Let’s start with a simple bit of research; Dr. Daniel Schacter, psychologist of Harvard University has reported on a study where subjects watched bits of a TV series and then had their brainwaves measured. (see: Science, Sept. 2008).
They found when the subject remembered the event, the single brain cell signature was the same as in the first viewing. They reported that it seemed like a reliving; which of course, has been my position. What do you call it when a memory brings up one’s exact history with its precise early physiology. This happens to our patients every day. When there are certain triggers the brain conjures up its history, intact. That is why our behavior is so compulsive and unwavering; our history motivates us all of the time. We are largely victims of our deep unconscious brain.
In Schacter’s research on epileptic surgery patients, they threaded fine electrodes down in the brain of the subject. These electrodes could pin-point small brain storms at their origins. And they could make minute measurements during recall. The lesson? We can relive past events in their entirety, precisely as they occurred. What is very new in all of this is how early an experience can be to affect our later life. Think of the implications: that old memories reside in the same neurons (nerve cells) as were involved originally. That is why the neurotic cannot distinguish between past and present and sees reality through the prism of the past.
Let’s go back to the notion I discussed earlier of epigenetics. One genotype, a single genetic predisposition, can give rise to many phenotypes depending on what happens to those genes during gestation. So what we might imagine is genetic is genetic-plus what happens to us in the womb. So much happens to us in the womb; so much as been ignored in terms of the their long-term effects that many diseases remain a mystery because we are looking at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong tools.
What I am learning is that events in the womb explain so much about later life. If you bend an emerging twig you are bound to get a distorted tree. The question has always been, “how’/ early is early?”
An example: someone is born with all kinds of allergies from birth on. A history of emergency clinic visits for all kinds of infections, asthma, breathing problems due to allergies, and in general, a very deficient immune system. Here is where we need to push back the envelope and direct our attention to those early months in the womb. When we do, we often find out that the mother was quite anxious and/or depressed. Or often, the marriage is falling apart. Or in one case, as her belly got big the husband was turned off and sought out an affair. The mother was crestfallen, fell into a depression, and we had a baby that was impacted by all this and was born with a diminished immune system, something that got its start early on in the pregnancy. Don’t forget that the immune system, in some respects, is our first inchoate nervous system, sussing out dangers and menaces and organizing defenses against them. This includes secreting some of the pain-killing neurotransmitters we know about today. What starts out to defend us ends up hurting us. If the immune system is comprised there is a good chance that natural killers cells will be diminished and weakened.
Because the baby can be born with higher than normal stress hormone levels, and because the immune system works in see-saw fashion with cortisol (high stress—low immune function) the fetus has possibly set the stage for a lifetime of immune problems. Here is where genetics plays a role; high stress in the fetus will affect those areas with genetic vulnerabilities. After all, what is the meaning of high levels of stress hormone during fetal life? It means an input that agitates the system to be chronically alert. And when the system can longer shut off that input we have the makings of an enduring primal imprint. That input is maternally induced. So we have a newborn with a high level of agitation already set in place many weeks earlier. Here is ADDHD (attention deficit disorder) waiting to happen. Over time the deleterious results can range from impulsive tendencies to migraine and high blood pressure (to hold down the imprinted input). It is then no mystery when the child cannot concentrate or sit still. It is not enough to know that there are high levels of stress hormones in the baby, but what causes it, in the first place.
We change natural killer cells after one year of our therapy into normal levels. These cells have as a key function, watching out for cancer developing cells and pouncing on them in an effort to contain them. So a mother’s distress while pregnant can spell life-endangering effects on her baby, not the least of which is later cancer. The earlier the trauma during womb life the more disastrous the effects. That is our important secret life.
What can be done about this? Treating it first and foremost, then make sure it will not come back? How do we do the latter? Reliving the earliest womb-life events. How do we do that? Well, luckily, each new harmful or adverse experience that remains non integrated is re-represented later on a higher level of the nervous system and is noted as the outsider or enemy. It is indeed a threat to the organism. I believe that there are specific frequencies that tie these events together. When we explore these ramified events and begin to relive them we are also reliving deeper and earlier aspects of the feeling and/or pain. And that is how we relive pure physiologic brain-stem responses without ever acknowledging it.
When there are certain kinds of triggers, the brain conjures up its related history, intact. That is why our behavior is so compulsive and unwavering; our history motivates us all of the time. We are largely victims of our deep unconscious brain. We can only reach deeper into the remote past as we gain more and more access to deeper levels of brain activity. We need to have real good access to our feelings first; then very early brainstem events. That takes time but it can be done.
