Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Shocking the Brain: Electroshock Therapy

Last week a sixty-year-old woman came to us from a small town in England. She was severely depressed. What does depression feel like, Numb, Not getting anything out of life. Despair, She was depressed like that twenty years ago. She had no idea what brought it back.

As she started her three weeks of therapy we had the big Los Angeles earthquake (January 1994) and her bed and she shook uncontrollable. That event reawakened something that changed all the rules of the game. She stopped crying and reported the following relentless symptoms: a constant hissing sound in her ears, night and day; numbness in the face, a feeling of electricity all over her body (she shook and jerked all the time), a complete feeling of discomfort.

Her session changed complexion. She lost her motor control in her legs and in the session when she tried to stand up she started to collapse. There were no words to her agony, she felt disconnected and had no idea what was going on in her. She began flopping uncontrollably exactly like the triggering event of the earthquake. She was reliving electroshock therapy she had undergone twenty times some twenty years before.

When we pressed on her temples (where the original electrodes were placed) she arched back and flopped and jerked exactly as though she were again undergoing shock thereapy. She relived pieces of the experience each session for weeks, and had to do so before she could get to the feelings that had lay behind her depression; the very feelings that had led doctors to shock her in the first place. Sometimes when I put my fingers on her temples the right side of her face went numb, something that no doubt occurred originally. When a pencil was put in her mouth at the appropriate time she clamped down on it as hard as one could imagine, her face grimaced in agony, and she was back there in shock again reliving the time they put cotton or a rubber device in her mouth to keep her from biting her tongue or breaking her teeth during the experience.

So what's the first lesson about this?; a lesson very important since electroshock is making a comeback particularly with children, believe it or not---what goes in must come out. The electroshock is like any shock, a trauma, a trauma that must be relieved in its entirety. What does the shock do? It does what any shock does; raises the level of serotonin, the inhibitory brain chemical which enhances repression. It therefore does what any state of souped-up repression. It therefore does what any state of souped-up repression does; it renders the person ahistoric, bereft of emotional memory for days, weeks, and sometimes forever. Again we see that it is the overall charge value of an electrical impulse that produces an overload and shutdown.

Electroshock is a neutral electrical stimulus but it has the same effect as a ten year old seeing his mother killed in a car crash. They both add up to an overload, increased serotonin to meet the overwhelming input and finally, shutdown. The memory is blotted out and unconsciousness sets in. In electroshock it is global unconsciousness. In the accident it is the same; the situation is blotted out, and above all, the meaning of the situation is hidden away, I'll never have a mommy again in my life. There will be no one to protect and take care of me. What matters in both cases is the level of electrical charge of the stimulus. The content is simply the vehicle for the power of the incident. As we see in electroshock, there need be no content whatsoever.

After a time of reliving the shock we will be able to get to the traumas below. So long as that event is superimposed on childhood pain it will take precedence in the primal reliving sequence. It's charge value is such as to blot out almost anything else. Interestingly, as she relived more and more of the shock therapy she began covering her head and hearing the bombs over London during the blitz in World War II. After that, we expect her to begin to relive traumas even earlier, finally arriving down deep to the imprints that caused the depression that originally precipitated the necessity for ECT.

We systematically measure the vital functions, heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure, before and after each session. This woman came in with consistently high vital signs, body temp of over one hundred every day. They would drop only moderately, which is as it should be since the event could only be felt a small piece at a time; therefore, we would not expect major drops after any single session. We would expect major drops toward the end of the feeling, some weeks or months later when the full charge value of the twenty shocks had been experienced and integrated. Along with this moderate drop was the picture of a disconnected, fragmented human being. She had no idea what she was undergoing, had no idea why her body was shaking or why her face went numb, had no insights and seemed blank. In short, the whole shock experience was still on its way to consciousness, disrupting it, blotting out memory and preventing deep access; after all, that was the point of the shock, in the first place; to prevent deep internal access to one's pain. It would seem that her face went numb in the original experience because during the Primal when I tapped strongly on her right cheek she reported feeling only pressure but no pain.

Again, we are not going to expect a connected lucidity until a major portion of the electroshock therapy is relived. Then automatically, it will all fall into place and no one will have to offer her any understanding or insights. It is no different than a child reliving losing her mother early on. The catastrophic meaning of it will be lost until months into Primal Therapy when the whole event with its painful meaning will finally be fully experienced. The original event blasted third-line coherence just so the whole meaning would no longer be apparent. It fragmented through patterns, cut short attention span and ruined the ability to concentrate. The shock was doing what it was supposed to do; reducing the coherence of the third-line. If a shocking trauma did not do this and the person were to feel the shock in a focused way in its entirety the level or reactivity such as blood pressure and heart rate could be lethal. Thus, a fragmented response is necessary, and that has implications for things such as poor physical coordination. To be fragmented means not to have your body, not to be connected.

