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The Truth About Janov’s Primal Therapy

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by Peter Prontzos

There has always been a lot of misunderstandings about Primal Therapy, as developed by the late Dr. Arthur Janov.

Probably the biggest misconception is that it’s all about screaming. That likely derives from the dramatic – but misleading – title of Janov’s first book, “The Primal Scream.” It is a catchy title, but it is not what his therapy is about.

Simply, Primal Therapy is a form of psychodynamic therapy which emphasizes the need for a person to connect with, feel, and release the pain of earlier traumas. Some of these traumas can go as far back as a person’s birth.

It is client-centered, that is, the role of the therapist is NOT to analyze, offer insights, and decide what a person’s real feelings are. Only the client knows – consciously or not – their own history, and they must make their own connection to their past if they are to heal.

The other part of the problem is that many people who know nothing of the true nature of Primal Therapy think that they can judge it, and condemn it. Such is the case in the obituary of Dr. Janov that ran in the N.Y. Times. Specifically, they cite a study which charges that there is little evidence to support Janov’s claims and that the therapy has been “discredited.”

That is a false and ignorant accusation. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are just a few samples of scientists, researchers, and therapists who have a much more accurate understanding of the claims of Primal Therapy:

Dr. Janov provides the scientific rationale for treatments that take us through our original, non-verbal memories – to essential depth of experience that the superficial cognitive-behavioral modalities currently in fashion cannot possibly touch, let alone transform.   – Dr. Gabor Mate

Dr. Janov 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. – Dr. Paul Thompson, Professor of Neurology, UCLA School of Medicine

Forty years of neuroscience research convince me that Janov has discovered a way to rewire neurons in your brain. – Dr. David Goodman, Newport Neuroscience Center

 Dr. Janov’s works are, a valuable guide to creating healthier babies… – Paula Thompson, Professor Emeritus, York University

Dr. Janov’s essential insight – that our earliest experiences strongly influence later well-being – is no longer in doubt…His long-held belief…lies at the heart of the integration of neuroscience and psychotherapy. – Lou Cozolino, Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University

And finally, referring to Janov’s later work:

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.  – Dr. Jaak Panksepp, author of, “Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions”

I will conclude with an anecdote regarding Jaak and Dr. Janov. I first met Jaak at a conference at UCLA, where I was told by Dr. Norman Doidge (“The Brain That Changes Itself”) that – in his opinion – Jaak was the most important scientist in the world. Jaak’s specialty was the similar processes found in the brains of humans and other mammals.

Bruce was already aware of Jaak’s ground-breaking research, and arranged for us to all get together for dinner and discussion at Janov’s house. Art showed Jaak a video of a Primal patient re-living an agonizing birth.

The next day, in his presentation to the Interpersonal Neurobiology Conference at UCLA, Jaak said to the audience that the evening before he had seen a video of a person re-experiencing their birth, “that could not be faked.”

So – while there is still a need for more scientific research on the process and the effectiveness of Primal Therapy – the slanders aimed at the process, and at Dr. Janov, are seriously flawed.

Hopefully, this problem will be remedied by future research; not so much to be fair to Art, but in order to more fully develop effective therapy, and especially to use this knowledge to prevent babies and children from being hurt in the first place.

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October 4th, 2017 at 4:34 pm

HOPE ?

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By Peter G. Prontzos

Is hope a good thing? Many people think it is, but all depends….

It may help to remember the story of Pandora, the first woman and the one to whom the gods of Olympus gave a jar full of evils: old age, toil, insanity, greed, and so on. Pandora was warned not to open the jar, but her curiosity got the best of her, and when she lifted the lid, she unleashed those plagues on humankind. When she quickly closed the lid, only one evil remained: delusive hope.

Many who have interpreted the story of Pandora did not realize that even hope can be problematic – it all depends on the circumstances.

In The Optimism Bias, neuroscientist Tali Sharot explains that one of the unconscious biases that our brains produce is hope. She writes that the tendency to see the world through rose-tinted glasses evolved primarily because, “optimism may be so essential to our survival that it is hardwired into
our most complex organism, the brain.”

Her basic argument is straightforward: that while this distortion of
reality can be dangerous in some situations, it generally pays off in the long
run. As Sharot explains, this “illusion” has a tendency to lower stress and
anxiety while increasing one’s motivation to act, thereby improving the chances
of a positive outcome.

(She does not, however, accept the silly “secret” that one’s thoughts have the ultimate power to determine reality).

On the dark side, however, hope can be personally and socially a trap that leads to disaster.

The main problem is when hope is unrealistic, and that usually happens when it is an automatic – and usually unconscious – defense against painful feelings. As Arthur Janov and others have shown, we often cope with our traumas and fears, not by facing them, but by repressing them. This defense is very common in unhealthy relationships, when people don’t leave because they “hope” that – somehow – things will work out.

