Thursday, September 27, 2012

Debunking Primal Therapy? I doubt it.

Andrew D Atkin:

Ok, I've been meaning to write this post for while - a kind of tour of duty. So here we go...

If you refer to my post on Understanding Mental Sickness you will see I make reference to Dr Arthur Janov's Primal Therapy, as a possible - and in my view probable - solution/method to breaking down traumatic repressed pain. I have studied Arthur Janov's literature quite extensively for a long time, and I have followed his long-running blog and made many contributions to it over the last few years. I have even asserted (though often speculatively) some theoretical clarifications on various things.

Well, getting to it, there is this guy on the Internet who has an anonymously authored website called "Debunking Primal Therapy", which is primarily targeted towards Arthur Janov's therapy. It is the author's best attempt at damaging the image and credibility of Arthur Janov's therapy.

Though I know there are many people out there who would laugh at the author's work, few have posted in critical opposition to it. So I have decided to say what I have to say of it, in defense to what I know of Arthur Janov's work.


I will first mention that the author of Debunking Primal Therapy, as he has admitted, was closely involved in Janov's therapy himself but rebelled from it later. Why? Janov has claimed [in direct and public response to my questions] that the guy who formed this website was a trainee primal therapist who failed, and had to be dismissed - he just couldn't do it. The trainee then 'got himself a mission' to hurt Arthur Janov and his clinic, and likewise formed the debunking website.

I can only report here on what others have said, but I think these assertions should be noted.


Firstly, we should ask ourselves what we need to do to debunk Primal Therapy. What questions do we need to ask? Really there are only two core questions that need to be confronted to give us the meat of what we need to know:


1. Is it true that traumatic pain is blocked within the nervous system, leading to (and driving) symptoms and general repression, like Dr Arthur Janov describes it? Is repression, like Dr Arthur Janov [and Freud, for that matter] describe it, real?

2. Is it true that blocked pain, that we assume to be a reality, can be later integrated? That is, can we de-repress and allow for the originally blocked pain signal to run though it's course, little by little, as the mature brain can then tolerate its assimilation, and again like Dr Arthur Janov describes it?


Well, as I said these are the only two questions that we really need to look at. Whether or not Janov's therapy facilitates the integration of blocked pain, or whether or not it does so well, is ultimately a secondary issue. What we need to know about is if the therapy is standing on an accurate premise - not whether or not Janov's personal therapy has or ever has had any operational flaws.

[And no doubt it has had its bugs, like all new developments. Nothing is perfect at conception. Maybe he is still making mistakes today? I don't know. You can do any right thing wrong, but again Janov's therapeutic competence is not the critical question.]

Now this is where I have my biggest problem with the debunking website. It never goes to what's real - directly. It does not ask or answer the only two questions that really matter. It's a vast mass of hard to read (because it's boring - no substance) material that makes up for a huge pile of empty accusations that, in themselves, debunk nothing at all.

The questions:

Well, I for one do not need any more evidence on the idea of blocked pain driving neurotic behaviour. To me, from so many observations of both myself and others, this has become obvious. Countless mainstream therapists (including neurologists) are on my side with this too, I will add.

-Though some are not. Some seem to believe that all repressed memories are false memories, created via the suggestions of unscrupulous or incompetent therapists, and that repressed memories do not have an active impact on the brain. May I say that it's true that false and implanted memories are real, but obviously not all memories are false. The existence of the unreal does not invalidate the real, and false memories and repressed memories are two different topics.

The real question that is considered controversial is Janov's claim that he can de-repress blocked pain. When Freud tried this he merely ended up with abreaction (Keeping it simple: think of abreaction as a somewhat benign externally-induced psychotic episode), of which did not (and does not) lead to the integration of prior repressed pain. Freud then came to the conclusion that repressed pain could be triggered but not actually integrated and resolved, so the force of blocked pain was unfortunately permanent until the individual's death.

Janov claims that Freud's observations were accurate with respect to abreaction, but Freud was achieving abreaction only because he did not discover how to achieve Integration. Freud formed the assumption that integration was impossible, which Janov came to refute. This, in my view, is the only core difference between Janov and Freud.

