Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Imprint and the Development of the Self

 One of my patients had parents who tried to stop him from doing anything.  From the start they didn’t want to be bothered with him, and they told him to sit in his chair, not move and not talk.  This was on top of a birth that was blocked and resulted in great difficulty for him to get out.  These two traumatic experiences during the critical period of development combined to make him unstoppable once he got out of control.  He became furious if anyone put an obstacle in his way.  If he was put on hold on the phone, or if in an office he was told to wait while they went to look up his file, he became enraged.

 He did not know it, but he was reacting to events that had occurred long ago.  To be stopped originally meant death; if he could not get out at birth he would have died.  He had to force his way out, and when later faced with obstacles he became overly aggressive.  He was fighting during birth and later, parents who never let him have his way.  His only solution to problems was to charge ahead, never knowing when to back off.

 Another patient had very different key personality-shaping events during the critical period.  His mother was heavily anesthetized during childbirth.  The anesthetic entered his system, depriving him of oxygen.  In order to survive, he had to conserve energy and not use too much oxygen.  In other words, to save himself his system slowed down to a passive, waiting state, a physiology of defeat and despair, as there was nothing he could do about what was happening (the anesthesia). This was later compounded by his childhood treatment by his parents, who never let him express his feelings or object to anything.  There was no use in battling at birth, and later no use in struggling for anything with his parents, which would have only made them more dismissive and unresponsive.

 In both cases, he was dominated by outside forces over which he had no control, and he had no choice but to give in and give up.  Passivity was the appropriate, and in fact life-saving, reaction.  And from then on, when faced with even minor obstacles, he would give up, as he did originally and later with his parents.  In effect, he would go into a “defeat” mode again and again, just as he had from the start; which was only later labeled depression.

 Both patients are victims of events, as many of us are.  Early experiences, during the critical first three years of life, largely give shape to our personality and our health.  The Catholic Church used to say, "Give me a child ‘til age six and he will be a Catholic forever."  It turns out that all they need is the first three years.  This is almost the end of the critical period when we become pretty much what we will be for the rest of our lives.  Here is where we become either optimistic or pessimistic, concentrated/dispersed, active/reflective, trying/giving up, reaching out/reaching in, overcoming obstacles/overwhelmed by obstacles, looking ahead/ looking back, goal oriented/floundering, aggressive/passive.  Because we are largely feeling beings during these critical years, without the + powers that come later, the core of the self is largely shaped through the warp and weft of pre-verbal and non-verbal processes.  Moreover, what diseases befall us also begin here.

 The concept of the imprint has been central to my work for several decades. When early trauma during the critical period of development is great, it becomes an imprint — a permanent state.  The suffering component – the part that cannot be integrated because it is too much to bear – is sheared off and stored.  This is the imprint, and it takes on a life of its own in our nervous systems.  It becomes an alien force, not truly a part of us, detached yet seeking ways of entry to conscious-awareness.  In depression, there is a state of chronic suffering because the person cannot translate vague, global suffering into its specific imprinted pain.  So it is that alien force that shapes our thoughts and behavior.  Some people literally perceive “alien forces” in the world; these are no more than their own terror, projected externally.


  1. I can see a bit of me in both these patients. I think that sometimes I am a fighter who does not know when to back off though at the moment I am feeling rather defeated by life. I know I must have had a tough birth being a breech and my Mother told me a few years ago that she had to control me which was a euphasmism for beating the crap out of me whilst my Father was more subtle in his control and this does not even touch on other abuse. I think that when i went to college I met some good friends who had a great influence on my development. I became more confident and sociable. However this was quite obviously built on shakey ground. I think I built a shell around a hurt core. I think that now I am more in touch with the real me who is hurt. Therefore the more outgoing sociable me is sometimes replaced with a more withdrawn and unconfident self. It is very confusing and distressing to be frank and hard to handle at times. I suspect this is the therapy working it's way down. I am obviously approaching a traumatic event in a more connected way.

    1. Planespotter: So there are two yous? art

    2. Hi planespotter,
      I also seem to swing between 'hope' and 'despair'.

      IE: Between striving to succeed and giving up in exhaustion. Surely this 'bi-polar' condition reflects the two modes sympath and parasympath?

      I assume that when the dual nature of the imprint remains unconscious (ie: unfelt) then one either appears to be a split personality or feels oneself to be or both. As re-living deepens the illusion of a split personality disappears (perhaps after emerging even more dramatically at first). Connection heals the split.

      Perhaps what we call free will is what we have when we can eventually choose to strive and then choose to rest; rather than finding oneself charging around manically to get things done followed by giving up in despair and exhaustion.

      I dunno, I'm not a Primal Therapist but I do read Arts books and posts and my life is uncannily similar to reports of ex primal patients.

      Paul G.

    3. Hi Art

      No not at all! Crikey!

