On False Memories,
Primal Therapy,
and its Alternatives

by Jonathan Christie, Ph.D.

Janov-certified Primal Therapist in private practice

(Be sure to read the author's notes below the article)

Most of us have come to believe that the pain of even a normal American childhood is so intolerable that a child cannot integrate the experience and must repress it. Incredibly, most branches of psychology accept shame as a necessary tool in the socialization of infants, and some psychoanalysts even believe shame is essential for the infant to form a separate personality!*

Those of us who have re-experienced being shamed know how badly it crippled us, and recognize that it causes depression, anxiety and all manner of behavioral disturbances. It beggars the imagination that the helping profession, by and large, embrace the cause of the problems it treats!

Let us consider the Primal ideas for a moment. Freud said we have the legacy of our brutal animal past sequestered in the id, and civilization depends on keeping the unconscious unconscious with defences such as rationalization, denial, projection and repression. Janov says we have repressed childhood traumas in our unconscious which we constantly act out symbolically in an effort to resolve them.

Freud believed the id was immutable and unchanging, but Primal theory says that repression can be lifted and the unconscious made conscious. When we finally react to the repressed material, it is shorn of its emotional charge and becomes just a memory, part of our experience. It no longer has the power to disrupt our functioning.

Much of our early pain is registered by the amygdala, which is functional even before birth. It scans for danger and galvanizes the reaction which saved us when we faced our first life-or-death crisis - we call this the birth imprint. But our memory only starts to work when the hippocampus matures, at about three years of age. By then, most of us have felt abandoned and shamed - and in many cases have a corresponding birth imprint of being unaided and stuck and out of air in the birth canal.

So whenever our present resonates with past danger, we are gripped by terrible sensations and impelled by strong impulses - with no memory to help us interpret what's happening. It's diabolical!

How can the repression be lifted and full consciousness regained? Tears cried from emotional distress contain endorphins, the internal opiates which protect us from suffering. Each tear removes more of these agents of repression from the brain, until repression fails and memory is restored. In other words, we cry - and far from fostering hysteria and decompensation as Freud believed, we find the right kind of crying leads to resolution. It seems that crying, and not dreaming, is the royal road to the unconscious.

However, this crying is not an exercise. Rather, it's a part of our reaction to the original trauma which was itself repressed. So when you have repressed trauma, you can't react appropriately or know the true source of your distress. You can't know, can't feel and can't react. This is a pretty fair definition of suffering, but there's more - when the ability to cry is lost to repression we lose our path back to health, so that in neurosis we truly become prisoners of our pain.

What is the healing transaction here? We pass from the present context to the past, letting the feeling be our guide (since it is the feeling which is the same in the present as in the past). When we find the true context, the primal hurt, we let ourselves react as we could not then. We fully react to the primal trauma for the first time and this is the healing transaction - memory is regained, there's relief, even euphoria, and insight into the neurotic behavior driven by the repressed material.

We believe that the brain actually rewires itself during this experience, which is why we speak of connection. Once reacted to, the repressed material no longer has to be shunted away from consciousness and becomes simply a part of our history. Freud himself actually treated a First-World-War shell-shock victim who'd been blown up while reading a map by thrusting a map into his hands unexpectedly. The man had a tremendous catharthis during which he remembered details of the explosion, and his symptoms resolved. But Freud failed to recognize the significance of what had happened.

How can we be sure we haven't had a "false memory?" That we haven't fooled ourselves with some sort of placebo effect? We find dramatic changes in physiological parameters during therapy sessions, found in no other therapy. Over the years, every parameter Janov measured normalized with progress in therapy.

Salivary cortisol, a measure of stress, falls. Thermographic pictures show more even skin temperature, indicating more even capillary flow. Serotonin levels fall (measured indirectly by imipramine binding to platelets, which come from the same stem cells as limbic neurons), indicating less repression and better immune function. EEG measurements show lower voltages and frequencies in all quadrants, indicative of a calmer brain.

And the vital signs, including blood pressure, pulse and body temperature, normalize. The question is, why? We react to threat with the fight-or-flight response as our sympathetic nervous system gears us for extraordinary effort. This is true whether we're being attacked by a saber-tooth tiger, or shamed into conforming. If the trauma is too much for us, repression rushes in. When we relive this trauma in a primal, our vital signs follow the same original pattern because they're part of the memory.

