Tuesday, May 3, 2011

How Our Experience Make Us Into Who We Are

So far I have made a case for the long-term effects of early experience. Let’s see now exactly what happens to make us into who we are.

We know that experience while in the womb, just after birth and early infancy are usually registered down low in the neuraxis. As I already mentioned, we know too that those experiences send their antennae higher in the brain system to inform the higher levels of their existence; first to the emotional/limbic brain for adding feeling content, and then higher up and forward to provide ideas, beliefs and thoughts about the experience. It isn’t just biochemical information that is re-represented on higher levels; the energy, valence and urgency of the imprint is also represented. That is why with even a small banal input there can be over-the-top reactions. That urgency is always there and makes a small criticism seem like a matter of life and death. On the lower level it probably was a matter of life and death; and now it hovers just below conscious/awareness waiting to be triggered off again. This is especially true of those who have leaky gates. What happens in the present isn’t just what happens now but resonates with what happened back then. In the brain they are connected, and in current behavior they are again connected. They slop over each other and make reactions inordinate. I say, “you didn’t do this right,” and your brain says you “I am going to die.” Intervening is “I am wrong. I am bad. I am not good and unloved, and if I am not loved I will die.” This is the second line reaction to the event, which then triggers off the first line: “something terrible is happening and I am in danger.” When there are leaky gates the resonance reaches down quickly through the levels of consciousness down to the first line in microseconds.

Each level takes on a specific role in a feeling; the lowest level adds the oomph, the energy, the immediate reaction; the limbic area adds emotion or feeling, and the cortical level adds understanding and awareness. All make up a complete feeling. It is when we become intellectuals that we may lose part of the feeling component. We become too heavily weighted on the cortical level.

With all three levels we become whole, organic and integrated. We have access to our instincts, feelings and ideas. So as we evolve we drag our memories along with us; each new level of consciousness brings a new dimension to the experience. We can then experience aspects of the experience on three different levels. And that is what a feeling is: an experience on all three levels. It is never enough to explain or discuss our feelings; we must, first of all, feel them. If a level is left out it is not a complete feeling.

On the most primitive level, say, a father and carrying mother bitterly arguing and deciding to separate there is a great impact on the fetus, so much so that the offspring stands a much greater likelihood of become homosexual early in his life. What makes that happen, however, is that the experience alone might not make it all overt if there were not an absent father and tyrannical mother (as one of many different family configurations). This frame of reference shapes how the affliction will evolve. It channels the underlying trauma and makes it manifest in a certain direction.

Not every child with divorcing parents during pregnancy becomes homosexual. But there is the groundwork already in place; the soil to allow a deviation to occur. It is not a one-to-one relationship but as research shows that configuration alone goes a long way to create homosexuality.

In the same way that many of us undergo trauma while we were being carried but not all of us become hysterics, uncontrolled individuals with heavy impulsiveness and chronic anxiety. This will happen when there is compounded trauma from womb-life and soon after that weakens the gating system. The person then is awash in pain and will need heavy drugs to suppress it; an addict. Someone with the same kind of experience but without too much compounding may have a gating system that works so that drugs are not needed. So clearly, it is rarely one bad experience that shapes us (incest being one major exception); it is compounding that is to blame. The compounding may take place on a genetic vulnerability or previous deleterious experiences that render us weaker. A family history of migraines will force the memory to act on the circulating blood system to produce severe headaches. A carrying mother who did drugs may produce a child who “needs” drugs for his anguish. He is not consciously anguished at first; there is an insufficient cortex for that, but he will be unable to sit still in class or concentrate on his studies. This is how the imprint will be manifest on a lower level. He will be consciously anguished as he grows up. It may be that someone whose mother did drugs while pregnant will abhor them because they disoriented him completely at the beginning. It has so many facets; but we need to focus on generating sources, originating causes that help explain who we are.

This business of informing the higher levels of what lies below means that the higher level will be deviated/react accordingly. Thus, take again the arguing parents, the low-level anxiety in the offspring will move first to the feeling centers producing very bad dreams and effects on one’s emotions, while the newly-informed neo-cortex will provide the insight and explanation for it. And the first-line imprint will cause the cortex to think differently about things; not to see what may be obvious to anyone else—that their child is seriously damaged emotionally. Or as the imprinted memory moves higher it interrupts our train of thought and can cause it to be unable to focus on a task.

What I want to explore now is what happens when the imprint militates to higher levels and how it produces the kind of behavior and symptoms we know too well.

