Are Inutero Memory and Affect Real?

by John A. Speyrer

"Does fetal memory exist? Yes, in terms of neurochemistry.
Do we have a memory of all that? Yes, but in terms of neurochemical alterations, not in terms of scenes, words, or feelings."

-- Dr. Arthur Janov, The Biology of Love, pp. 340-341

Many who give credence to the possibility that one can relive traumas of early childhood disavow the possibility of reliving a crib experience. Claims of having had earlier regressions on the biographical stage are met with increasing levels of disbelief. Some accept that regressing to birth experiences are possible but not going as far back as intrauterine experiences of traumas. And so it goes back to include the possibility of having egg and sperm memories and even to times before those cellular memories! The most die hard believers in the reality of primal type regressions eventually get to a point where they insist, "so far, but no further." They feel that some limits should be eventually insisted upon the validity of primal regressive experiences. As expected, that limiting time line is usually placed so as to include their own earliest regressive experiences.

As a short aside, here's an interesting photo and account of slime mold memory:

Current biological science has shown that even slime molds, which are brainless single-celled creatures, are capable of a surprising depth of recalling ability. Slime molds can anticipate the events they have committed to memory. (See They can also solve the navigation of mazes as they remember where they have been and take the same route to claim the food reward. (See ) Thus, the argument that we cannot remember our sperm and egg life because cellular memory does not yet exist is not persuasive. Physarum polycephalum seemingly remembers adequately without a brain. Although it may seem curious that the latin species part of its name (polycephalum) is "many brained," each individual cell of this lifeform which comprises its complete entity must be responsible for the regulation and operation of its many necessary life functions in common with more advanced forms of life.

I am no different from the other "true believers" of primal regressions and my belief is that the outer time limits stop at the intrauterine memory stage. That is the limit I have imposed only because that is as far back as I have been! I have difficulty in acknowledging that one can relive earlier traumas, such as, one's life as a sperm or egg. But like others, in regressive type therapies, my beliefs might be subect to future revision!

By necessity, all of the examples marshalled to back up any position regarding the developmental "time" limit of regressive experiences are anecdotal in nature since there is presently no way to prove that intrauterine transmission of feelings, scenes or comprehension of words by fetuses is possible.

Other than birth memories which number in the thousands, the furthest back I have voyaged has been to my intrauterine life which were not extensive. I've only experienced such regressions on two occasions and they were both limited in depth of feeling. The first was merely floating peacefully in the amniotic sac. Indeed, on that occasion, I had had no perception of being in my mother's uterus, so I should add these words to explain that it was only a feeling of floating peacefully "somewhere" but that I had immediately sensed I was inutero.

The second intrauterine experience was in a period near birth, but before the birth process had begun, when I had the clear and distinct impression that I was not wanted. A minute or so later after feeling that I had just been born, I had another deep impression in which I felt, "she still doesn't want me."

Although many agree with him, a large number of pre-birth therapists would disagree with Dr. Janov's position regarding the impossibility of storage and transmission, by the fetus, of feelings associated with particular words or scenes. This does not mean that they would disagree that the neurochemical intrauterine environment is of no consequence for the developing fetus but rather would believe that such a fetus would be capable of processing memories in their distinct emotional aspects including ". . .scenes, words, or feelings," after a knowledge of words is learned.

Dr. Janov does not believe in those theories of "umbilical affect." (See Frank Lake, "The Significance of Birth and Prenatal Events in Individual, Family and Social Life," p. 51, quoted in Maret's dissertation, about Frank Lake's Maternal-Fetal Distress Syndrome"). The later reference describes the umbilical cord as a direct feeling pipeline to the emotions of the mother, and from which the fetus may thereby learn, for example, that his mother and father fought continuously during his gestation or that he is unwanted and will not be welcomed at birth. (See Review of Collected Works of William R. Emerson, Ph.D., Vol. 2, Pre- and Peri-Natal Regression Therapy)

For decades, clients of deep-regression therapists around the world have been observing that as a fetus some of their clients sometimes recognize that they had an inutero twin. If the twin dies and is absorbed (claimed to be remarkably common) or is lost through abortion, many believe that the surviving twin knows, on some level, of this loss and as a result, may suffer depression in the womb, in infancy, or in adulthood. (See Intrauterine Memories of Twinship Experiences ). Many therapists claim that the surviving twin may spend a lifetime symbolically searching for their dead twin. As far as I know, Dr. Janov has not acknowledged that psychological reactions to inutero twin-loss are possible.

