Saturday, October 17, 2015

Epigenetics and Primal Therapy: The Cure for Neurosis (Part 1/20)

This is the first part of a series I wrote on Epigenetics and Primal Therapy. The whole article will publish soon in the "Activitas Nervosa Superior" Journal of the World Psychiatry Association (

Sometimes I realize I am getting science-heavy but what is happening today is so exciting, especially since it supports what I have been writing about for almost 50 years. Almost every week, it seems, scientists announce new research confirming much of the primal position. This is especially true in the burgeoning field of epigenetics, the study of how experience changes an individual’s genetic code, previously considered inalterable. An article recapping the groundbreaking work by pioneering researchers from McGill University in Montreal proclaimed that “the emerging field of epigenetics is revolutionizing the study of mental health – and challenging the belief that DNA is destiny”(1). 

 Moreover, in terms of the history of science, the new developments augur the convergence of previously distinct fields, psychology and biology. In one report regarding research that shows a link between early-life adversity and changes in a person’s genetic make-up, the Canadian researchers come to this sweeping conclusion: “Epigenetics could serve as a bridge between the social sciences and the biological sciences, allowing a truly integrated understanding of human health and behavior.” (McGowan & Szyf, 2010, p. 71) In short, there is a growing understanding that mental illness has a crucial physical component, which has been a basic tenet of Primal Theory from the start. We have always maintained that neurosis is a disturbance of mind and body. And in our treatment, both mind and body must be involved for a cure. Now, science is showing us how that is possible at a cellular level. Unlike genetic mutations, the researchers state, “epigenetic alterations are potentially reversible” (McGowan & Szyf, 2010, p. 66). And that is the most promising finding of all. 

 I have discussed epigenetics in my blog and my books, about how adversity early on changes the switches for key genes that then serves to compound repression or inhibition. These switches turn the gene on or off, and thus help set in what seem like genetic changes. In Primal terms, it is the mechanism of closing the gates of feeling or opening them. And there are different chemicals that accompany the epigenetic events, methyl and acetyl groups, for example. The critical work in this field shows how imprints can be passed down through generations – from parent to child and grandchild – primarily through the biochemical processes known as methylation and acetylation. We need to differentiate, however, between healthy and unhealthy methylation. Under normal conditions, methylation is a necessary and naturally occurring process that helps regulate the expression of an individual’s genetic make-up. But excess methylation becomes pathological and leads to disease. The process goes awry when the individual suffers physical or psychological trauma, especially in the womb and in infancy. It seems that for each and every pain we endure during gestation and at birth there is a change in the chemicals that enhance the repression of pain. When the pain or adversity is prolonged, the system is overtaxed and we now have the mechanism of leaky gates; that is, repression begins to falter due to an overload of chronic pain. 

 It is the consistency of the pain that causes the overload. There is a limit that the brain can handle. Beyond that, the gates become vulnerable and do not do well. It takes very little trauma after that to produce a symptom such as ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder. The chemical methyl group is recruited when there is a traumatic event, and helps embed that memory. It seems that when there is a surge of methylation part of it attaches to cytosine, one of the four nucleobases of DNA. The imprint of the pain is now part of the DNA and blocks the expression of various genes. Concurrently, methyl and acetyl groups attached to the histones (protein structures which allow the DNA to coil up) may interfere with the timely coiling or uncoiling of the DNA. This disrupts the proper expression of certain hormones and other neurochemical processes. That is part of the reason it is so easy to confuse genetics with epigenetics: our moods and personalities are shaped early on, so we believe psychological disorders are passed down through the bloodlines. After all, if both the parents have blue eyes, it is not a mystery that their child also has blue eyes. 

 But when it comes to behavior and feelings, it is another matter. Controlled by the epigenome, genetic expression can be restricted through experiences the fetus undergoes while in the womb. And it is here that some of the mystery of cancer may be uncovered; for it may be that cancerous cells would evolve as normal cells if not for the physiologic force of repression provoked by maternal stress. This creates lifelong chronic stress in the offspring. It may be that as benign cells surge forward along preordained pathways, they are blocked from their destinations. They are then “crushed” or deviated and can no longer be themselves; they lose their identity and become lethal. As they are changed, we are changed. (More on cancer in a moment.) What all this means is that by examining our womb-life in detail we can often predict our future: our sexual problems, the possibility of later cancer, psychosis, heart problems, Alzheimer’s disease, and a whole host of afflictions (Johnstone & Baylin, 2010). 