My own experience with the Integration process:

When I was 17 years old my defense system truly broke down for a short moment, and I had what Janov calls a Primal - an event of pain integration.

Note: This happened before I knew anything about primal therapy or developed any serious interest in psychology and mental sickness. So no-one can say this was some sort of externally suggested experience. It most certainly was not.

Anyway, I will give you the basic run-down sequence of what happened.

1. Forced to my knees and let out an absolutely spontaneous cry. Immediately prior to this I felt, for a very short moment, the experience of truly losing control (mentally) which was the distinctly uncomfortable part of the experience. This experience has a quality that cannot be described to anyone who has not experienced it. I will say it feels like profound vulnerability.

2. I then felt what was like a straight-jacket (that I was always wearing) being sequentially released around my mid-line, again as an entirely spontaneous motion. [Janov accurately calls this "dropping into the feeling"].

3. I then felt utterly like a 4 year old child, and in a specific feeling that was completely real for me. The best way I can put it was that I finally went to the real [prior repressed] feeling, rather than battling to deny it, which, as Janov again describes, is what we are all unknowingly doing all of the time. I will not give you the details on the feeling but it was the saddest feeling I remember having.

4. I enjoyed the feeling. It was a deep relief to feel it - rather than battling away from it.

5. After going to bed to feel my feeling, and feeling it for a time, I then found myself profusely sweating. This actually distressed me a bit because I could not understand why on earth I was sweating. It was like my body was not making sense.

6. I then felt very cheerful, if not elated, because I knew it was the end of the issue I was having at the time and I was fascinated by how I had really felt. The best way I can describe the cycle is as a true, full-bodied acceptance of reality. In true acceptance there is resolution. When you have really resolved something you know it. It is not abstract. It is not something you try to tell yourself and convince yourself about (like cognitive therapy). It is inherently real.

So what's my point? My point is that this sequence is identical to what Janov had described way back in the seventies, with his classic The Primal Scream.

So is Janov a con man making it all up? From this experience of mine, and for many other reasons, I really doubt it. For me, the main question is simply "How far can the regressive process go?". Is infantile pain as far as we can go, or can we go further into fetal level pains? I am not yet in a position to completely affirm what I think is probably the truth. I need direct experience beyond my current experience to know for sure.

Note: I want to mention that the integrative process is not something that a therapist does "to you". As you may have already gathered Integration, by Janov's definition, is a natural process. It happens on its own, conditions withstanding. So a primal therapist merely performs a facilitation role, allowing the individual to naturally experience and integrate their pain. It seems that the brain will heal itself - you just need to give it the chance.

The zealot detractors:

Ok reader - let me tell you something! One thing I have learnt in my political interests and studies (and other) is that if you have a strong opinion on something, then no matter how right and well-explained you might be, you are going to piss people off. And that includes intelligent people who are prepared to prostitute their intellects to the service of wishful-thinking rationalisations. Leaving you, guaranteed, with an army of detractors who may seem right (to the uneducated eye), yet, just as easily, be so completely wrong.

My point is that websites like the debunking primal therapy page are to be expected, no matter how right or wrong Arthur Janov may or may not be. Believe me, Janovian primal theory is for many people a charged territory.

Please take note of that, and do not be prematurely spooked out of Janovian Primal theory/therapy by this highly arguable debunking site. On the surface it appears to say so much, but from what I have seen it really says so little. Personally, as I have already said, I think it's a mass of speculative junk. In my analysis of it (a couple of years back) I could not find any real substance. I just reeks of an agenda to look for any way, no matter how spurious and weak, to make some kind of a case to damage the image of Arthur Janov's therapy. Payback for being kicked out of the clinic? Who knows.

They just don't get it:

I've had lots of conversations about Janov's theory on Janov's blog and elsewhere, and here's another thing I can tell you for sure. Countless people, including those who have a direct interest in this area, just don't understand it properly (which is why I wrote my understanding mental sickness). Most of the critics I have seen on Janov's therapy, including the highly credentialed ones, also so often demonstrate that they have only read the back cover of The Primal Scream, at the most.

Go directly to the source if you want to get a grasp of what Janov's theory/therapy is all about. It's a tricky territory to grasp at first, and there's a lot of misunderstanding out there.