A couple of decades ago, primal-oriented therapist Barbara Findeisen appeared on a two hour Opray Winfrey tv show which dealt exclusively with reliving birth trauma. A woman was interviewed who had survived a number of abortion attempts. She recounted conversations she "heard" during the attempted abortions as well as telephone conversations which her mother had dealing with an upcoming abortion attempt. Her mother was present during the tv show and collaborated the daughter's testimony.

Dr. Graham Farrant, the Australian psychiatrist and primal-oriented therapist recounts two stories which involve the reliving of intrauterine trauma to a degree thought impossible by Janov. In the quote below he recounts how he became convinced of his own attempted abortion. It took a series of primals but eventually he "knew" his truth and from the U.S. ". . . rang. . . (his). . . 79-year-old- mother and told her what she had done." He continues,

My mother and I never had what you call a close relationship. My mother in 1927 was the equivalent of Miss New York-Miss Victoria-she was a fashion model, very gregarious, flamboyant, hystrionic, coquettish, with a svelte-like figure. When I came along the figure changed shape, so she didn't like that. My father was obliged to run the business because my grandfather had died suddenly. It was the end of the depression, and she decided they would all be better off if I weren't there. So she took a bunch of pills and got into a hot bath, which is exactly what I told her she had done. She burst into tears and revealed that I couldn't possibly know that because she had not even told my father, she never told anybody. (Cellular Consciousness.Keynote Address, 14th IPA Convention, 1986)

Irish novelist and playright, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) of, Waiting for Godot fame, purported "to have spontaneous memories of being in his mother's womb: a situation less blissful than stifling, readily associable with the tight enclosures pondered by the characters and voices in so many of his works." ( Samuel Becket - Apmonia)

Frank Lake, M.D. in his classic, Clinical Theology: A Theological and Psychiatric Basis to Clinical Pastoral Care, (1966) p. 701, writes "of the infantile states and mind and their return to consciousness....The mothers of his schizoid characters in Waiting for Godot are born by them...astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries." ibid., quoting, Waiting for Godot.

Lake quotes Peggy Guggenheim, who had had a brief love affair with Beckett and that he "had retained a terrible memory of life in his mother's womb. He was constantly suffering from this and had awful crises, when he felt he was suffocating." ibid., p. 702.

British Psychiatrist Frank Lake powerfully described the fetus as capable of being "marinated" in its mother's emotions. As mentioned earlier, Lake believed that that the actual emotions of the mother-to-be could be transmitted to the fetus through the umbilical cord, with the first trimester being particularly prepotent. He writes,

The family often pays an emotional and economic price for having another child, and even though the mother's feelings may be only temporary, for the fetus the feeling may be permanent. Even though she may have wish to avoid imprinting the baby with unwantedness, 'evidence is strong that the mother's feelings about herself become, for the one in the womb, the whole basis of its own sense of being and worth.' (Frank Lake, M.D., Studies in Constricted Confusion: Exploration of a Pre- and Peri-Natal Paradigm, p. T-10.)

Lake also writes,

It may be due to her marriage, to her husband's withdrawal rather than more intimate supporting when he is asked urgently for more than his personality can easily give. It may be due to the family's economic or social distress in a distressed neighborhood. . . . If she is grieving the loss of or nursing a still dying parent, the sorrow overwhelms her and overwhelms her fetus. (Lake, Theology and Personality, p. 66. Quoted as a footnote in Maret, op. cit., p. 172.)

Clinical psychologist, Robert Godwin, in One Cosmos Under God writes how Allan Schore believes that a phenomenon, somewhat like mental telepathy, takes place between the infant and its mother.

This happens, he claims, because of the remarkable closeness and far reaching effects of early mother-baby interactions. (Godwin, op.cit., p. 112) Godwin believes that even unconscious conflicts of the parents can be transmitted in this manner and quotes British paediatrician, D. W. Winnicott, that in truth there is "no such thing as an infant." He writes that psychologically, mother and infant are to be considered as one unit of being. Positive psychological development of the infant becomes hampered as unintegratable implanted mind parasites (the mother's unresolved condition of pathology) which mould the fetus in detrimental ways.

Dr. Godwin, in his perceptive internet blog, One Cosmos, offers a personal example of the psychic transmission of information:

. . . I donít think thereís any question that our minds are connected in ways that we do not understand. This is the whole basis of synchronicity, which allegedly reveals the nonlocal interconnectedness of the cosmos through meaningful coincidence.