In the science fiction series “Dune”, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood use their, “Litany Against Fear” – a very Primal approach – to help focus their minds and calm themselves:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Unrealistic hope can also prevent people from combating the many political and ecological threats that we face today, such as militarism, patriarchy, racism and the climate crisis. Derrick Jensen explained that:

Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth.
To start, there is the false hope that suddenly somehow the system may inexplicably change. Or technology will save us. Or the Great Mother. Or beings from Alpha Centauri. Or Jesus Christ. Or Santa Claus. All of these false hopes lead to inaction, or at least to ineffectiveness.”

On the other hand, liberating oneself from false hopes is necessary to actually have any real hope of success. Jensen concludes that,

When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear. And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power. [https://orionmagazine.org/article/beyond-hope/]

In one very important sense, hope may also be irrelevant. Even if optimism is not “realistic” – given the terrible state of the world – people still need to organize for progressive change. Indeed, the more desperate a situation appears to be, the more urgency there is in creating a healthy resistance.

To cite just one powerful example: secret White House tape recordings of Richard Nixon show that he was ready to drop nuclear bombs on the Vietnamese, until it was explained to him that the reaction of the peace movement – and of other people in the U.S. and around the world – would make such a war crime politically disastrous for him.

So, while we can never be sure that any situation is truly hopeless, we can be sure that our inaction will lead to disaster.

Note: Here is a link to an up-to-date discussion of hope and the climate crisis.

The Guardian 21 September 2017

Climate optimism has been a disaster. We need a new language – desperately

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/21/climate-optimism-disaster-extreme-weather-catastrophe

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Written by Peter

September 25th, 2017 at 4:34 pm

Review: THE NEUROSCIENCE OF HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS. By Louis Cozolino (W.W. Norton & Co.)