And what about cancer? The beginning deformity of cells can well begin in the womb with mother’s anxiety due to her own history or due to her marital circumstances. In any case, the fetal system needs to gather its resources to shut down excessive input. Here is where many cells are evolving and gathering their identity, but instead there is massive repression and, ultimately, physiologic deviation, even at the cellular level.
One patient had three siblings all “messed up” and depressed. It remained a mystery why all of them were so disturbed, her parents were indeed loving; until she had very early primals (a systematic reliving of early trauma). She learned that in South America, for many years, there was a civil war. The father left to fight, coming home occasionally to make babies. The mother was in desperate straights, had no money and no one to turn to, fearful of the constant raids into her village. The children, even in fetal life, suffered. She was a loving mother whom the children adored, but neglect womb-life, which should not be ignored. It had far-reaching effects. It therefore is an indicator of what went on during fetal life. Can we imagine a doctor learning about a stroke with her patient and then examining his fetal life?
Low birth weight is associated with slow fetal growth and lack of development of various physical systems. If the newborn is abnormal in any respect, even birth weight, we may assume that something abnormal may have happened during gestation. Babies of depressed mothers are more often of low birth weight. At least, let’s consider it. Babies with low birth rate lack muscle, something that follows her into adulthood. Here is a quote from the Helsinki Birth Cohort Study: (we) have shown that the risk for coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance is further increased in 60-to 70-year-olds who were small at birth, thin or short in infancy, but put on weight rapidly between 2 and 11 years of age.2, (55) A similar growth trajectory has been shown to predispose to type 2 diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance. “
People who suffer stroke tend to be thin or short at 2 years. There is evidence that these early events can lead to hypertension later on, which is an important risk factor for both coronary heart disease and stroke. A number of mechanisms have been suggested to explain these links.
We need to study Alzheimer’s disease as it relates to gestational trauma as well as birth difficulties.
Certain height and weight problems at 2 years of age is a well accepted indicator of childhood emotional problems. Why is this so? There are a number of answers. Growth of the fetus relies heavily on adequate oxygen supplies. Because of the large brain, which uses a good deal of oxygen, there is a physiologic demand from more and more. If these supplies become limited for any number of reasons the body growth will slow down so that the brain can be left intact. Hence, lower fetal weight. Let us keep in mind that cancer can develop and live without oxygen, and maybe that adapting to lower levels of oxygen in the womb is part of an explanation for later cancer. Deprive a cell of a majority of what oxygen it requires and you have one key element in the origin of some cancers. This an only be a hypothesis.
In experimental animals it was found that anything that increased fetal stress hormone levels could result later on in elevated blood pressure, anxiety and hyperglycemia. And when we fiddle with stress hormone levels we increase the likelihood of later cardiac crises. And cortisol level is also heavily implicated in signaling the birth process to begin.
Cortisol is a stress hormone because it sets in motion the alarm signals to combat too much and too strong an input. When it goes on for a long time it accelerates again, the possibility of dementia and a whole host of other diseases. Primal imprints do exactly that; maintain a high level of cortisol for a lifetime.
In nearly every study of prenatal life there is the implication that high stress hormone levels in the carrying mother can result in hypertension and cardiac problems later on in the offspring. Infants of mothers who were diagnosed as anxious before pregnancy had significantly higher stress hormone levels. What neuro-psychologist Paula Thompson has explained: “prenatal stress responses are dependent on mother’s stress level. But how babies show it is through a limited physiologic vocabulary.” She believes that the fetal stress response is already skewed and, given later stress, the earlier stress response does not change. It can be blocked, diverted, covered over, but it remains pristine clear.
She believes that stress states in the pre-nate and neonate can be recognized by elevated heart rate, greater activity levels (gross body, single and multiple limb-higher reflex activation (Field et al. 2006). The pre-nate and neonate may show mistimed diffuse movement and overt grimacing. Will be rather clumsy and has a lack coordination. All this can be a predictor of later heart disease. That is only if we look at the problem in a gestalt overview.
