The Primal Mind

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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

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

The Elements of Primal Theory

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by Peter Prontzos

Isaac Newton, one of the most celebrated scientists of all time, once remarked that he could see far because he was, “standing on the shoulders of giants.” In the same way, Arthur Janov’s ground-breaking approach to psychotherapy, primal therapy, combines some of the most important elements of his predecessors while providing a deeper and more complete theory of the healing process.

This became clear to me as I was reading the second edition of Louis Cozolino’s invaluable book, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy.

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December 12th, 2010 at 11:12 pm

Peter’s letter to the LA Times

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by Peter Prontzos

Dear Editor,

There are a number of serious problems with your characterization of primal therapy, but I will discuss only the most serious one. The author claims that a “major flaw” with primal “is that studies have cast doubt on the existence of deeply repressed memories.”  The truth is the exact opposite.

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November 23rd, 2010 at 11:02 am

“A Paradigm Shift is happening!”

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by Peter Prontzos

That was the assessment of Dr. Marti Glenn, one of the keynote speakers at the 2010 International Congress of The Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology & Health (APPPH), which took place from November 11-14 at Asilomar, California.

And while she was not speaking of Primal Therapy per se, much of what she discussed is very relevant to Primal Theory. Indeed, most of the people who presented at the Congress, as well as those I talked with, seemed to have a very positive view of the key elements of Arthur Janov’s work.

This is not to say that there wasn’t some “booga-booga” as well (e.g. “As eternal consciousness, each soul creates a plan for their upcoming ensoulment…”), but most of the Congress focused on the emerging science of the pre- and perinatal periods of life.

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November 16th, 2010 at 3:30 pm