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.
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.
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