Thompson: “One overarching goal of this article is to help clinicians understand the potential deleterious effects of prenatal stress. (See Thompson. “Down Will Come Baby.” Journal of Trauma and Dissociation. Vol. 8(3) 2007) She adds: it is hoped that increased knowledge of prenatal stress will inform psychotherapeutic treatment protocols, especially when treating severely traumatized and dissociated patients who may themselves have suffered early pre-nate stress. Further, when these patients become pregnant, appropriate treatment for the mother may benefit the offspring. When clinicians provide therapeutic intervention to a pregnant woman the pre-nate may also be affected”(Field, 2001; Ponirakis, Susman & Stifer, 1998. (My emphasis)
Let us not forget that (Thompson): one of the most dramatic changes occurs in the first moment of conception. The primitive cell carries the blueprint for an individual who has never existed before and will never exist again. While in the womb he is having the most important experiences in his life, because nearly all of it is of life-and-death significance. This is what Freud should have meant when he was developing his theory of psychoanalysis. Here lies the deep unconscious; a dark place with no exit and no words. Biologic responses dominate. In order to relive we have to include all of our physiologic processes, not just cerebral memory. The first step is to acknowledge these facts; a much more difficult step is to fashion a therapy for them. I think we have done that.
One of the key factors in high levels of maternal cortisol is the increase in the chances of a lost baby; or at the least some kind of prematurity. Again, those levels descend into the fetal system and change the baby in ways we are still learning about. Babies born to depressed mothers have higher levels of cortisol than normal. Here was what Lauren Kaplan and colleagues have to say about this: “in utero environment sculpts the uniquely plastic fetal brain resulting in long-term maladaptive patterns of behavior and physiology.” (Lauren Kaplan, et al, “Effects of Mother’s Prenatal Psychiatric Status and Postnatal Caregiving on Infant Bio-behavioral Regulation.” Early Human Dev. 2008 April; 84 (4) 249-256)
What researchers are now saying over and over again is that womb-life can unalterably affect the lifetime of the offspring. And, it is not only behavior that is altered but the physiology, as well. Does this mean a change in Primal Theory? Absolutely, it pushes the envelope much earlier for when imprints start and for their widespread enduring effects. It means that how the birth trauma is played out and reacted to depends on earlier life circumstances.
I want to reiterate my point about serotonin production in the fetus. For the first few months of gestation the fetus must “borrow” serotonin from momma; that is, if she (mother) has adequate levels. If she doesn’t, the fetus can’t go to the pharmacy bank and make a loan. She can be low in stock if she already has a chronic depression that depletes supplies. What is stamped in is a lack of adequate repression by the fetus and the beginning of a free-floating panic or anxiety, which only becomes evident years later as the defense system is under constant attack. This terror cannot be fully contained because of inadequate supplies of serotonin. Then we have panic attacks that are originated far earlier than we have ever imagined. But also these low levels of serotonin affect and retard development. It is as essential as food; it is food for the fetus.
We now know that a difficult birth can deplete the baby of adequate serotonin/inhibition levels. Later, all kinds of impulse neurotics—criminals—addicts, are low in serotonin, and obviously, low in inhibition. I don’t think we need to stop at birth for adverse effects on serotonin. It can happen as serotonin begins to function adequately, even in the last few months of pregnancy. Again, many of my patients are low in serotonin at the start of therapy but normalize after a year; therefore, it is a reversible phenomenon. (see a full discussion of this in my Primal Healing). It isn’t only serotonin; there is ample research now to show that the neocortical inhibitory prefrontal neurons are low in number due to a trauma at or before birth. These are poor inhibitors from the time of birth on. These individuals cannot wait, lose patience, have attention deficit disorder lash out with little provocation and want what they want NOW! They will interrupt because they cannot wait their turn to speak. All this means that we can be born with a tendency to Attention Deficit Disorder. It is not heredity but the experiences during womb-life that impacted that heredity. It seems like we are born with it but mostly we are not.
Now let’s push the envelope even further back. In a recent experiment, a scientist raised some rats after knocking out some of the building blocks for serotonin (the key element in Prozac), which is key for gating or repression. He then let the females mature, get pregnant and have babies. Of the 43 mouse embryos tested, 37 displayed abnormalities and brain malfunction. This indicates that the animal mother’s state affects the development of the baby’s brain. Her levels of serotonin can determine how her offspring mature. So, when a pregnant woman is chronically depressed, and hence low on serotonin, the baby’s entire life may be adversely affected. And the changes in her as a result of “heredity” will determine what kind of mother the offspring will be. Later childhood environment does count a lot but not as much as when the baby’s brain is rapidly evolving. In gestation, it is essential that the mother be normal in every way possible. Otherwise, she cannot fulfill the needs of her baby in the womb. And one definition of love is helping to fulfill the needs of the child. No fulfilling needs—no love.
