By John A. Speyrer

The Skeptical Inquirer is a magazine which reports critical investigations and debunkings of paranormal and pseudoscientific events and subjects. In the past I have always found myself in their cheering section, shouting hurray as they led the charge against beliefs in Astrology, Para-psychology, Channeling, Haunted Houses, Crystal Power, UFOology, ESP, Alien Encounters, Fortune Telling, Tarot Cards, Creationism, Dowsing, Palmistry, Biorhythms, etc. You get the idea. And hey, maybe even some of your beliefs are listed above!

Anyhow, everything was going along well until the day I received an issue in which the cover featured a lead article by a Dr. Barry Beyerstein, a Canadian Psychologist, entitled The Brain and Consciousness. The article was critical of the theories of (you guessed it!) Arthur Janov. Writings of Thomas Verny, Stanislav Grof and others were also criticized in that article. The attacks were the usual ones. The immature fetal brain could not store such early memories, patients in primal felt what they were expected to feel, etc.

In the Fall of 1988 issue, a rebuttal letter by Dr. Janov was printed in which he claimed that Beyerstein was not knowledgeable of the latest research in the field of consciousness, that he (Janov) did not agree with Verny's writings and that primal therapy was the most heavily researched of all therapies and criticized the Skeptical Inquirer for printing such an article without checking on the latest research in that field.

In response, Dr. Beyerstein retorted that primal therapy was not believed by the majority of researchers in the fields of psychotherapy, psychobiology and cognitive psychology. He said that Arthur Janov was actually more harsh in attacking those who made claims similar to his own than he was. He said that Janov appropriated findings in neuroscience which agreed with primal theory but glosses over research which conflicts with his theories. EEG measurements, he wrote, are irrelevant and furthermore that increased endorphin levels at birth actually would mean that the new-born would not suffer birth trauma. Peri-natal memories are confabulated, Dr. Beyerstein assured the readers. Sure, patients feel better after ``primal screaming'' but he argued that that does not prove primal theory is valid, since placebos can be effective in helping someone feel better. Beyerstein said he asked a colleague to direct him to the leading psychotherapist's handbooks and he found that only one of the five books had a reference to primal therapy and that book described primal as being highly skeptical and faddish.

After that assault on primal therapy, I could not let matters rest. Dr. Beyerstein had committed the sin of all those who attack the therapy. He disparaged primal therapy because he did not understand it. To describe primal therapy so it can be understood requires the use of words which already have established meanings. For example, in a primal context, words such as ``pain'' and ``feeling'' mean something different than in normal usage. And didn't one of Janov's books have the title Primal Man: The New Consciousness? You can't use the word consciousness in its old meaning if you're discussing primals. Primalling is accessing a new form of consciousness. Using old words in a new sense results in a lot of misunderstandings. I really believe that it is an impossible task to understand a primal unless one has experienced one.

Nonetheless, in spite of the difficulties, I took upon myself the task of answering Beyerstein's objections. I guess I failed since my beloved Skeptical Inquirer magazine did not publish my letter of rebuttal to Beyerstein. Here it is:


The Skeptical Inquirer

It was interesting to read the exchange of views of Barry Beyerstein and Arthur Janov on primal therapy. I have been doing primal therapy without a therapist for some 14 years and know that the therapy has been of benefit to me. I believe that Beyerstein is correct in believing that primal therapy is suspect by the great majority of those in the mental health field. This is a fact, but an unfortunate fact, since I feel that Arthur Janov's discoveries are of such merit that he deserves a Nobel prize in medicine.

There is a lot more to primal therapy than what meets the eye. Eventually, Janov will be recognized by his colleagues for his contributions, but that appears to be far in the future. Dr. Beyerstein was also correct in stating that Dr. Janov is harsher than he is on others who make similar claims. There are a number of reasons for this. In schools of psychological thought, as in religion, heretics are more opprobrious than are pagans. Janov, as the discoverer of primal therapy, is interested in restricting the number of his competitors for economic reasons. He also contends that under some therapists' ministrations, actual primals do not occur. He feels that many who practice what he calls mock primal therapy, are unskilled, unsuccessful, do not have the requisite training and thus give primal therapy a bad name.