The original doctors, either through belief, lack of time or technique did not bother to talk to her about the possible causes of her depression. All they knew was that she was crying all of time. They did not seem to understand that childhood pain lay below the surface, and they did not make an effort, therefore, to penetrate deep down to see what was bothering her. When that happens there seems to be no alternative but to shock someone's brains. The problem is that afterward she carried around that shock inside her just as if she had the shock at ten of watching her mother die in an auto accident.

The need for shock often happens when ordinary pills aren't adequate. That is, when the underlying pain is so great that simple medication won't suppress it. Then the big guns of electroshock are called in to blast the pain and memory and history out of existence. In a society where results are paramount, shock offers a quick fix. One can see it, the patient attests to its benefits and everyone seems happy. Meanwhile, churning below the surface is that very shock, doing its damage by stealth. The aim in conventional therapy is to get people productive again; back to the factory, the office and the computer. Part of the person is back at work; she has the emotional her back at the shock room in the hospital. So she is now a productive member of society, a robot in the service of results; eviscerated, devitalized, desensitized, hollow and dehumanized at work churning out product while her real feelings grind away in the deep unconscious. She can work but she can't love.

The effects of electroshock therapy are monstrous and unnecessary. We must talk to the patient, allow her to feel. Be concerned and realize that there is a history in human beings that must be addressed.


  1. I went through this 41 years ago, when I was 27 years old. I feel that ECT gave me PTSD! I am 68 years old and I can still count backwards from 15 and relive the ECT. I hate it and I'd like to be rid of it! I was victimized because I was in a terrible marriage to an alcoholic and I was depressed. I was not diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder until I was 55! I went through a form of Primal therapy when I was in my 30's, in Newport Beach CA. Noone ever thought I was Bipolar until my daughter talked to my psychiatrist and she tried me on Lithium. First day of it was the first day I felt normal in my entire life. I am DOING WELL now, but I still resent the ECT I had and would like to toss it in the trash pile with everything else. I live in Santa Fe NM, USA and I am now a writer. Am doing a book about being Bipolar, among other books I'm doing.

  2. Hello. ECT is a bitch. It is used because therapists don't know how to go deep into the brains of patients. So shock does what good therapy should do--attack deeper layers of consciousness. I have seen it relived and resolved several times in those who have had ECT. art janov

  3. My ECT and ICT(Insulin Coma THerapy) were done concurrently over 34 years ago and I still suffer from ill from that horrid experience. I have gotten more benefit from Dr. Janov's books than I ever did from that sad event. My psychiatrist convinced my parents it was the only option-how unfortunate.

  4. blyssbeast: What is done in the name of mental health boggles the mind. The greatest affliction against neurosis is the treatment for it. art janov

  5. i was given est at a very prominent hospital and i was 18 years old or 19. i signed papers i did not know. my parents were unaware. this was in 1990? this lasted only 2 - 4 weeks daily as faras i can recall. i only caught on to the fact i was receiving this treatment becasue of the unit i was on. i knew other patiens were receiving it, and that i was being given the same drugs, and also insulin drip i wake up with unaware sometimes. something, and i did not know why. i felt really bad for everyone else who whas qhite a bit older then me. it finally dawned on me that i was also undert his treatement and i did not know why. i have suffered many problems ever since. also i went back within ten years to the hospital to get my records and those treatmennts were not in my records. however there aws a dispute, meaning my parents had tp get my outside doctor to look into why i was in this place for so long, and he threatended to sue them and i was not abe to see my parents for long periods of time. the outside doctor got me out immediately. i do recall aftetr that hereading that this kind fo therapy was not a protocal anymore. and many people much older than i were complaining aout symptoms that i was already experiencing. symptoms i never had. i was emotionally troubled at best. now i at the mid age of life at i am barely alive i feel but i still hold on to hope. i am angry sometimes. i have many skills, and problems intermittanly. this is the worst part of it.but i still believe in Love. to never give up. i did not make my brain. it grows to God and wotever happened to it, it restats all the time like the earth and everything we see. it is scary, i dont care.

  6. thredd: ay ay ay. all those promises from weekend therapists with no training and no scientific background. art janov

  7. Greetings from Ireland where ECT was to be used on an abused child age 8 to burn out all memories of abuse and return him to his abuser- because of the draconian laws.


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.