What is very important for us to realize was that a mouse fetus does not make her own serotonin until the third trimester. It seems like the mother supplies what is needed until the baby can take over. But when the mother is low on supplies, she cannot fulfill what the developing baby lacks. Therefore, the baby carries around a load of pain. Now if we apply that to humans, there seems to be a time in gestation when pain or noxious stimuli impinge, but we are not yet able to produce enough of our own gating chemicals, leading to ungated pain. This residue will continue and may lead to bouts of anxiety later on in life. It becomes free-floating fear or terror. This is not due to heredity but rather to experience in the womb. This is why we should never neglect womb-life when addressing neurosis. Part of our in utero life, therefore, takes on hurt at a time when our system can do nothing about it. Nevertheless, it affects all later development. At thirty we may suffer from panic attacks (as excessive agitation) that began its life in the very early months of our mother’s pregnancy. It is pristine and free-floating, ready to spring forth whenever we are vulnerable or our defenses are weak. No talk therapy can make a dent in it. It leaves us fragile for a lifetime so that any insult in infancy and childhood weakens us all the more. Demanding and/or aloof parents can easily compound an allergic tendency, for example.
Catherine Monk and her associates studied anxiety in pregnant mothers. (Monk, C. et al.“Effects of Women’s Stress-elicited Physiological Activity and Chronic anxiety on Fetal Heart Rate.” Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 2003. Lippincott publishers. Their conclusion was: “women’s emotion based physiological activity can affect the fetus and may be important to fetal development.” To think that there is a significant physiologic change but no later psychologic one would be to ignore the human brain.
Now as to the enduring effects of pre-birth and birth trauma. Alyx Taylor has shown that the baby’s stress response to an inoculation at eight weeks was largely determined by the “mode of delivery” of the newborn. Those who reacted the most were birthed by assisted delivery. Cesarean showed the least response. The central finding is that the stress response circuits (HPA circuit) in the brain help determine how a baby will response to future stress.
I am not going to cite any number of relevant studies but one such article is of a review if many related ones. Nicole Talge and her colleagues reviewed the data on what happens to the babies of stressed mothers. (“Antenatal Maternal Stress and Long-term effects on Child Neuro-development. How and Why.” J. of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 48:3/4 4 (2007) pp 245-261)
Nearly all studies claim an effect of the mother on the fetus. I suppose the real question is, “what can we do about it.” Years later it seems an impossible task, but it is not. Once there is an imprinted trauma during womb-life, the brain system closes down on the pain through inhibition/gating. Thereafter the effects are life-long. What we must do is go back to the originating source and undo the trauma. The way we do that is to relive the trauma and open the gates. It can be done, as I have explained elsewhere, is by reliving emotional trauma during childhood, which has at its roots the pre-birth event. When we fully relive the childhood event it incorporates the earlier trauma; each new related trauma is re-represented on higher levels. And when these later traumas are relived we see the disappearance (or reduction in the severity) of the symptom, as for example, high blood pressure. That is because the earlier trauma may only be expressed through specific physiologic reactions such as blood pressure or heart rate. To relive the physiologic responses can be enough given other variables. If we latch onto the related childhood feeling in our therapy it automatically (given deeper access) includes the earlier physiologic component of the feeling. I want to reiterate that there is a timetable of needs that must be fulfilled at that time and no other. Once the fetus has been impacted due to a high level of stress hormones that is it; the system gates it as best as it can, and no other mode of treatment except reliving can change it.
This is a change in our paradigm. It means that trauma that has life-long effects can occur during womb-life, and thereafter has profound effects on our later behavior and symptoms. How, therefore, can we possibly attack allergies, migraine and high blood pressure without an acknowledgment of the deep and remote origins of the problem? I have been writing about this for decades. The difference is that research has now caught up and begins to confirm our theory. And now we see why after one year of our therapy there is a normalization of natural killer cells; as I pointed out, these are cells on the lookout for newly forming cancer cells, and attack them. So we might say that one way to help forestall cancer is to make sure that our immune system is intact and strong.
One may rightly question how anyone can relive events in the womb with no scenes or words. Luckily, that part of the imprint is totally physiological. We don’t need verbal acknowledgment. That deep brainstem is also a very important part of our central nervous system and gives the oomph or push to a feeling. A single feeling will encompass all three levels of brain function. Again, there is no exit here except entering into the most profound of unconscious states as possible.