I have experienced many strange synchronicities in my life, but one of the weirdest occurred when I was sitting up in bed, thinking about this and that, while my wife was falling asleep. My mind was dwelling on nothing in particular, and I was thinking to myself about how a certain acquaintance sometimes called me 'Bob,' other times 'Robert.' Mrs. G. -- who was sound asleep -- then says, 'Do you mind if I call you Bob?' (8/6/06) One Cosmos


Comments of "M.H."

[physician and clinical psychologist]

Frequently pre-natal memories involve a "knowing" of things and events. Its psychoneural mechanism is unknown. At other times feeling states and sensory memories descend without a clear or objective comprehension somewhat like your experience of floating without any intricate comprehension of being a fetus inside your mother.

My work involving long term observations of regression suggest that sounds are recorded somehow, somewhere in the organism without comprehension of the words heard but with a reaction to the emotional tone accompanying them. Thus singing registers and raging registers which can be disturbing and scary.

Ones' system may somehow recall specific words to be reconstructed later by the unconscious after the person acquires language abilities, so what is registered as the sound of the word "DIE" for example can later on acquire the meaning of the word die and unite with the emotional tone of an angry mother along with the physical imprint of the emotions and the adrenalin and other hormones of an angry mother umbilically transmitted to the receptive fetus.

A lot of kinesthetic memories are recalled such as movement or pressing. Much has been written about recall of very specific musical pieces by a baby, pieces that were frequently played to him in utero. Also recall the famous heartbeat tape of the mother which was played to crying babies in a nursery, leading to calmness and suggesting a recall of the maternal heartbeat.

Proving that people can remember in utero experiences is of great scientific, academic and practical importance, but to a clinician, obtaining clinical relief of symptoms or unhealthy patterns is the main concern . If a patient is getting better and better and less symptomatic by resolving what seems to be a past life or an in utero experience of traumatic nature, then by no means should we stop that process regardless of whether our theoretical framework can intellectually accept the patients experience or not.

It might be helpful for those who draw theoretical red lines for themselves to simply go with the process and let the body carry it to an end where a resolution of the crisis is obtained. Simply tell yourself, "It may just be crazy fantasy, but I still wish or am driven to experience and complete it guided by my body responses and feeling relief obtained and perhaps even insight when reaching the endpoint of that process. The endpoint will be signified by relaxation and resolution of the tension and sometimes deep rest or sleep.

The flexibility, described above, is almost always helpful; if the memory is a real one then well and good. If the "memory" is a symbolic fantasy construct, then it will eventually open the path to the "real" underlying memory and serve as a stepping stone or a practice run preceding the real one, in which case it provides the patient with confidence similar which is gained in a rehearsal.

I believe it is utterly foolish to forcefully harness a patients successful flow simply because of a theoretical block in the mind of the therapist. In many cases these intellectual boundaries when reinforced, during an experiential process, seem to stem out of fear or a defense in the patient or therapist.

Even subtle indirect restraint can delay the healing. if a patient is rambling on while calm cool and collected and telling you about alien spaceships then these are symptoms that need to be addressed. But if the patient is in deep feelings with corresponding crying or trembling or anger and all the body accompaniments and begins experiencing something unbelievable then I normally allow them to continue as long as the emotional flow continues. I treat their content as I would any more believable traumatic experience of later childhood!

On occasion, the patients progress comes to a halt or plateau when he reaches a forbidden experience. This is either because the material is too scary or due to its "unbelievability" where the patient fights it to avoid appearing or believing they're crazy or foolish.

Its normal and necessary to have limits to what you believe possible in normal everyday life. But stopping a good and productive flow of emotion and content simply because of cognitive constraints is not always helpful.

Many of my patients start their flow by talking emotionally to their pets or their old house or other odd things that you're not expected to have deep personalized feelings towards (personalizing the inaminate), such as a house or country, etc. but believe me, you should not interrupt them as there is a reason why a person cries for some unusual object and in the end they often have a very powerful experience going through many shifts including seemingly bizarre material that serves as a safe starting point or stepping stone - sometimes a necessary one - in processing the experience pressing for release!

I mentioned the above partly to share some personal clinical practices I developed and chose for my work when it comes to "unbelievable material." Another reason was to encourage you to lift any intellectual vetoes you might be enforcing on your own process. I wondered if your boundaries were hindering your freedom to let go with unconscious material that you might be unknowingly avoiding. - "M.H."

Writings of "M.H." which appear on The Primal Psychotherapy Page:

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