Is Primal Therapy a Science or is it Pseudoscience?

by Bruce Wilson

Critics have lambasted primal therapy for being pseudoscientific. In fact, much of criticism on the site I mentioned in my previous post is aimed at “debunking” the therapy as a pseudoscience. But Arthur Janov often states that primal therapy is “the first science of psychotherapy.”

So who is right? Let’s start with a brief primer on science vs pseudoscience.

“Science” is a word that is thrown around easily, often as a way to describe a systematic process that is orderly, exact, and produces results according to a theory. But if those were sufficient criteria for defining a science, then astrology, homeopathy, and Scientology would be sciences, and of course they are not. Although the processes associated with these belief systems appear to confirm their theories, the theories themselves are not based in reality.

So science requires far more than an orderly process of observation, theory building, and predictions; it requires one to test those theories with experiments in an attempt to prove your theory wrong. If you’ve found evidence that contradicts your theory, you revise your theory and test again, always looking for contradictory evidence and revising your theory accordingly. You don’t start out with a preconceived theory and try to prove it correct, you try to disprove it and if it stands up to every attempt to do so, you have a bona fide scientific theory. Also, Your theory should be consistent with what is already known about nature and if it doesn’t, then you’d better work very hard to find evidence that doesn’t yield to any other explanation. New paradigms come at a great price.

Pseudoscientists don’t do this; they build a theory that appears attractive, cohesive, and coherent and then look for evidence to prove it. If the evidence doesn’t fit, they question the evidence rather than the theory. Often, they avoid doing tests that might prove them wrong because we can’t wreck an attractive theory now can we?

Pseudoscience is also characterized by theories that cannot be proven wrong through any test imaginable—they are not falsifiable to use a term by Karl Popper. For example, Popper considered psychoanalysis to be a pseudoscience because its tenets were beyond testing. How is one to test theories such as penis envy, castration anxiety, and the Oedipus or Electra complexes? Scientists often refer to these as “just-so stories,” entirely outside the realm of testability.

Throughout much of history, psychologists’ explanations of mental illnesses and how to treat them have been based on just-so stories. Whoever came up with a really good story developed a following. It didn’t really matter how many people got well or not, the attractiveness of the theory and the eloquence of its proponents were everything. All you needed was some people who apparently got better so your theory was not completely trashed. Ironically, Freud held to his belief that psychoanalysis was effective, despite the fact that most of his patients did not improve.

Today, science is regarded as the overarching authority for discerning the validity any treatment, be it physical or psychological. “Evidence-based treatment” is the buzz-phrase; to claim that a treatment is effective, you must have statistical evidence that it works for most people who receive it.

So what does Janov mean when he calls primal therapy a science? One clue is his attention to biology.

Janov has always had an interest in the biology of mental illness or “neurosis” as he prefers to call it. In fact, his second book after The Primal Scream (1970), was The Anatomy of Mental Illness (1971), his first attempt to link the psychology of deep feeling to neurophysiology. However, it was only when he teamed up with E. Michael Holden, a neurologist, that he began to explore the neurobiology of feeling in depth. In Primal Man (1975), Janov and Holden first described the three levels of consciousness based on McLean’s triune brain model. Also introduced were the concepts of the gating of pain to explain how primal pain is repressed and felt, and the sensory window to explain how patients obtain access to deep primal feelings. (More on the validity of these in later posts.) It was around that period that Janov began charting the vital signs of his patients, correlating blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate with progress in therapy. Patients were asked to fill out a questionnaire describing the physical changes they were experiencing through therapy. Primal Man contains the first electroencephalograph (EEG) study of primal patients, conducted by Bernard McInerny.

In short, Janov was adamant about explaining primal therapy in physical terms, not just psychological terms. While mainstream psychotherapies were mostly focused on the mind, using philosophies derived from psychoanalysis or behaviorism, Janov was one of the first who looked at neurophysiology. Other therapists discussed the art of psychotherapy as interpreted by individual practitioners while Janov strived for an exact, scientific psychotherapy, and still does today.

And now, decades after Janov followed this direction, the neuroscience of psychotherapy has become a hot topic. Lou Cozolino has written the definitive book on the subject (The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy). Alan Schore, Dan Siegel, Norman Doidge, Jeffrey Schwartz, and others are delving deep into the grey matter to explore how psychotherapy changes the brain.

So if one were to consider the hard sciences of physiology and neurobiology as criteria for a scientific psychotherapy, then primal therapy could be called a “science.” But to anyone who has trained in science and has worked on clinical trials, it’s clear that primal therapy has a ways to go before it can be considered a true science. I’ll discuss this in my next post.


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The Is Primal Therapy a Science or is it Pseudoscience? by The Primal Mind, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.

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