Research projects on the results of psychotherapy are notoriously difficult to design and Arthur Janov is to be commended for attempting to do so. Perhaps it is impossible to design experiments which prove any psychotherapy effective. Unless you're a primal therapist you cannot replicate the research he has done. Even though the research would show reductions in neurotic symptoms, the argument could be made that the emotional abreaction alone caused the effect. There is no amount of evidence which could be presented which would make some change their mind that primal is bizarre and that its patients are a bunch of hysterics. The only thing which would change the mind of its critics would be to experience a primal. When I first read Janov's writings I dismissed the whole thing as poppy-cock. It was only when I began having primals spontaneously that I knew that something real was happening. So it is not surprising that the leading psychotherapists' handbooks either have nothing good to say about primal therapy or deride it.

The fact that Janov appropriates legitimate findings in neuroscience, which tend to collaborate his theory, is understandable. After all, others do the same. When scientists unearth new data which tends to reinforce the theory of evolution, biologists use the information to bolster evolutionary science. That is the way scientific progress is made. Janov was saying that the newborn was extremely sentient many years before neonatalists confirmed his statements. The position of neuroscientists before Janov was that since mylination of nerve sheaths was incomplete, the function of memory in fetuses and newborns was not present. Janov did not come up with a theory of the cause of neurosis out of the blue. The theory of how neurosis is laid down was gained from his patients. And when they began re-living their births (and shucking their neurotic symptoms), he still did not accept their explanations as to what was happening. He assumed that their conclusions were fantasies. It took a long time before his patients were able to convince him that they were, in fact, reliving their births.

Beyerstein feels that Janov's contention of being able to re-live memories from the womb are extremely doubtful. Actually, Janov's claims in this matter are very conservative. Dr. Graham Farrant, an Australian Psychiatrist and primal therapist who was the first psychiatrist of his country to receive accreditation in both adult and child psychiatry (from Harvard and McGill medical schools), believes that it is possible to relive ones sperm life, fertilization, implantation, and early zygote development! One of Graham's patients was Dr. Carl Wood, the father of the Australian test tube baby program. Dr. Wood is convinced of the reality of primal therapy and the fact that these very early traumas can be relived.

It is not surprising that Janov's definition of pain is different from pain experts because he is talking about an entirely different sensation. It is a problem of semantics. There is no way to explain or discuss what it is like to be in primal pain during a primal with someone who has not had a primal. Words become inadequate for the task. Describing sound to a person born deaf is an almost impossible undertaking and so is explaining the difference between the two kinds of pains to someone who has not experienced being in the primal state. In a word, being in primal Pain is a new form of consciousness.

Using vital signs and EEG measurements to determine with certainty that a primal has occurred is unique to primal therapy since it is the only form of psychotherapy during which these changes occur. Early in the development of primal therapy it was found that these measurements descend to way below baseline after the primal reliving. These measurements have become a way to distinguish between a primal and an abreaction. Perhaps these lowered vital signs in themselves prove nothing. They do show, however, that something significant has really happened to the person who has had the experience while he lay on the floor reliving an event which happened, perhaps, fifty years earlier. Unsuccessful attempts have been made to mimic these vital sign changes by exercise or abreaction. After a period of time in therapy, these signs remain lowered permanently.

The rise in endorphin levels around birth keeps the newborn infant from totally experiencing the trauma, however, the full charge the suffering is nonetheless registered in the brain. But even if the newborn baby had not felt the horror of its traumatic birth, it would not mean that its' total agony was not stored in the brain of the immature baby. In fact, this is one reason why birth traumas are responsible for so many psychosomatic symptoms and neurotic behaviors. The pain of the repressed trauma continues to drive neurotic behavior and cause emotional stress. The immature brain has sufficient development to store the trauma until it is subsequently retrieved in primal therapy.

It is probable that occasionally confabulations by primal patients do occur. However, encouragement by a therapist to concoct primal feelings is the mark of an incompetent therapist. Most patients who have experienced a few primals would not tolerate such behavior by their therapist. In any case, for self primalers, this objection could not apply.

Emotional catharsis can relieve tensions, as can jogging, a religious experience, good news or a tranquilizer. However, in these examples, the symptom relief is only temporary. Primal therapy gives more than temporary relief and a primal experience is more than an emotional catharsis. Primal theory holds that during a primal feeling there is a lowering of defenses, a lifting of repression and a connection occurs between the emotional content of the infantile or childhood trauma and consciousness. At this time, some of the source of the tension is released forever. Over time (with severe and frequent symptoms it may take many years), as the primal feelings continue, one lives his life less and less the victim of his nervous tension and psychosomatic disease and more and more free from the restraints of the effects of his infantile and early childhood hurts.