I have discussed in my other works the notion of the “trauma train.” This is the train of events from the time the mother is ready to give birth until she actually does. How the train ends its journey is stamped in and becomes our prototype; it is how we will react in the face of emergencies. The prototype, by and large, is governed by two nervous systems—the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The first is the system of aggressive, of rapid reactivity and drive, while the second, the parasympath, is the system of rest and repose. It is the system of reflection and passivity. Normally, we all have a good balance of those two systems but they are skewed by early experience into one side or the other. The parasympath is the system of low blood pressure, low body temperature and slow heart rate. The sympath is just the opposite. The way we are born has a “cut-print” aspect to it and governs our later behavior. The parasympathetic system was the original “freeze” response that foretells the lack of spontaneity and expressiveness. This cut-print is shaped already by the earliest months of womb-life that provide a channel for our behavior. Thus, a smoking mother may make the newborn overreact to the anesthetic given to her. Or it will make a newborn who has been constantly drugged by a tranquilize-taking mother to be all the more passive as a lifestyle. He is already vulnerable to lack of oxygen, for example. But the ramifications are widespread. Obviously, it cannot simply be a birth trauma that accounts for so much later behavior, when that trauma may sit on nine months of previous deleterious events, and those experiences also shape how the birth trauma is experienced.

The trauma train that ends with the newborn stuck and unable to get out easily may imprint a “struggle-fail” syndrome into the offspring. Try hard and then give up too quickly. Here the mother may be given heavy anesthetic that in effect paralyzes the baby and stops so much of his efforts. And how quickly that happens can determine how quickly one gives up and stops trying later in life. The struggle and succeed can inculcate someone who learns to struggle for everything she gets; struggle becomes the watchword for her life. She becomes ambitious wanting to “get ahead,” and does not let obstacles get in her way. She drives and struggles when she shouldn’t. She takes on too much and works under great pressure.

And there are of course those who have to have pressure to function. They learn to wait until the pressure is on them and then they whip into activity. Such things as waiting until the waiter is there before ordering in a café. Or not getting the class assignment in on time; waiting till the last possible moment and then make a move. They have to feel the pressure…. Back then.


  1. Art

    It is incredible that this is so difficult to “understand” when there exist no alternative.


  2. Hi,

    Thanks very much for this. Yesterday I completed another carpentry contract to make an oak framed greenhouse.

    All through the project (as with others before) I noticed how hard it is to get down to work, because I'm so bloody depressed in the mornings and stuck in email/ light box mode, trying to get more work lined up. Then a point comes where my brain chemistry changes and I'm off like a rocket.

    Later still, I'm panicking, huffing and puffing to get the job done, at 7pm I'm packing up the tools awash with adrenalin, feeling like a mix of life and death, wondering if I'll ever make it "home".

    Art, your Primal Theory is the only theory that has explained where my problems come from, why they are so ineradicable and how (best of all), HOW I could get cured. Thanks.

    Paul G.

  3. Dr. Janov,

    It is scary to read your life’s failure presented in such explainable and connective way. Not knowing why so many struggles were not initiated by one’s own action, rather by a mothers destructive lifestyle… All I can do as a the textbook-parasympath is get very angry and ask why the damned bitch had o have 6 children (4 survived) who still suffer today.

    Incest and beatings created the second and third layer of my trauma.

    What I never had was late for assignments, as long as I had absolute silence to work and concentrate. (Noise and pressure, is to me one of the main factors that can push me quickly into depression.)

    Every therapist or psychiatrist, who knows about the full story of my childhood, is absolutely astounded about my resilience.
    I believe it is due to the fact that I had to birth myself (I didn't wont to die in the womb) after my mother was for 76 hours in labor. Maybe also that I survived in spite of forceps and the umbilical cord around my neck. (I was born purple)


  4. Hi,

    I have read a number of your blog articles looking for concrete practices to remedy source experiences, but, the articles I have read so far seem to center on amplifying pain and anger to create a audible and physical release as if these releases are sufficient to heal a source experience.

    Can you direct me to specific texts that describe how to heal the wounding after re-experience.

    I am also looking for texts that discuss how 'triggering' old trauma can fill the blood stream with endorphins and other chemicals making the practice addictive which may tend to keep many practitioners seeking or creating old pain out of minor issues causing false amplification of minor pain into major activity purely to receive the chemical bath.

    All pain is not experienced as maximum pain or anger because is not an all or nothing physiological response but a spectrum of activation of the neurological (and other) system(s).

    Please direct me toward these texts in your materials.

    F. Romesburg (degrees from UC Berkeley)

  5. I'm somewhat concerned Art: Are you OK? Many days/weeks since seeing some comments. I gather you will be back from Italy at the end of May. Jack

  6. Art,

    I would like to hear how you are doing

    Yours Frank

  7. F.Romesburg: First try Primal Healing, the The Biology of Love, then Life Before Birth. AJ

  8. JAck: I am still waiting for the 2-3 months to pass to see if the stem cells grow. I have sending material all along. I am not sure why they are posted, including a piece I wrote on The General Field Theory which you alluded to some time ago. art

  9. F. Romesburg, the idea is not to generate pain but to gain proper access to it

  10. Great Art,

    I have just read that new post on Unified Field Theory. for me, your greatest yet. Jack

  11. Frank: thanks for asking. no change yet. I have to wait another month or two to see if the stem cells grow. I rather doubt it but we will see. art


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.