The profound relief and calm after a primal is almost always accompanied by the vital signs falling in concert below their values at the beginning of the session. If free-flowing insights accompany the memories, we can be reasonably certain that the memories are real. This is easy to check and gives insight into the pattern of the imprint.

On the other hand, if the vital signs diverge, we have the thing Freud warned us of: abreaction, hysteria and decompensation. Pain has merely been shunted from one physiologic system to another, from blood pressure to increased metabolism and a higher body temperature, say.

Abreactive crying strips away neurotic defenses without resolving the trauma by connection to consciousness. Our last line of defense - crazy ideas - must be pressed into service to preserve our sanity! The danger of Primal therapy in untrained hands is that it can drive people mad. What alternatives to Primal Therapy are there? Those for whom Primal therapy has worked are probably unanimous in saying there is no alternative. Those for whom it hasn't worked, whether because of poor technique, impregnable repression or a loss of the ability to cry - or for lack of opportunity - need ways to live with their pain. Some may find peace of mind or even access to feeling in drugs, exercise, diet, cold showers, meditation and hormones.

Although drugs in Primal therapy may seem counter-intuitive, the rationale is that those who are too anxious or too depressed to have access to tears must be helped to the feeling zone before their therapy can begin. Sometimes, repression must be shored up so that consciousness has the "breathing room" to function. But there's a step to take before presenting the prescription: if we don't have enough of the nutritional precursors, we may not be able to make the neurotransmitters we need.

5HTP is the well-known and widely available precursor of serotonin, and many believe it's as effective as SSRIs like Prozac but without the side-effects. dl-phenylalanine both preserves the endorphins, our natural pain-killers, and is a precursor of dopamine, a lack of which lessens feelings of pleasure. Check out BeCalm'd, a good source of neurotransmitter precursors, at http://www.becalmd.info/.

The symptoms of pellagra - niacin deficiency - are some combination of dermatitis, diarrhea and dementia, and since the sub-clinical condition is frequently found in the aged of this country, even a B-supplement can have an incredible effect on mood if one is deficient.

Exercise is nature's antidepressant. Lethargy is characteristic of depression and to go against it, is to go against the imprint of, "If I move, I'll die." Exercise generates endorphins, nature's feel-good opiates which probably work more effectively than any drug, if we can generate enough of them. Exercise also satisfies the flight part of the fight-or-flight reaction, so that if our anxiety is in part a memory of being stuck - "I must move, or die" - then it goes against this imprint also. It's incredible how resistant to exercise people with these imprints are, and doubly incredible how effective exercise is when they can be persuaded to indulge in it.

Diet - ah, diet. Hypoglycemics are often addicted to sugar and are sometimes even more resistant to change than those who are anti-exercise. Since hypoglycemia makes whatever neurotic afflictions we may have many times worse, it is worth ruling out. It's so unexpected, so insidious and so destructive to good mood that I've written an article on it: http://www.survivediabetes.com/sugar.htm#Sugar

Then there's cold showers. Curiously, Arthur Janov's mother's pre-psychotic disorder responded to the prescription of a cold-ocean swim each morning. How can such a simple thing be so effective? I think it triggers the reflex which brings us to life at birth. As we're born, the temperature drops by 20 or 30, and this triggers our first intake of breath.

As you turn the temperature down in the shower, there comes a point for many people when the eyes open wide and there's an involuntary intake of breath, usually accompanied by a renewed sense of focus on matters at hand and a lift in the spirits. For many, birth marked the end of "stuck" and the start of life, so a cold shower may lift these people out of their imprint.

Meditation is a fascinating subject, once one gets past the mysticism. Meditation of every flavor normalizes the vital signs, just like Primal Therapy. I think it does this by purging the mind of triggers, so that we get rid of whatever we're thinking about which resonates with past pain. We lose what's eating at us. This is palpable when we meet someone who meditates - they're generally calm and receptive. Herbert Benson's Beyond the Relaxation Response and Lawrence LeShan's How to Meditate are two good secular books on the subject. The Monroe Institute ( http://www.monroeinstitute.org/) sells tapes using HemiSync technology, in which slightly different tones played into each ear generate a beat frequency which entrains the brain, which make it very easy to enter a meditative state. If I were stuck without access to feeling, I'd pursue meditation until I found peace of mind - and then I'd pursue access to feeling.