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Review by Peter G. Prontzos

Although Buddha never claimed to be a neuroscientist, some insights which have been attributed to him resonate strongly with the findings of modern researchers. One of the most profound of these understandings is the idea that our deepest “self” is not a “thing”; rather, it is an on-going natural process, one which continues to evolve throughout one’s life.
In fact, it seems that a baby doesn’t have a substantial self when it is born. As Louis Cozolino explains in his remarkable book, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: “The awareness of being a separate and autonomous self appears to emerge gradually over the first decade of life…from how our brains construct our experience of others”.
He emphasizes how the quality of our relationships with our parents (and the other significant people in our lives) affects us more than we know. A primary reason that we are unaware of these most basic feelings about ourselves and the world is that they are formed when we are so young that they usually become unconscious “givens”. Nevertheless, they influence and guide “our moment-to-moment experiences” throughout our lives.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the survival and healthy development of infants and children depends, “on the abilities of their caretakers to detect the needs and intentions” of those who depend on them.
Cozolino, who is a clinical psychologist as well as a Professor at Pepperdine University, outlines how these early experiences also guide the construction of our brain and central nervous system. Our thoughts and feelings don’t just float around somewhere in our consciousness; rather, they are biologically embedded in the very structures and functions of our brain as it adapts to its environment – healthy or otherwise.
Hence his profoundly important point: “The brain is a social organ of adaptation built through interactions with others” [emphasis in original]. Nurturing connections create healthier brains in which the various areas are harmoniously integrated, while hormones, neurotransmitters, and other neurochemicals are present in the appropriate amounts. “This experience-dependent sculpting is accomplished through attunement and information exchange with the right hemispheres of the parents.”
This focus is based on the relatively new field of, “Interpersonal Neurobiology” (IPNB), in which the “social construction of the brain and the role of attachment relationships are particularly important…” The ramifications of this insight for our understanding of human nature in general, and the “self” in particular, are revolutionary; and they apply to adults as well as to children.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact of our early environment on the health of our growing brain. Indeed, that is one advantage to being born at a stage of development that is immature compared to other primates: it allows human infants more flexibility when it comes to adapting to their specific family situations.
This openness to our social environment means that the kind of person that we eventually become is, to a very significant extent, the result of the quality of our relationships in the early years. “The most important aspect of early attachment relationships”, Cozolino notes, “is the establishment of a sense of safety”.
A baby (or child) will obviously feel safer to the extent that more of its needs are met: to be held, to be fed when hungry, to experience warm interactions with its parents, and so on. Providing for these needs is a concrete demonstration of love, and a baby will thrive in such a nurturing social environment.
Healthy relationships create secure attachments between infants and caregivers, which also helps children to learn emotional self-regulation, reducing the tendency to overreact to negative situations.
Findings such as these, which show how much we are shaped by our experiences, undermine the simplistic form of genetic determinism which claims that our fate is overwhelmingly decided by our DNA. The more complex reality is that, as Cozolino elegantly explains, “Our brains are built in the enigmatic interface between experience and genetics, where nature and nurture become one”.
The author also points out the vital but often overlooked corollary that: “there are no single human brains – brains only exist within networks of other brains.” More specifically, the self develops as reflection of the interactions of three factors: our brain, our body, and our relationships with other people – along with the rest of the natural world.
That’s why it is impossible to understand a person outside of the social contexts in which they matured: their family, community, culture, and nation. (Einstein held the same view. In his essay, “Why Socialism?” he wrote that: “It is ‘society’ which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought”).
Cozolino employs the metaphor of our, “social synapse” in conveying his view of the nature of our personal interrelations. Just as each individual brain cell communicates with others via the spaces between them and no neuron could survive by itself, people build families and communities across social spaces in order to communicate, survive, and flourish.
Our high level of openness and sensitivity towards other people is the reason that we are both the most social, and the most adaptive, of all species. Cozolino suggests that, “our social brains emerged during natural selection because being social enhances survival.”
On the other hand, “the radical individualism of the West is one reason why we experience a higher incidence of psychological distress, drug addiction, and violence”. Social pain (isolation, rejection, and so on) is far from a trivial matter. Like physical pain, it is a sign that something is wrong and that we may be in danger. Pain demands that we pay attention to a threat. It is extremely significant that both physical and emotional pain are processed by the same neuroanatomical systems. In other words, social pain can be so powerful precisely because toxic relationships and/or social isolation are also serious dangers to our physical health.
That’s why, as Daniel Kahneman has argued, avoiding (both kinds of) pain is a stronger motivation than the attraction to pleasure. Cozolino puts it this way: “Based on the way our brains operate, evolution appears to have been far more interested in keeping us alive than making us happy.”
The book also discusses such critical issues as epigenetics, mirror neurons, stress, interpersonal trauma, social phobia, autism, healing relationships, and – of course – love:
“There is no doubt that evolution has shaped us to love one another…Loving relationships help our brains to develop, integrate, and remain flexible….And when the drive to love is thwarted – when we are frightened, abused, or neglected – our mental health is compromised.”
He also provides a number of moving stories about some of his patients to illustrate how real people develop – and often resolve – old hurts.
There is a fair amount of sometimes technical neuroscience in the book, and while the reader may choose to skip some of the more detailed accounts, even the relatively simpler ones can deepen and enrich one’s understanding of both the brain and of our shared humanity.
In Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, “No Exit”, one of the characters declares that, “hell is other people.” No doubt that is often all-too-true. Cozolino not only provides valuable insights for treating old wounds, but, much more importantly, he describes the kind of nurturing social environments that can prevent such the damage in the first place.

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June 28th, 2014 at 4:23 pm

Review of “Life Before Birth” by Arthur Janov

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by Peter Prontzos

This a modified review that first appeared in the Vancouver Sun:

“A paradigm shift is happening” in the way that we understand the importance of our life in the womb. That was the assessment of Dr. Marti Glenn at a recent Congress of The Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology & Health (APPPAH).

She pointed out that, “researchers are beginning to discover…that the events and environment surrounding pre-conception, pregnancy, birth, and early infancy set the template out of which we live our lives.”

While this paradigm shift is new to most people, it is a view that was put forth decades ago by Dr. Arthur Janov, whose new book, Life Before Birth, explains just how fragile we are while in our first home. He believes that many – perhaps most – children have been damaged at a much earlier age than has been traditionally acknowledged.

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Book Review: Childhood Under Siege, by Joel Bakan

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by Peter Prontzos

In civilized societies, perhaps the most despised person is the one who preys on children. Even in jail, child molesters are often segregated from other prisoners for their own safety.

Human beings have a natural tendency to love their children and most will do anything to protect them from harm. Noted primatologist Frans de Waal has made a convincing case that love originated from the evolutionary need to protect our young, who are uniquely vulnerable in their early years.

It is difficult, then, to understand why we — especially those of us who are parents — tolerate the kinds of attacks that are taking place on our children.

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November 5th, 2011 at 12:00 pm

The Social Determinants of Health

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by Peter Prontzos

This post contains a portion of the talk that I gave last month at the 16th International Conference of the Association of Psychology and Psychiatry for Adults and Children in Athens. While I began with a short discussion of primal theory, I also wanted to stress how social and economic factors create the basis for much of the pain in our lives.

Research has now clearly established that economic, and social variables – more than individual or family behavior – are the most salient factors overall in determining a child’s well-being.

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June 1st, 2011 at 9:53 pm