Sunday, March 29, 2009

Oxytocin (Part 3/5)

Bonding is the most positive aspect of human relationships. We learn how to bond emotionally in adulthood through early bonding in childhood, as simplistic as that sounds. It cannot be taught! And it certainly cannot be taught in later life. Attachment is pretty well set in our childhood. It is not something we learn; it is something we feel. It is also something biochemical. Those who did not bond very early on with their parents may well be condemned to a lifetime of broken, fragile, tenuous relationships. It may be in large part due to deficits in the hormonal wherewithal such as oxytocin. Oxytocin researcher and National Institute of Mental Health scientist, Thomas Insel has remarked that, "Many of the affectional ties to the mother observed post-natally (after birth) could be laid down by pre-natal experience." Life in the womb may determine life outside the womb for decades to come. It is a continuum, not two separate unrelated events. If the early relationship with one’s parents was distant, alienated and glacial, it may be a harbinger of the love relationships we have or don't have later in life. The earlier the alienation from one's parents, the more trouble there may be in relationships later on. I have seen it in hundreds of my patients. It approaches a biologic law – if my sampling of our patients is any index.

In certain mountain rodents such as the mountain vole, a species that lives an isolated life (as differentiated from the prairie vole, which is more social), a shot of oxytocin proved to encourage bonding and pairing between voles. After repeated injections there was a long-acting anti-stress effect, which calmed overall behavior and gave rise to a strong tendency to bond. This again indicates that early love supports calmness and serenity. Those humans who are able to bond with others have high levels of oxytocin. Love seems to be the ultimate painkiller and a permanent one. It prepares us for the challenges of life and is the ultimate survival tool.

All of our hormones are sensitive to the environment; when it is hostile and dangerous the system “ withdraws” or retracts, and that includes the levels of oxytocin. A mother giving birth who is under stress and great pain will have less oxytocin; (one reason why when it is injected it aids in childbirth). We have to assume that a mother who is chronically stressed while carrying will result in less oxytocin in her offspring. It seems to work in see-saw fashion, more adrenaline (stress—provoking the flight or fight response) less oxytocin.

That means that during childhood when love is offered by our parents, and still later by lovers, we cannot feel it. Repression has blocked our ability to receive input, even if that input is love. Repression, in short, has predated later love by a parent and blocked its input. Repression, therefore, can set up before birth when a chronically anxious mother has induced her fear into the baby and adversely affected oxytocin. And then we wonder why our baby is so fidgety and cannot be hugged.

There is enough evidence to show that a newborn's heart rate, body temperature, and respiration rate are governed by the mother; when she is loving and nurturing towards the baby she carries, there is a positive affect on the baby and the set-points of heart rate and blood pressure become normal. Any neglect she inflicts changes the biochemistry of the baby, perhaps permanently. Her anxiety and depression during pregnancy may very well alter the offspring's sex hormone levels. We know, for example, that anxiety in the mother can and does alter the sex hormone level of the fetus and can feminize infant males. So what we see is that once a male is feminized he is vulnerable, more vulnerable to a lack of love during infancy and childhood. He may become homosexual as a result of a cold, distant father, while the one who is not vulnerable will remain heterosexual. We need to understand that at certain levels of vulnerability, stress, trauma or pain can produce an overload and channel them into a symptom. In this sense, homosexuality could be considered a symptom, in the sense that there is a latent tendency, a feminizing, which only becomes overt homosexual behavior due to trauma; i.e., the lack of a father’s love. If the father’s love is there, it may remain a latent tendency.

The female prairie vole, when treated soon after birth with steroid/stress hormones, showed an increase in masculine behavior, such as mounting. Most of us don't have to be injected with stress hormones; stress in the womb and just after birth accomplish the same thing, and may indeed masculinize females. It seems like whatever happens in the womb has a lifetime of consequences; whereas events after birth seem to provoke compensating mechanisms that vitiate its effects. Thus drugs given to a pregnant mother has an enduring effect on the offspring, while drugs given to an infant may not reset the set-points. The earlier this happens the more enduring the imprint and its physiologic effects.

Although we may think that an injection is something special, the same chemical process takes place naturally. We can inject oxytocin, or we can massage the animal, and increase oxytocin levels that way. We can create stress for a pregnant woman, or inject her with steroids – the psychological effect is precisely the same as from a needle. A mother can be kind and loving and raise the serotonin levels in her offspring so that he can better handle adversity or a doctor can inject serotonin into the offspring and produce a temporary calming effect that is no different than that created by a loving look from the mother. A mother can "inject" oxytocin into her baby through her milk, which contains high levels of the hormone. Love, or what looks like it, can be injected. When "injected" naturally and at the proper time it will produce a loving human being.