 One study suggests that the biological underpinnings of bipolar affective disorder are not primarily genetic, but are epigenetic (Rutten & Mill, 2009). Even an individual’s tendency toward violence, once thought to be a brain disorder, is being shown to have epigenetic roots. In research with rats, investigators at Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne found that animals subjected to trauma in childhood showed changes in two parts of the brain – the orbitofrontal cortex and the amygdala (Márquez et al., 2013). Those changes taken together combined to lower the threshold of aggressive impulses and weaken the ability to control them. (A report summarizing the findings was also released by the Swiss research university under the title, “Childhood Trauma Leaves its Mark on the Brain.”(2) The results were surprisingly similar to changes found in the human brains of traumatized children who grew up to be violent adults. In addition, the scientists also measured changes in genes known to be associated with aggressive behavior. Here, they found that the psychological stress experienced by the rats caused an alteration in the way these genes were expressed, specifically an increase in the level of MAOA gene expression in the prefrontal cortex, according to Prof. Carmen Sandi, head of the Swiss school’s Laboratory of Behavioral Genetics and director of the Brain-Mind Institute. Researchers were able to reduce the levels of aggression with antidepressants, specifically an MAOA gene inhibitor. In short, childhood stress produced epigenetic changes that heightened violent tendencies. Drug treatment later tamped down the violence, reversing the long-term impact of early trauma. In our own work, we have found that the deeper patients descend down the levels of consciousness the more likely there can be rage and violence. 

 Until recently, the role of epigenetic mechanisms in transmitting trauma across generations has been demonstrated in animals but not in humans. A new study, involving Holocaust survivors and their children, shows for the first time how the epigenetic impact of stress, the cellular changes, can also be passed down among humans, from one generation to the next (Yehuda et al., 2015). Researchers found that children of Holocaust survivors frequently gave birth to anxious children. At first, they thought it was because the parents told horrible stories to the children, but later they discovered that the anxiety came down through the genetic chain, as we shall see in more detail shortly. The point is that the genetic effect of wartime stress had descended from the mother’s physiology through epigenetics. (More on this study in a moment.) 

 I will discuss the clinical implications of the research in the second half of this article. Suffice to say for now that pharmacological treatment may not be the only way to reverse epigenetic changes. We propose that the effects of methylation – as an agent of repression – can be reversed during Primal Therapy, which revisits and resolves the traumatic events that triggered the repressive chemical process to begin with. The real revolution lies in the possibility that people no longer have to live with their genetic inheritance but can actually take charge and change it through Primal Therapy. We believe we may have the method for reversing the long-term deleterious effects of epigenetics, and we are undertaking new research to study that point. If it is life experience that caused changes in the biochemistry and neuronal circuitry, then it is not a fixed entity. It can be altered; the way this is done is by retrieving and reliving key imprints, as I will explain. Heredity is irreversible, but epigenetics is not. It is reversible, which is something I propose we have been doing for almost 50 years. 

 (1) McDevitt, N. (2006, Fall). The nurture of things. Headway. Retrieved from 
 (2) Childhood trauma leaves its mark on the brain. (2013, January 15). Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. Retrieved from


  1. In the seventies I was bombarded by concentration camps on tv, why my parents were still living in a war that was already over for 30 years or so. What to think of bodies shoved away like pieces of garbage and show this stuff to your children, I have never understand this. WWII was over and everyone should understand that is was over. period.

    1. Anonymous: Not over for many people’s minds. art

  2. Hi All,

    given the 'fundamental nature' of Primal Theory, nothing seems 'off topic' anymore. Here's an excerpt from the UK Guardian Report on the incredible inaccuracy of most psychology research and experimentation:

    -"The study, which saw 270 scientists repeat experiments on five continents, was launched by psychologists in the US in response to rising concerns over the reliability of psychology research.
    The first imperative: Science that isn’t transparent isn’t science.

