Why Past Life Therapy is Not Primal Therapy

by Bruce Wilson

On a previous post, I was asked why I neglect “past lives” in my discussions of primal therapy. The short answer is that I am not convinced that past lives or past life memories are real. If someone were to produce convincing evidence for this, I might change my tune, but the evidence would have to be extremely powerful and incontrovertible.

In scientific terms, the claim for past lives is extraordinary, and as Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I’m not saying I am certain that past lives don’t exist, only that the current evidence doesn’t support the idea. In fact, psychiatrists highly dedicated to the scientific method have produced suggestive evidence to support past life phenomena, but its relevance to psychotherapy is questionable. I explain why below.

Primal therapy arose during the 60s, amid the Eastern religious zeitgeist of California, so it’s not surprising that some therapists tried to blend their reincarnation beliefs with primal therapy. The 60s also saw the emergence of transpersonal psychology, which deals with altered states of consciousness, transcendence, and the spiritual side of human experience. A leading figure in transpersonal psychology is Stanislav Grof, pioneer of LSD therapy and explorer of what he calls “non-ordinary states of consciousness” for therapeutic purposes. Grof’s Holotrophic Breathwork is a deep feeling process that resembles primal therapy, but it goes further to embrace transpersonal states, including past life memories.

In other words, primal therapy lies within the constraints of biology – the theory is in line with scientific materialism which views human experience (mind, psyche, etc.) as a phenomenon (or epiphenomenon) of brain function and nothing more. Transpersonal psychology challenges the materialist worldview and argues for an extended consciousness that goes beyond biology.

Grof has written extensively on this topic and his many books develop the notion that our “ordinary” human consciousness is but a small component of a primordial consciousness that pervades the universe. As William James said, “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”

Some therapists who have trained in Janovian-style primal therapy have adopted this view. The person I’m most familiar with is Graham Farrant, who was a therapist at the Denver Primal Center when I was there in the mid-70s. Farrant developed the notion that people should be encouraged to regress to very early states, down to the embryo and even zygote level. By accessing this “cellular consciousness” he believed that one could actually re-experience conception or even the struggles of the sperm as it tried to penetrate the ovum. (I know of one person who was almost certainly experiencing birth feelings but was persuaded by his therapist that he was having “sperm primals” because of the back-and-forth, fish-like movements that accompanied the feelings.)  Beyond cellular consciousness lies the misty realm of transpersonal consciousness where one can experience past lives, Jungian archetypes, or even identify with plant and animal consciousness.

To those with a scientific bent, it’s easy to make fun of this stuff, but some people who’ve done primal therapy swear by it. Perhaps they’ve been influenced by a therapist who’s bought into the views of transpersonal psychology or who has experienced these non-ordinary states themselves, or they’ve read the books of Grof and others. I haven’t met one person who hasn’t been persuaded of these ideas without significant exposure to them. None of them has been subjected to any serious scientific scrutiny that I’m aware of, so it seems that people adopt them on faith or entirely out of  their own experiences or the reported experiences of others. Given the almost unlimited capacity for the mind to confabulate, are we to trust that these experiences are real without resorting to objective evidence?

Despite the temptation to ridicule those who believe in past lives, I try to adopt Spinoza’s position. He said, “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” In my view, understanding entails evidence and so far I see no convincing evidence for past lives and definitely no rationale for past life therapy.

Again, the purpose of this blog is to examine primal and other deep feeling therapies from a scientific point of view, not necessarily from a scientific materialist point of view. If people claim that experiencing past lives has permanently resolved their illnesses, which many do, I only ask, “Are those past life memories real? Where’s the hard evidence? Could something else associated with your experience have led to that resolution? Could it have been the placebo effect, perchance?”

Past life therapy relies on hypnosis or altered states of consciousness induced by psychedelics, extreme spiritual practices, or hyperventilation, such as that used in Holotrophic Breathwork. The memories may be vivid, complete with colors, sounds, and remembrance of events, but as yet, no one has produced incontrovertible, objective evidence that the past lives being remembered are real, or if they are real, did the person experiencing them truly have no way of knowing about them through some other means. Ian Stephenson and Jim Tucker have conducted high quality research of children who remember previous lives. Their work cannot be discarded as flaky pseudoscience because their methology is so strong. Indeed, they have produced evidence that seemingly cannot be explained by any other means other than the hypothesis that the children were actually remembering the experiences of people who had died before they were born. They don’t even go so far as to say these children have reincarnated. But the data hangs there, awaiting a convincing explanation that fits our current scientific materialistic worldview. Attempts to explain it away are either unconvincing or ideologically biased.

But past life therapy is something else. People working in this area have abandoned sound scientific methodology and the scientific attitude, which I wrote about here and is described here. In their view, if the person experiencing past life memories says it’s real, then it must be real, especially if symptoms vanish. (The placebo effect can also make symptoms vanish). Those working in regression therapy uncritically embrace a range of new age concepts such as karma, soul, chakras, “subtle energy bodies,” spiritual possession, homeopathy, and of course, quantum consciousness. (Quantum physicist Murray Gell-Mann calls this “quantum flapdoodle” – the stringing together a series of terms and phrases from quantum physics and asserting that they explain something in our daily experience.)