A therapist can ask us, "Were you loved?," and we may insist, "Absolutely," yet we are betrayed by our oxytocin levels, which are far too low, and by our stress hormone levels, which are far too high, and also by our hormone levels which may be quite deviated. They speak too. The body and its physiology do not lie. Indeed, we may have been loved after birth, but suffered severe traumas in the womb of which we remain completely unaware.

To be continued next week...


  1. One thing that interests me Dr Janov (and I can't recall reading about it in your books books from the 70's and 80's) is the effects of shame. It could be argued that the opposite of love is not hate but shame. Parents who don't love us usually shame us. They make us inner directed, self absorbed and negative about ourselves in each and every situation. (global shame).
    In a previous post you wrote of the dangers of injecting chemicals after the horse has bolted. Therefore, a shot of oxytocin is hardly going to restore harmony if ones biochemistry is already screwed up by neglect and pain.
    People of course use alcohol to counter shame and inhibition but it is of course only a quick fix. I imagine your patients who come through therapy are able to work through a lot of shame issues but is shame curable in the same way pain is? Indeed, one of the reasons people don't connect with their right brains (to connect with your other article) is that they are too anxious in warding off shame feelings.

  2. Love and shame and right brain:

    my view at present is that shame relates to competition. In other words we feel it when our actions betray competitive disadvantage. Shaming by parents (belittling, neglect) all serves to make us feel small and undermines our sense of fitness. From this we feel pain. Now Oxytocin in this context is clearly not flowing in the bloodstream. And the pain that accompanies a sense of shame (which is possibly a form of emotional submission to the other whose competitive self-esteem is at the 'loser's' expense) will serve to ward us away from the right brain/our emotions.
    I think that without oxytocin/love we tend to define ourselves more through competion alone. Unconditional love tells us that no matter if we win or lose we are loved for who we are. But without love the message is the opposite - you have to be worthy of love. In order to feel loved and secured people will limit their consciousness or edit their experience in order to feel most powerful and therefore competitive or, in evolutionary terms, fit. So the unathletic man who can't compete on the sports field may devote himself to intellectual pursuit and excel in that field. But the cost of this will be left brain confinement. Even with an oxytocin injection he may not wish to admit emotions that jeopardize a self-identity that has emerged to protect him from feeling weak or sexually less potent.
    So in the same way an oxytocin injection cannot help us once the horse has bolted maybe right brain engagement is not possible until we accept that our individual well-being is more important the illusion we have created to bolster our egos. But the transition from the latter to the former is no easy one as it requires teasing apart very basic and fundamental drives in order for us to understand why we remain in pain and why health and joy eludes us.
    (as a student i am trying to integrate some of Dr Janov's ideas with evolutionary psychology and this is one attempt)

  3. Ah, bonding... I wonder how it feels like.

    I'm a 27 year old virgin (yes, you read that 
    right). If I was asked to describe my life in 
    one word, it would be "loneliness".

    Will, I don't know how to comment on the "shame" 
    thing, except to say that shaming by parents can
    only make things worse. But the initial 
    setpoints of oxytocin and other hormones that 
    help us bond are laid down very early in life,
    in utero and at birth and right after birth if I
    understand correctly. So, like you say, "So in the same way an oxytocin injection cannot help us once the horse has bolted".

    Also, are you still studying in Helsinki? This
    Finnish person wants to know, it would be 
    interesting to meet sometime.

  4. Hello Will,

    I think you might be in for a hard time integrating primal theory with evolutionary psychology - that is, on a detailed level.

    Not to discredit the validity of what you have thus far said, be what it may, but I think you're dealing with complexities that can only lead to somewhat vague speculations of which cannot be proven/disproven. I wouldn't get too carried away with any of those ideas, because as I said they can really only be ideas.

    But anyway, here's sone of my own thoughts (ideas!) relating to what you've said:

    I think desperate societies tend to create hyper-pressure on group members to be a certain way, if they need people to be a certain way for the practical need for survival. (and the removal of unconditional love from parents exaggerates the power of social pressures via potent emotional vulnerabilites, of course). For example, if great physical skill is required within a given society for the sake of the survival of the group, than physical skill will be "the measure of the man" and an individual will be pressured to base their esteem and identity on it by the rest of the "tribe". I think more secure societies don't have to (nor do) put so much survival-pressure on people and can likewise let "creative idiosyncratic growth" become more manifest, and offer less inadequacy labelling for people who do not aggressively conform to the going "evaluation criteria".

    -And to say, I believe our education systems do their best to humiliate and judge people on their ability to reduce [or not] themselves to what's best for Henry Ford's production lines, if you get my drift. Exploitive interests which have their fingers on government still try to play this game if they can get away with it, regardles of how rational it may or may not be in principle.

    And also to add, I believe that the threat of humiliation is one of the most powerful controlling forces in societies in general. I agree with you that there's something to be said for having a special focus in this area - it's very relevant I believe.

