Sunday, June 19, 2011

How Can We Not Focus on Very Very Early Life?

I know I am in danger of drowning the fish but with all the new evidence available it seems so obvious that we must go back to those key shaping events at birth and during our womb life.

A recent study found that babies in the womb feel their mother’s anxiety as early as four months in gestation. The baby’s anxiety level rises and falls with the mother’s anxiety cycle. (This is work at the baby charity known as Tommy’s). Anxiety was measured in the mother’s blood as well as in the amniotic fluid (cortisol levels). The fetus/baby was feeling anxious, not as a cerebral event but as a biologic one. And his system is learning to be alert and vigilant; the problem is that this vigilance becomes an imprint that endures a very long time and governs his life.

The fetus is constantly adapting to its environment. When the mother’s system signals danger so does the baby’s. The difference is that the baby’s adaptation is being imprinted on a naïve and innocent system that has no other frame of reference. The mother’s anxiety eventually comes to an end, but that doesn’t mean it ends for the baby. It becomes a biologic memory where the baby is learning to be on the qui vive, always a little too alert and vigilant; hence overreacts later on to the slightest hint of danger. That original fear has burnt a memory into his brain—and becomes the imprint. It is the platform or springboard for later reactions. It makes them excessive or inadequate.

It has been found that the slightest change in the mother’s diet can affect the baby and produce a propensity for later obesity. In animal models it was found that changes in the protein input of the carrying mother significantly changed the weight gain or its lack later on. Obesity being one later result. Again, the baby is learning to adapt to its most important and only environment it knows. The problem is that the adaptation endures and the adult system is always expecting what happened in the womb—via the imprint. The adaptation continues until it becomes maladaptation. It is not a wrong reaction; it is just a reaction to an old event and not appropriate in the present. My definition of neurosis. So he sees food at age thirty and immediately has to eat. Or he sees a frown on someone’s face and immediately becomes anxious. This is known as one-trial learning and is important.

So next time your shrink offers you insight into your unconscious--beware! The only person who has direct and precise access to your history is you. If we try to understand inordinate behavior of any kind, particularly addictions we need to carefully look at life before birth. It is where trauma diminishes development of those inchoate cortical cells that suppress pain; and imprints trauma which constantly agitates us, even when one seems impassive and non-reactive. And when we have a first-line imprint you have a continuous powerful force stimulating us from within. It needs quieting with the strongest drug available because imprints on that level are nearly always life-and-death matters. So if we look into ourselves we can actually see those shaping events from our earliest months. If we are obsessive about food we can bet that mother’s diet while carrying plays a role. Or if we are easily set off with anxiety we can bet that mother carried around a bit load of anxiety herself. The baby was anxious because the mother was, and his system shouts “danger”. Perhaps for the rest of his life.

You know why I am concerned about the Anthony Weiner affair? The life of the baby being carried by his wife is at stake. Her stress level must be enormous and so will be the baby’s, as well. The problem is that his level is imprinted and a constant weight for him. He will have to take drugs just to feel comfortable. How very sad!


  1. Arthur, Please post a citation to the study you are referring to.

  2. Art, this article seems to suggest that a fetus will become permanently imprinted when it's mother gets a momentary fright. i doubt nature is that unforgiving. i would expect a normal mother and baby to be more robust than that.
    i think it's more likely that the NEUROTIC mother's CONSTANT low level anxiety is the main cause of the baby's imprint. even after the mother has calmed down, her own imprint will never allow her stress hormones to return all the way to normal. the baby's system adapts slowly to a constant overdose (or underdose if the mother is depressed etc). slowly but surely, the baby will duplicate it's mother's imprint.

    the placenta helps to regulate blood supply to the baby, so it might help a little to protect against the blood pressure effects of a sudden fright etc, but it doesn't function as a filter!!! toxins and stress hormones can flow freely from mother to baby. yikes. for this reason, i would advise all mothers to avoid the temptation to smoke "just one cigarette" or "just one glass" etc. because the fetus is something like 20 times more sensitive to toxins than the mother.

  3. Richard: It is not a momentary fright that does it; it is an overwhelming non-integrateable even that does. That makes the imprint. art

  4. yes i understand, Art. my comment was poorly written. i'm saying the baby will be imprinted even if the mother is never overtly anxious. if she was traumatised in the past, her stress hormones will be stuck at the wrong set point. she will smile with her friends, but on the inside, the delicate fetus will grow in a toxic environment. the fetus will be overwhelmed.
    but maybe we can reduce the severity of the baby's imprint. by giving the mother good advice and support, she can reduce some of those toxins.

  5. Hi Richard,

    Perhaps even better is to recognise the very high risk of gestational affect in the neonate and try not to exasperate it further with abusive and neglectful input further compounding the original 1st line problem.

    I and many others lived under the delusion that gestation and birth are not important.

    If wounds incurred in the womb/birth are denied out of hand then parents and carers are very likely to compound the problem through their childrens' childhoods. After all, we're just lumps of live meat until coerced into humanity aren't we?

    I wanted to ask Art what people are like who have gestation and/or birth trauma but subsequently received ample loving care through child-hood into adolescence; I think I've answered my own question though.

    Paul G.


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.