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Primal Therapy

janov psychological memories evidence

A therapeutic technique that claims to cure psychological disorders by encouraging people to feel deeply the pain and trauma they experienced very early in life.

Primal therapy was pioneered by Dr. Arthur Janov in the late 1960s. Janov describes it as a "natural therapy" based on his hypothesis that most psychological disturbances are disorders of feeling which can be traced back to the traumas of conception and childbirth. The theoretical basis for the therapy is the supposition that prenatal experiences and birth trauma form people's primary impressions of life and that they subsequently influence the direction our lives take. The "natural" part of the theory is based on Janov's belief that these early primary experiences imprint on the human central nervous system, creating physiological and psychological problems in the future. Primal therapy is designed to enable clients to reexperience those critical moments. By doing so, it is assumed that underlying tensions are released, problems are alleviated, and psychological and physiological well being are restored.

The component of primal therapy with which most people are familiar is "The Primal Scream"—also the title of Janov's first book on primal therapy (New York: Perigee Books, 1970). The book describes how, with primal therapy, clients are encouraged to fully feel their original traumas (namely those of birth and conception) and to scream in response to the intense pain these "repressed memories" are thought to elicit. These memories are believed to be so intense that they can only be expressed with loud screaming. The process is best undertaken in a safe and controlled environment—a room with dim lighting, a padded floor, and padded walls.

Using these techniques, Janov claims that primal therapy reduces or eliminates a host of physical and psychological ailments in a relatively short time with lasting results. In fact, Janov reports that ridding the mind of socalled repressed early childhood or infant traumas has been scientifically linked to the reduction of many serious medical problems including stress, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, high blood pressure, cancer, drug and alcohol addiction, sexual difficulties, phobias, obsessions, ulcers, migraines, asthma, and arthritis. Unfortunately, there exists no scientific evidence to support these claims; Janov's assertions of scientific linkage are based on uncontrolled case histories and personal observations.

Truth be known, primal therapy cannot be defended on scientifically established principles. This is not surprising considering its questionable theoretical rationale. For instance, clinicians at one Canadian psychotherapy clinic specializing in primal therapy make the claim that, if a child is conceived through rape, the mother's egg and the father's sperm are "imprinted with the specific feeling state about the incident and pass this 'memory' on to the child's every cell." This supposedly causes the child a lifetime of pain and psychological trouble unless he or she learns to express his or her real feelings about the memory of this event. Evidence from research on memory and emotions, however, does not support the existence of retrievable memories of birth trauma. In short, "cellular" memories of conception are a scientific fiction. Moreover, even if infant memories were retrievable, there is no evidence to suggest that they should have such a disproportionate impact on people's lives. A recent survey of the opinions of 300 clinicians and researchers regarding psychotherapeutic techniques revealed that primal therapy was the technique whose soundness was most often questioned. Likewise, an evaluation of primal therapy commissioned by German courts concluded that primal therapy is not a valid therapeutic technique.

In Dr. Janov's latest book, The Biology of Love, primal therapy is discussed in the context of neuroanatomy and neurochemistry. This relationship is, however, scientifically tenuous. For example, although it is accepted among neuroscientists that working yourself into a frenzy and screaming can lead to the subsequent release of endorphins that produce feelings of relaxation and wellbeing, there is no evidence to support Janov's assertion that this relaxation can be attributable to the release of repressed memories. A far more likely explanation is that the endorphins are released, much like in "runner's high," in response to the strenuous activity involved. Primal therapy remains essentially unaltered from what it was 30 years ago—a creative theory and an interesting approach to therapy, but one lacking scientific substantiation.

Timothy Moore

Further Reading

Cunningham, J. "Primal therapies—stillborn theories." In Feltham, C. et al., eds. Controversies in Psychotherapy and Counselling. London; Sage Publications Ltd., 1999, 25-33.

Janov, A. The Biology of Love. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2000.

Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy [next] [back] Music Therapy - General effects of music therapy, How music therapy is used

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almost 7 years ago

I followed a primal therapy during 3 years, conducted by a therapist (Esther Odermatt, Switserland) certified by Arthur Janov himself (please note that many people claim doing primal therapy without having followed proper therapy and theoretical and practical courses at Janov's training center, which is recognized by the State of California). For those who look for scientific evidence of the validity of his theory and therapy I invite them to read "How to get sick and how to get well" by Janov. They will find, among others, evidence given by scientific experiences on brainwaves and EEG done in collaboration with universities. I know that a personal testimonial as such does not validate a theory but I want to say that I am very satisfied with the primal therapy I used to follow and that I am not depressive anymore as I had been before that for 30 years. I also want to stress that, before, during and after my therapy, I never underwent any medical treatment (no drugs whatsoever): just emotional releases with the support of my therapist, friends and family members. I have been practising primal therapy on my children as popularized by PhD. Aletha Solter and my two girls (aged 7 and 11) are recognized by our whole community as very balanced children (nearly never ill - just benine symptoms for 3-4 days every 2 years, intelligence, affectivity and emotional maturity that could allow them to skip one year at school if they wanted to, according to the school authority, etc.). There are plenty of evidence proving that primal theory works as suggested by Janov. Another very interesting aspect of primal therapy is that it reduces violence to a very important extent : it has the potential to eliminate violence within our societies (except within the family, where you'll find inevitably - because you can't avoid any stress, primary root of violence, in life - some very residual and very benine violence) because emotional crying, for example, eliminates permanently (until the next inevitable life stress) stress hormones as cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. Can you dream of any better balancing factor than tears?

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almost 10 years ago

http://www.debunkingprimaltherapy.com discusses some of the scientific shortcomings of Dr Arthur Janov's Primal Therapy