  5. Hi,

    Do you think that hormones are central to the gating system of the brain? You say that they are sensitive to the environment - that must be for an (evolved adaptive) reason. I don't think hormones are sensitive by accident. Likewise, the environment must impact what we can and cannot feel from within that environment, and that must also relate to our capacity to 'primal' and to do other things as well, like want to have children [for "natural" reasons].

    I know it's obvious from our personal experiences that the environment affects not just how we feel but what we even *can* feel at the time, but again do you see hormones as key to the gating or "switching" systems of the brain, of which open-up or close-off the consciousness to different "inputs"?

    Maybe there's a great evolved intelligence behind our hormonal system, with respect to its environmental responsiveness (i.e. not just an internal regulator for biological health)? If so, then artifically affecting hormones could understandably do as much far-reaching damage as good. And that would again show us the importance of getting to the root of problems, rather than blaming "chemical imbalances" of which might only be accurate (and even desirable) representations of *environmental* imbalances. (including historic environments of course, as represented in neurosis).

  6. Hi Antti, I am a student at Helsinki Uni combining American lit. and psychology. (check the other oxytocin 2/5 blog page for my email address).
    For me shame is a really interesting one. Having recently read through Primal Revolution I am thinking that Dr Janov would consider it a secondary emotion activated through pain or hurt.
    The idea of what is primary and secondary is fascinating in the context of primal theory. And i think that Dr Janov's brilliant distinction between the two in Primal Revolution is ahead of its time - having recently taken a philosophy of emotions emotions like pride are still assumed to be primary! (and not secondary or even tertiary emotional states). Unfortunately, (or even tragically) Dr Janov's ideas are not on the syllabus. (Even though my teacher gave me a top grade for a paper in which i heavily cited Dr Janov - progress?)
    Certainly this blog page is no place for semantics but I think shame is an under acknowledged emotion that very publically signals our pain. In this sense it is clearly an intentional social emotion. The question is, what purpose does this emotion serve when one considers that most neurosis is essentially about splitting from our pain and therefore burying it away from the world AND ourselves. This emotion really interests me and in the context of primal therapy I'd be fascinated to know whether shame is treatable. (an anti-shame injection would be as useful as a love injection i think.)

  7. Andy: good observation. dr janov.

  8. Andy: another very intelligent answer. Dr. Janov

  9. Will. I cannot relate to shame because I have rarely if ever seen it. dr. janov. It is not a primary feeling.

  10. Hi Will

    When Dr. Janov mentioned that he can't relate to 'shame' it made me realise that I was not thinking of 'shame' when I read your posts. I was thinking of 'fear of rejection'.

    I guess 'shame' is a feeling of self-hate. Is it really possible for a person to love or hate himself? I don't think so. Those are feelings that can only be recieved from, or given to another person.

    If you change the word 'shame' to 'fear of rejection' or 'fear of failure' or just plain old 'fear'...then it all starts to make more sense to me.

    I knew one guy who seemed to hate himself...he would punch himself in the head. I discovered he hated his 'brain' for making him dumb. In other words, he was separating his brain from himself.

  11. Fascinating TV documentary on early bonding and attachment available to view online until April 8th. (You need Adobe flash for this). Follows mum who was rejected by both her parents as she tries to bond with her own twins. Well worth a look. Just click play.

  12. I have always had very strong heterosexual emotional and physical passions and yet also have strong homosexual desires about which I have never been confortable, in fact I feel ashamed of them. This causes me great anxiety that has only got worse as I have got older. My mother is a very anxious person and my father is a weird, reclusive and distant person. Maybe I'll give primal therapy a go. I don't suppose you can purchase oxytocin? I am a 53 yo journalist/editor in Australia.

  13. Hello dw I believe you can purchase oxytocin in spray form but it only gives temporary relief. Much better to normalize all of your hormones through therapy and have a decent life. Don't you think/? dr. janov

  14. It may well be that people who are preternaturally content, seemingly at peace with themselves and the world, were introduced to “a friendly universe” through proper nurturing as infants. Their early experiences became the foundation for their life.
    Gerard Pantin ( founder of Service Volunteered for All - SERVOL), noted in his speech how the Yequana Indians of Brazil make sure that their babies are in physical contact with the skin of another human being 24 hours a day for the first two years. “These children grow up without the emptiness that modern people spend lives trying to heal or cope with.
    On the other hand,the results of less desirable childhood beginnings are also obvious. If a child suffers a traumatic birth, and/or their parents abuse their natural trust, that individual may grow up extrapolating their experience to the whole of existence, always suspecting the worst and failing to trust in others.

    Most of the child's belief systems and emotional responses are conditioned in the age of 3-5 years. Dr.Janov, is there an age at which the oxytocin levels get fixed ... how about the alterations in adolescence and early adulthood experiences, do strong positive love emotions have the power to move such a setpoint ?

    - Stephen Antony

  15. Stephen: Don't know about the age of oxytocin but it is all pretty well set by the age of three. art janov. Much more on this in my book Life Before Birth.


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.