Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Critical Window: Why We Can't Change

If we have trouble in our emotional life we need to examine our life before birth. When the whole system is gearing up for life on the planet, gestational life has already constructed a crucible for that life outside the womb. Life in the womb is perhaps the most important time of our lives; so much of adult symptoms and behavior can be traced to that epoch. So what happens in the womb becomes a harbinger of what to expect, all on an unconscious level. So we anticipate a catastrophe, ruminate constantly about it, never realizing that the bad thing has already happened. We are actually worried about the past, not the future. If we could drop into those past feelings there would be no more worry about the future. But that past is remote, maybe occurring before we set foot on earth. No wonder it is a mystery.
I have written about the prototype, the “now print” that is engraved in the neurophysiologic system even before birth. Any severe trauma while the mother is carrying can be imprinted into his system where it may well remain for the rest of his life. Here it may change the brain circuits and cause a permanent deviation in the function of organ systems. There is less possibility of that kind of imprint occurring after birth. It is “now print” because it is setting down a prototype of heuristic (guiding) value that will direct behavior thereafter. It is memory of survival, of what worked before to save our lives. And it worked when the input stimulus may have been a life-and-death matter as so many traumas during womb-life are. This will happen despite the fact that there is no fully functioning neo-cortex to remember the scene; it happens below the level of conscious/awareness, which is why we cannot get there through the vehicle of language. Here we have a learning system that is distinct from the verbal learning/memory system that we will develop later. It is neurophysiologic memory.
The prototype folds all that surrounds a feeling/memory, compresses and instills it into a general principle that directs behavior. The principle is survival. When confronted with an obstacle, for example, “it is best to retreat,” not confront. Here is where passivity was life-saving. What the body learns is not struggling for air when the mother is anesthetized at birth, but retreating into less use of energy and oxygen—passivity. To undo that imprint, not so easily done, we need to return to the brain that registered it. We need to relive it. Why? Because the deviations of the system are built on that memory/imprint. All this has already been decided sub-cortically. She is no longer leading a conscious life. We can begin to see why adults do not make profound change even though many have undergone psychoanalytic therapy or have taken LSD or Extasy, can claim deep change. Biologically it seems that this kind of metamorphosis cannot take pace. For the imprint of pain is sealed in and cannot be opened again. It has a label, “Not to be open before feeling therapy.”

Once the window for fulfillment of need is closed, that is, when the need must be fulfilled to avoid pain, I seriously doubt that any comprehensive change can take place.
If someone says that the patient must then be offered a new ending for what he relived, or that she needs extensive insights afterward, we understand immediately that we have enlisted the aid of the adult brain and undercut what the patient has felt during the session.

We know that in reliving gestational life or the birth trauma we are succumbing to deep and long, slow-wave brain signatures, which denotes life before birth. To then appeal to the late developing new-comer, the neo-cortex, with its faster frequency wave to finish off the sequence cannot work. When we add a complex intellectual discussion to the mix we confound the work of the deep unconscious. Essentially it takes the patient into higher brain centers—the neo-cortex. The same can be said for early childhood pain where the brain that should be employed, the right feeling side, is abdicated for the left-brain explanatory, understanding one. In short, we continue to talk to the wrong brain.
A patient with a very rapid, left frontal cortical signature cannot be feeling until we bring her into the feeling zone. The frontal thinking apparatus must recede for a time. And again, language only plays a secondary role. One way we help patients into the primal/feeling zone is to offer tranquilizers to the patient for a short period of time to push down some inordinate pain from gestation or birth. The overload of pain and all levels may prevent a person from integrating one feeling at a time.

We must remember that in dealing with very early life we are mostly describing the work of the right brain. The left-brain focus will not get us there. Yet after a year of our therapy the left-brain often achieves its full force so that each side is more in equilibrium with the other—a more harmonious brain. It’s not just the brain that is in equilibrium; it is the body temperature, blood pressure and key hormones. In short, the person is in equilibrium. Except in rare cases (of perhaps genetics) no person who is in harmony should show high resting cortisol levels.
For a therapist to offer a patient an understanding of his motivation,or to propose a different ending for his feeling/ pain, negates the whole notion of the critical window. That is a time when needs can only be fulfilled; and at no other time. That is an awfully important idea. That means that corrective emotional experiences by a therapist cannot make profound change; indeed strategies by a therapist, no matter how well-meaning, can have only a limited impact. To rely on a more advanced, later-evolved brain to produce change is a vain exercise. The only way to resolve the earlier trauma is to travel back there neuro-physiologically and resolve on that level. Once the critical window is over with/closed, nothing can reopen it but feeling.


  1. interesting to note Arthur that the famous psychiatrist RD Laing wrote a book called 'The Facts of Life' in which he has a chapter called 'Life Before Birth' - a mixture of speculations, poems which you may or may not have read. An extract from one of Laing's poems (p.54 Penguin 1977):

    Many people feel they have never been born
    Others feel they have never been implanted
    Others are just implanted, unreconciled, pining, mourning,
    Crying for the moon, the ghost of themselves as blastula
    Before burial in the Womb.

  2. Will Ronnie was a so-called friend of mine. He went to the bookstore and read two chapters of my book, never bought it, and then came out with a new theory about implantation. He was irresponsible. He once wrote in one of his books that I was his mentor. Not a distinction I would have wanted. He was looking for a way to go me one better and concocted his idea out of thin air. dr. janov

  3. Eddy:Yes. science and our therapeutic experience moves us earlier. It is not a caprice but the result of our burgeoning experience. dr. janov


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.