    “There is no doubt that I would have loved for the effects to be more reproducible,” said Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology who led the study at the University of Virgina. “I am disappointed, in the sense that I think we can do better.”

    “The key caution that an average reader should take away is any one study is not going to be the last word,” he added. “Science is a process of uncertainty reduction, and no one study is almost ever a definitive result on its own.”

    All of the experiments the scientists repeated appeared in top ranking journals in 2008 and fell into two broad categories, namely cognitive and social psychology. Cognitive psychology is concerned with basic operations of the mind, and studies tend to look at areas such as perception, attention and memory. Social psychology looks at more social issues, such as self esteem, identity, prejudice and how people interact.

    In the investigation, a whopping 75% of the social psychology experiments were not replicated, meaning that the originally reported findings vanished when other scientists repeated the experiments. Half of the cognitive psychology studies failed the same test. Details are published in the journal Science.

    Even when scientists could replicate original findings, the sizes of the effects they found were on average half as big as reported first time around. That could be due to scientists leaving out data that undermined their hypotheses, and by journals accepting only the strongest claims for publication.

    Despite the grim findings, Nosek said the results presented an opportunity to understand and fix the problem. “Scepticism is a core part of science and we need to embrace it. If the evidence is tentative, you should be sceptical of your evidence. We should be our own worst critics,” he told the Guardian. One initiative now underway calls for psychologists to submit their research questions and proposed methods to probe them for review before they start their experiments.

    John Ioannidis, professor of health research and policy at Stanford University, said the study was impressive and that its results had been eagerly awaited by the scientific community. “Sadly, the picture it paints - a 64% failure rate even among papers published in the best journals in the field - is not very nice about the current status of psychological science in general, and for fields like social psychology it is just devastating,” he said.

    But he urged people to focus on the positives. The results, he hopes, will improve research practices in psychology and across the sciences more generally, where similar problems of reproducibility have been found before. In 2005, Ioannidis published a seminal study that explained why most published research findings are false.

    Marcus Munafo, a co-author on the study and professor of psychology at Bristol University, said: “I think it’s a problem across the board, because wherever people have looked, they have found similar issues.” In 2013, he published a report with Ioannidis that found serious statistical weaknesses were common in neuroscience studies.

    Very topical methinks. . .

    Paul G.

    1. Few...very few...very very few..individuals have any inkling of the tenets of Science as a method of securing truth..Knowledge..what makes things tick. Few...very few...researchers have every bothered to study the Philosophy of Science. It is lamentable. Fortunately, there are some REAL SCIENTISTS. People who are fascinated with knowing what is genuine and what is not. One can only salute Art in his endeavor
      to apply Scientific Experimental Methodology to a soft or amorphous body of knowledge. That in itself is laudable.

    2. Few, very few people have any inkling as to what the scientific method is. It is of course a way of discovering and verifying truth. It has very specific tenets that must be met. Few researchers have bothered to study the Philosophy of Science. One might wonder what their actual motivations are in asserting scientific work was actually done. Art has endeavored to apply scientific methodology to an amorphous or soft body of knowledge thus ascertaining the veracity and truth of his discoveries. That alone is laudable. That alone speaks to the integrity of the man.

  3. An email comment: "You don't like being a hero and want to be just friends with people. I still think you are a hero. :)"

    1. And my answer: well thank you. what I have always tried to do is make this a better and healthier world for all of us. art

    2. Art. And there are a lot like you.More than most people are aware of.
      Congratulations on presenting complex, and to many minds alien, phenomema in an easy to understand and enjoyable form. If they don´t "get" this, it won´t be your fault. Gary

  4. Art,
    I had the honor of meeting you and France last Saturday at the Renaissance before your reunion. I was so mesmerized by the moment I neglected to congratulate you on the award you were about to receive and to let you know how much I was looking forward to your posting this article. So a belated congrats!, and thanks so much for sharing this with us. Really looking forward to reading more. Kip

  5. Kip, you should have let me know so we could have chatted. 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.