A parasympathetic imprint constantly pushes us into parasympathetic excess and towards depression, and the mechanism is lowered hormonal activity. If our waking temperature is below 97.4o, we're likely hypothyroid. If we get dizzy when we stand up, we may be low in cortisol. If we lack self-confidence or sexual desire, low testosterone may be to blame. Older men often lack sufficient progesterone, leading to estrogen dominance and PMS-like symptoms.

Once identified, hormone replacement with natural hormones may compensate for the pressure of the imprint and make us feel better. These are matters for an enlightened endocrinologist, who may be harder to find than a needle in a haystack. However, you can take a saliva test without a prescription which may reveal if this line of enquiry is worthwhile - check out http://www.life-flo.com/evalu8.html.

As a Primal Therapist in private practice, I am often asked for inexpensive solutions to suffering, and I offer these things in the hope they may be of help. There's nothing worse than unnecessary suffering.

* Allan Schore, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, Erlbaum, New Jersey 1994, p. 252.


I grew up in Cambridge, England, and studied Engineering at London University. I borrowed The Primal Scream from my mother and read it while working for Cambridge Audio, who made the first high-quality transistor amplifiers. I began therapy in 1970 at the Primal Institute in Los Angeles. Such an exciting time, new discoveries seemed to be made daily. I joined the training program and began an MA in Psychology, graduating in 1976.

It was Art's presence that made the time special. His saying was "let a hundred flowers bloom", which meant he let his therapists find their own way, so long as their therapy was effective. After a brief power struggle, Riggs Corriere, Steve Gold and Gerry Binder left to form The Feeling Center.[Webmeister's Note: See book review - Therapy Gone Mad] I was sorry to see Werner Karle go; a few years later, he had a seizure while on a roof and was killed - his epilepsy had been in remission at the Institute.

A little later, Jules and Helen Roth left to form the Denver Institute. My good friend Tracee Alexander went to New York to run the Clinic there, and I began to find myself slowing down - years of seeing two three-week patients simultaneously, plus sessions, groups and meetings had taken their toll. I qualified as a Marriage, Family and Child Counselor and left the Institute in 1977, about the time Art went to France. About that time, I discovered computers, nearly went to Australia and got Type I Diabetes which was a really big surprise - see my website about it at http://www.SurviveDiabetes.com .

I wrote a book about essential fatty acids and health and happiness, which was published by Bantam in 1992 as Food for Vitality. Bantam wanted a qualification to put after my name, so I made the text into a thesis with a few changes and was awarded a PhD in Health Principles! A fascinating time. Art came back from France in 1986 and sought me out to teach at The Primal Training Center in 1989.

We were trying to train therapists, and we learned that people who'd had therapy knew almost nothing about being therapists. This was a surprise, but it makes sense since one is far too distracted while undergoing therapy to take in the techniques being used. We made it possible for them to learn by becoming a clinic once more. Once this enterprise was stable, with graduates at work in Switzerland and a competent staff at home, I left to return to private practice.

So here I am, thirty-three years after beginning therapy, with some incredible memories. I fly planes for a hobby - I learned when I was 17 and I love the feeling of soaring into the sky at takeoff, it's just like being lifted out of the crib. I buddy with my sister, who keeps me straight.

What have I learned? Primal therapy is a lifelong journey. Each period of feeling gives a peace of mind which may last years, but when the time is right the next installment comes along. Then it's time to go back. In my time, I haven't met anyone who's finished the process, but I've met many who've let their access lapse. It's surprising when you think of what we had to spend and what we had to go through to gain access to feeling in the first place, but I suppose it's part of the learning process - the price of neglecting access is suffering.

I've learned that nobody is smarter than their pain. Until we feel what's driving it, our symbolic behavior makes sense to us. This is true at every level, no one is immune - I've never met Primal Man!

The strongest feelings are the earliest and they take the longest to get through. They seem to take forever - but often this is part of the feeling since we had no sense of time when the feeling was laid down. They are the most worthwhile because they evaporate the sense of impending doom, or the feeling of being stuck, or the sense of being under pressure - whatever it is that ails us.

So that's what I do. I see people from the old days and bring them up to date - the therapy is so much more than it was in 1973. I also do three-week intensives and individual sessions.

Jonathan Christie, Janov-Certified Primal Therapist (1993)
835 N Stanley Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046
jonty@ix.netcom.com , (323) 852-7134

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