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.
Janov has also stressed that we are especially fragile at birth, and infancy and childhood as well. All of these areas are readdressed in Life Before Birth.
The main focus of the book is threefold: early development, including in the womb; adult mental illness and disease; and the nature of a feeling therapy.
One of the central themes in this book is that we are most vulnerable in the earliest stages of our development. In fact, our experiences in utero and infancy literally sculpt our brains and central nervous system. Janov explains that “imprinting” may take place when the fetus reacts “to the womb environment by readjusting its vital signs, hormones, and neurotransmitters to adapt to a new reality; he is getting ready for life in the outer world.”
In other words, early experiences teach a fetus or infant what the world is like and what to expect. The child’s brain and body then make adjustments to be ready for the future. If its experiences are healthy, it will grow in a normal manner.
But if they are threatening (a stressed mother, an abusive father, or environmental toxins, for example), then the child’s body takes defensive measures at the expense of healthy growth and development. Survival comes first.
These changes can reach so deeply down into a child’s cells that they may actually determine if its genes are switched on or off. This new science, epigenetics, explores how a person can be deeply affected by, for instance, a traumatic birth or emotional abuse, and how such damage may be passed on to their own children.
Stress ages our cells and is associated with increased risk for a host of diseases of aging, including cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Elissa Epel, an associate professor in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry, has shown that the way people respond to a stressful event “impacts their neurobiology and cellular health.”
Epel adds that damage to a cell’s telomeres can occur in “the prenatal environment” due perhaps to “poor maternal nutrition” and that it is correlated with low birth-weight.
That’s why Janov writes that loving a child is not just a feeling, but that it also “means fulfilling the needs of the baby”, such as a providing a healthy environment in the womb, lots of cuddles for infants, and a gentle, natural birth. The latter can be crucial. He cites a study in the British Medical Journal which found that, “individuals who committed suicide violently were more often exposed to complications during birth.”
Janov’s clinical focus is healing past trauma through his Primal Therapy (which, contrary to a common misperception, has nothing to do with screaming). Rather, the focus is on re-connecting one’s consciousness with trauma buried in the lower parts of the brain. Again, early pain was repressed in order for the child to survive, but at the cost of healthy development.
For Janov, it is this re-connection that is truly healing, and why relatively superficial approaches, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) might be able to address symptoms, but it ignore the source of one’s pain – emotional and/or physical trauma.
Despite his focus on therapy, Janov stresses that the most important task that society faces is to prevent the children from being hurt in the first place. While he places a great responsibility on parents to be loving towards their children, he does not engage in parent-bashing. For one thing, parents themselves are the product of THEIR upbringing, for better or worse.
For another, it is clear that, for most children, the primary factors that affect their emotional and physical development are the social determinants of health, such as access to education, levels of pollution, inequality, and poverty. One study found that children from “low socioeconomic environments showed a lower response to the unexpected novel stimuli in the prefrontal cortex that was similar…to the response of people who have had a portion of their frontal lobe destroyed by a stroke.”
The study’s co-author W. Thomas Boyce, now at UBC, emphasizes that, “We are certainly not blaming lower socioeconomic families” for problems that they did not create.
Here in B.C., the non-partisan children’s rights organization First Call emphasizes that our province has the worst child poverty rate in Canada for the eighth year in a row. It rose to 12 per cent in 2009, coming in higher than all other provincial and territorial rates as well as the national average of 9.5 per cent. As long as these conditions exist, the cost to children, families, and society as a whole, will increase.
Life Before Birth raises issues of the utmost importance for all of us, children and former children alike. Unfortunately, the book could have used a better editor, especially to make sure that the sometimes complex ideas were expressed more clearly.
Nevertheless, Janov has again taken a leading role in illuminating what science is showing discovering about raising healthy children. His book deserves a wide readership.
The Review of “Life Before Birth” by Arthur Janov by The Primal Mind, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.