I consider myself an open-minded skeptic, but not so open-minded that my brain falls out. Certainly, the research by Stevenson and Tucker deserves a serious look, but it is far too early to make conclusions about the veracity of past lives. It is certainly far beyond the evidence to suggest that past life memories have a role in psychotherapy. If one has tendencies toward these beliefs, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be considered scientific, and it is certainly not primal therapy.

Primal therapy deserves research with the best scientific methodology we have, and it must be high quality research. Claims for birth and womb memories are astonishing enough without making grand and unjustified leaps to claims of cellular consciousness and past lives to explain the effects of trauma. Perhaps psychology will move in this direction, as Grof predicts in Psychology of the Future, or perhaps it will be explained as the sophisticated imagination of the human mind. Only the evidence will tell.



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9 Replies to “Why Past Life Therapy is Not Primal Therapy”

  1. Hi Bruce,

    I think that past life regression is certainly a different process than primal therapy. With primal therapy we recover our personal histories which have been repressed and forgotten. With past life therapy what is actually being recovered? Whose history?

    For me, from the beginning when I first learned about primal therapy and theory it had logic and consistency which made a lot of sense to me. It really is an elegant theory which explains a lot of things, even if not proven. But past life regression doesn’t fit into that theory, or any other theory I am aware of. It defies common sense, which to me, has some importance. Primal therapy does make common sense, even birth traumas.

    For the sake of advancing primal therapy it would be better not to associate it with past lives. It will never get any mainstream recognition that way.
    A quick search on the internet will find many past life regression therapists, most of whom seem to specialize in that and not primal.
    For me “cellular consciousness” is also very questionable, for similar reasons.

    To encourage someone to primal that, to me,isn’t proper therapy.
    If we want to examine primal therapy scientifically a good place to start would be to define the therapy.


  2. Bruce, that was an excellent piece of writing and I wholly agree with it. I might add that even if we find that past life “memories” are real in some sense that that there might be good reasons why they are not “remembered” by most people. Furthermore it brings up the question of what constitutes a “self identity” and not having a clear biological route it might lead one to consider whether one might be “remembering” another person’s memories and not one’s own. Considering all this it makes the claim for past lives a very dubious concept that brings up more questions than answers. When a “memory” is not a biological one what is the real connection? One day we may be able to “implant” memories, although at the moment it seems doubtful, and if we do, then “false” memories could be perceived as a part of the identity of a person and yet be entirely bogus. I am reminded that the Buddha claimed that he searched for an unchanging soul or self and found none. Neurologists, I think, would be inclined to agree with that proposal.

  3. For me it is crystal clear that past lives are not possible,it does not make sense at all.
    What also should be considered is that scientists often are naive,they tend to start from the position that people are good and can be trusted.
    In these cases the help of magicians is very helpful,they know the tricks of the trade and how people can be mislead.(see impostors like Uri Geller,they fail in the settings where magicians dictate the rules)

  4. This observation that scientist are often naive is not mine but comes from numerous documentaries about these subjects on television decades ago.
    Like mentioned on the site of Randi,people keep on believing even when you prove it is fake.

  5. Everything about past life regression is interesting to me. I every now and then check out this blog and I really appreciate it. This article has teased my interest. I am going to remember your site and keep checking it out.

  6. Good one Bruce, and I’d just like to add a few other points.

    1) Research clearly shows that people do construct false memories, and that it is, in fact, quite common. This tendency not only undermines the idea of past lives, but it is another reason why primal therapists need to be very careful that they don’t facilitate this problem by, for instance, offering explanations or even strong hints as to what traumas a person has experienced.

    2) Anything can be a defense against primal pain (a person may even repeatedly drop into lesser traumas as a way of avoiding even greater pain), so there is no guarantee that any particular deep feeling is real. All one can say is that it might be, but one needs to continue to work things through.

    3) Beware of wizards! When “Xena: Warrior Princess” was asked by her fans (on “The Simpsons”) to explain strange events in her show, she said something like: “Wizards! Anything that seems mysterious was done by wizards!” Where did the earth come from? It must be god. It’s easy to make stuff up. (Note: as Christopher Hitchens – not my favourite skeptic – wrote: even his youngest child knows more about the origins of the the earth and life than the smartest people who wrote “holy” books hundreds and thousands of years ago). To any claim of knowledge, one must ask: why should I believe it? It’s just intellectual self-defense to ask for good evidence before accepting (provisionally) some belief.

    I could go on….

  7. Alexandria Bantz,
    Are you not perhaps missing the point here? Primal Therapy has absolutely nothing to do with Past Life Regression. Primal Therapy is about dealing with painful trauma that happened during this life, from a few weeks into conception, also the birth experience, and childhood onwards.

    PLR practitioners claim to be able to regress people through hypnosis to previous lives, i.e. a life that was lived before this one. My personal opinion is that it is no different from a belief in aliens, gods or devils, i.e. the hallmarks of a neurotic.

    1. Alexandria,

      There are some people who call themselves primal therapists who practice past life regression. The reason I made this post was to make it clear that past life regression has nothing to do with primal therapy and in fact, is likely an escape from pain, not a resolution of pain. The fact that symptoms often resolve after PLR may only be evidence that the person has dissociated into a dream-like state where they have become unaware of their pain, very much like a religious conversion.

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