      What I meant is that sometimes I feel more confident about myself and sometimes I feel less so. I think that part of myself was cut of from the concious by early trauma. Today i am still "Me" but I have changed. I suppose I am more in touch with the hurt and pain at a concious level than I was. I can remember losing a lot of confidence when I hit the world of work. My ability to deal with the cut and thrust of a working environment was not that good. I used to get upset and cry on my own but I never knew why. Probably sadness and frustration but i was not in touch with the contextual traumas that caused me to feel so lacking in confidence because i was still close (if one can call it that) to my Parents and did not "see" how they had fucked me up. Now that I have at least some inkling of all the trauma I feel sadder on a more concious level and can appreciate why.

      I do wonder whether there is still part of me I have to meet just as you said to me in an earlier post before i came to LA "Planespotter you are only going to meet yourself". Meeting that self is a painful process. I think at the moment I am going down to a lower level. I have lost so much confidence in myself and my work and maybe that is because I feel shaky and jittery. My sense of self is a bit loose.

      it's frustrating because I am scared silly about messing up my career. There are only a certain number of good companies for someone in my field to work with. The fact is that I suppose I am finding myself and until I really find myself in a more concrete way I will be shaky and jittery.

      No I don't think there are two of me. More bits of me cut off from the concious me by early trauma. Paul said he thought I sounded clearer and different since LA and he is right I think. However one of your therapists is ill at the moment so I am only having 1 session a fortnight instead of weekly and that has really thrown me. I feel a bit abandoned and lost.

      I hope to God things better with this therapy because I am finding the Roller coaster I am on at the moment rather exhausting.

    4. Hi planespotter,
      you do sound clearer.

      Each of us have different perceptions of what others are achieving through the filter of our own repression.

      One of the great things about this blog is that it's run by a maestro scrutinizer.
      Paul G.

    5. Hi Paul

      Thank you. Yes the maestro is great. This blog is I suppose part of being believed which is probably the most important physcological tool any shrink can employ. Simply believing someone no matter how far fetched or out of the ordinary the person's experiences, unlocks so much in the person. If anything is denied no matter how trivial, it can put back recovery by months if not years and damage a very fragile sense of trust.

  2. A few months ago I might have had my first birth reliving. I think it was just a small part of the event.

    I was lying in the dark and strangely I've started not to feel my feet any longer. The sensation got deeper, after little time I've got paralysed from the pelvis downwards, and got so panicked. I've started to explore around and I've discovered I was in a sort of a long narrow tube, with the arms along my body so I could only protect my chest and abdomen, but not my head. I knew I had to crawl to get out of there as soon as possible, but I couldn't anymore. I also knew that Something terrible, like a storm or a tornado was going to enter in the tube by the tip above my head and sweep everything on its way down. If It sees me It will probably kill me. I've got even more panicked, as my hands were not helping here and my legs were dead. So I thought the only escape was to stick closely against the tube wall, make way for this terrible Thing and hope, just hope It will not notice me and pass nearby. My only chance was to retract, play dead, wait and pray for it to pass by.

    My reliving stopped here, but I knew there was much more to it; I guess when the time came I've started to fight like crazy till the last drop of energy. But this is just a hint, something "I knew". Probably something I'll have to feel one day.

    All my life, each time an important event is planned, I get incapacitated. I knew I have to start to prepare it, but I just can’t, I let time goes by, and only when the event is imminent I start to mobilize myself. Then I will work like crazy, take risks, do everything in my power to get out of it. But always start to prepare at the last possible moment. It's like somehow I want to put pressure on me on purpose and feel the thrill of danger. But I can not do otherwise.

    So I guess there are two me’s inside myself, or maybe two aspects/steps of the same event that occurs chronologically always? I'm always paralysed in front of a new situation, panicked, feel I'm no good, not capable, I just want to hide in a rabbit hole, I want everybody to leave me alone. And then later, when I have no choice, I do not know from where I get the energy, but once I start the battle I can no longer stop or back up, it will be till the last breath.

    1. Anna: A better description of a birth primal does not exist. art

    2. Art, thank you from the bottom of my heart! The incertitude was killing me. The most difficult part during the last months was not knowing where I'm going.

      Almost finished reading "The Janov Solution", it's beautiful. I can find parts of me in every chapter, it's helping so much as things are getting clearer. Thank you!


    3. Anna, You are indeed welcome. The "Janov Solution" has so much to say about depression. It needs a wider audience. art

  3. Today I am no more than I know I repress... I know when "something" is up at the time... something in the long run that would not be necessary if the primal therapy was accepted as a method to HELP me!

    Before... before I had removed the yoke of emotions... I was one person in every situation where I not felt at "home". My beliefs about myself rushed on all sides and edges... very sophisticated in some cases and more with attitude... straight on in other.

    In my “play” as a child… more serious than I would know! I was Tarzan... Hercules and Superman... who later turned to be Elvis Presley etc! In my play I saved my life… I was never enough as the Frank I was... and that... to this very day.

    We need primal therapy today… not tomorrow!

    I think there's hopelessness around us who know about it... a resignation that can be compared to when we had to give up.

    I do not believe anymore... I know the day we understand... feel what primal therapy contains so will also the reaction of what to do "arise"... we will get together and do something.

    Nobody will be able to stand in the way of the arguments primal therapy contains... contains in the name of science. We are only disabled for how to deal with it.



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.