Note: Also, reader, respect that the most substantial anchor you have for forming a perspective on any therapy or theoretical idea, in the psychology world, is your own first-hand experience - that is, from naturally observing both yourself and others, over the years. Ask yourself: Are the author's claims consistent with the simple truths that I already know and can see? If they're seriously out of whack then you're probably listening to someone who's more interested in using intellectualism to escape from reality, than clarifying it.

Janov warns about "pseudo" Primal therapy:

Janov makes the claim that he is the only guy in town who knows how to do this therapy properly. In making this claim he creates the suspicion of just being a profiteer.

Well, I can say myself that I know he is right - in part at least. Though I do not dismiss the idea that others can develop a therapy of effective regression like Janov has [probably] done, there still are, bluntly, a lot of people out there of the type who never should have been involved in the sensitive territory of psychotherapy, including and especially including the potentially dangerous therapy that is Primal.

I won't bother going into details, but I will personally recommend that you stick with Janov if you develop a serious interest in this. Take it from me his warnings are not unfounded or merely money-motivated.


What we need is a serious investigation into repression and integration as a process, using Arthur Janov's clinic as a study piece only to that end - and not to use Janov's failings, be what they may or may not have been, as an excuse to outright dismiss the concept of Integration. And we need to be agnostic on the possibility of regression therapy until we know what we know.

Already a lot of work is being done on post traumatic stress disorder (intensive neurological studies) which spell out clearly enough the function of at least recently repressed pain (not pain from very early childhood, as such). Trauma and repression is real, and so are the long-lasting effects. How we can and do relieve blocked pain is the question, if that's possible at all (respecting the need for clinical evidence), and that should be the center of our focus. Thus far, the "debunking primal therapy" site tells us nothing.

Clarification: Do I personally recommend Janov's therapy?

As a possibility to independently study - absolutely yes, and before anything else. But I can only recommend it from this position, because I have not yet had direct personal experience with Janov's therapy. Until I try the therapy myself (which I will do in good time), and comprehensively investigate it, I feel I do not have the right to outright recommend it from my current position. I need to test what I believe in terms of first-hand experience.


Update: 2-10-12: Personal statement: The debunking site:

The debunking site is a smokescreen of cheap intellectualism designed to intimidate the novice. For the most part, I just see a mass of cryptic drivel with no anchor in real. The author leans more than heavily on the abstract (and likewise spurious) to try and prove his case.

If you ever look through the debunking site you would see that virtually all of the accusations could, with dedication and effort, be applied to nearly any group or movement that isn't the spitting image of stereotypical conservatism. This, if I may speak freely, is part of the reason why I find it so obnoxious - it's just one cheap shot after the next.

If this guy from the debunking site really had something to say then he wouldn't need a trillion words to say it. He would have quality - not quantity. The site is often childishly accusational (like calling Primal Therapy a cult), takes quotes out of context, and is frequently economical with the truth. Though the site calls itself friendly it is obviously an antagonised beat-up. There is nothing friendly about strategic misrepresentation.

I have not gone into the specific details of the content of the debunking site, because there's just so much of it (where do I begin?) and it's the wrong focus anyway. To avoid the never-ending circle of a geek-style debate, I again ask the reader to just first focus on the only two questions that actually matter:

Is repressed pain real? Can repressed pain be de-repressed, and integrated?

Note: Trying to pin the 'cult' label on primal therapy is the nastiest of the authors accusations. In doing this he's not just claiming that primal therapy is ineffective, he's basically telling people that the boogeyman will get them if they even give it a go (which is no doubt his intention). I could respect his accusation if he had any real substance to justify making it, but he doesn't. As I see it, the attempted cult labeling is seriously defamatory.


Update: 23-05-15: 

I think the essential problem with the research focus, historically at least, is it's been all about "primal therapy" rather than just the "primal".

In making it all about the therapy and not the primal itself, it has allowed people to keep a defensive distance from the raw forensic truths that we can see, or potentially see about the primal.

My calling, again, is to go straight to the primal itself and study what's really going on - from the psychological, neurological and biological levels. Please let the coalface truths that we can see for ourselves be the foundation on how we come to study and interpret other relevant information, relating to the primal and its derivative therapies.