We get rid of our tail and are left with a vestige, a “tail-bone.” Similarly, we have vestiges of our old "ancient" personal life, which I call the first line. That is, we have traces of our lives from a time when only the brainstem was our predominant brain structure. And we can visit that ineffable life we lived before birth, and then eschew those traces though Primal Therapy, which can also be called undoing the imprints (or on a molecular level, de-methylation). Imprints mean precisely an event that was so powerful and so painful that it could not be experienced and integrated at the time. However, we are older now and can more safely experience them. But it takes years to be able to relive the past fully and make it part of us instead of a constant alien force.

 A well-ordered therapy begins in the present, anchoring feelings in the present-day life. Over time this will lead to deeper levels along that same feeling path through a process I call resonance. Once locked into the feeling, the neuro-biologic system will take charge enabling the patient to go deeper, traveling to more remote and archaic areas of the brain. Over months, as the patient follows that evolutionary path, different aspects of the feeling are gathered up at each level until reaching origins where very deep pain lies. This process cannot be forced or decided in advance by a therapist who dictates where the patient has to go. If feelings are forced out of sequence, no integration will take place.

 I stress this methodical step-by-step voyage as a warning, because in no other therapy that I know of can interference into the primal sequence by untrained people cause such lasting damage. They are meddling with the deep unconscious. It took us many decades to understand what to avoid, which is as important as what to pursue. We take great care to make sure that the patient descends the feeling chain in proper sequence so as to avoid abreaction, sliding off into pseudo feelings as a defense against the real pain.

 In essence, abreaction is the discharge of a feeling disconnected from its source, making it in fact a defense, or at least reinforcing an existing defense. It can be the release of a feeling from one level of consciousness into another level. For example, first line into third line. Or it can be first line disconnected from any other level, taking on a life of its own to the exclusion of any other levels. The defense system, in its crafty and brilliant way, can promote many forms of abreaction that may lead to strange ideations, crazy delusions and paranoia. Instead of leading to the undoing of neurosis, abreaction guarantees that neurosis will persist. This happens when the therapist allows the patient to skip evolutionary steps, going through the motions of feelings without feeling them.

 We must trust the feelings totally. But first we must recognize them and be able to differentiate them from abreaction, which is the discharge of the energy of a feeling without connection. Our job is to provide access to feelings, following evolution every step of the way, from the most recent aspect traveling down to the very origin of the pain in the most distant past. In this way, we go from an awareness of the feeling to its emotional content and then onto its preverbal base. We also go from the lowest valence of pain to the most devastating. It increases as we descend down the chain of pain in our ontology.

 When we touch on our beginnings – gestation, birth and infancy – we see the deepest pain and the most danger to the system, which I call the first line. If we do not know brain evolution we can be easily fooled and will rush in to prod a patient’s nervous system to perform in ways it cannot; hence, abreaction. We will make the patient scream or pound the walls when the real feeling is elsewhere. Once a patient is channeled into abreaction it is almost impossible to pull him back. It forms a groove defense that becomes encased, allowing no other feeling in. It becomes a neurosis inside another neurosis. It is the patient who loses, though he may convince himself he is really feeling; or worse, he may be convinced by a therapist that he is feeling when he really isn’t. Sometimes, this may all seem like some kind of plot, but it is simply unconscious reactions to avoid deep pain. Remember, it takes great skill to produce a connected feeling and no skill to permit abreaction.


  1. Art
    I don't know when I would be when I woudn't get your books and blog. Almost everything it was abreaction. Telling me that it is fault of the devil, foreigners, job etc. Now I know, but still I am outside of feelings. I need to earn money and get to primal center, but how? When I am stuck in my trauma. I plan to change job, but first line feelings forbid me do this. I feel deep terror when I need to change something. It is way down the line.
    Anyway. I love you man.

  2. Frank,

    I love how Art here describes in a simple and crystal clear way, how proper Primal Therapy is conducted!

    To start in the Present, intellectual level, catch an Emotion caused and connected to the present situation; then allowing that Emotion to take us to a Feeling connected to a painful event or condition in the Past, hitherto unknown, and there re-live it as a Primal.

    As this is anchored in the Present, thanks to the Chain of Pain, which started in the Present, the connection, understanding and integration are secured, and - ta-da! - another piece of memory is laid to rest in our memory bank.

    It seems obvious that one distinction between abreaction and a Primal is that the former is unable to retrieve a memory, while the latter can or should do it.


  3. Hello Art!

    This is the best you posted! It may be because it is the first I myself can perceive the disastrous consequences of. It contains information that should be presented in the beginning of all your posts!

    If we turn out and in on what you write... it to be a matter for intellectuals who endeavored for years to systematize their thinking so... you see the impossible with their brains. And we also see that the only thing we can do is to let science be heard! But who is the first that will be burned at the stake when science proves it self? We see the folly in the face with the consequences of that revolutions are not always a satisfying order.

    Your Frank

  4. I'm so glad that I couldn't finish my psychotherapy class, 3 years ago, in Quebec, Canada, because when I read this post, I would have been the worst psychotherapist, unless I would happen to know you. I'm sure that life protect me, because I have had a conflict with the teacher, somewhere incompetent, and she didn't allow me to continue. God bless me! All what you explain is so logical and human, that I do not understand why specialists in therapy are still on their point of view. Keep on your researches and studies, because you help a lot of people.
    Thanks a lot.


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.