Primal therapy (also known as primal scream) is the brainchild of Arthur Janov. It is a psychodynamic therapeutic technique that claims to cure psychological disorders by encouraging people to feel deeply, and release, the feelings of pain and anger that have been within them since early childhood. Janov teaches that all neuroses are built upon primal pains, which are present in the person at every moment despite not being consciously felt. Some of the “Pain” actually predates childhood. Janov teaches that prenatal experiences, including trauma associated with the moment of conception, as well as birth trauma, inﬂuence our functioning and the later direction of our lives (this is very similar to one of the central tenets of Dianetics). In Janov’s own words, “Primal Therapy is aimed at eradicating these Pains. It is revolutionary because it involves overthrowing the neurotic system by a forceful upheaval. Nothing short of that will eliminate neurosis, in my opinion” (www.primaltherapy.com).
This violent overthrow of the so-called Pain usually takes the form of a long, loud, drawn-out scream (the “primal scream” for which the therapy is justly famous), after which the client feels much better and is healthier both physically and mentally. Since early traumatic experiences are believed to manifest themselves both in maladaptive behavior and in physical problems, Janov claims that primal therapy reduces or eliminates a wide range of physical and psychological ailments, including many serious medical problems such as high blood pressure, cancer, drug and alcohol addiction, and sexual difﬁculties, among others. Furthermore, claims have also been made of more bizarre physical changes, including size increases of patients’ feet, breasts, and penises, as well as growth of facial hair in men whose puberty previously appeared arrested. Unfortunately, no scientiﬁc evidence has turned up to support these claims other than uncontrolled case histories and personal observations.
Given the questionable theoretical underpinning of primal therapy, the absence of controlled scientiﬁc evidence is unsurprising. Consider, for example, the claim that trauma associated with conception can be a major source of Pain in adulthood. Primal therapists teach that if a child is conceived through rape, the egg and sperm are imprinted with speciﬁc feelings about the incident and pass this memory along to all cells of the child’s body. This will of course cause lifelong pain and anxiety, until the patient learns, with the help of primal therapy, of course, to release those feelings (again, this sounds remarkably like some of the teachings of Dianetics/Scientology). The idea that individual cells, especially gametes, possess either feelings or memories and are able to pass those feelings along to subsequent cells, thus leading to psychological trauma felt by the organism as a whole, is completely incompatible with what is known about memory and feelings, to say nothing of cellular biology.
Janov has more recently attempted (in his book, The Biology of Love) to connect his ideas to more conventional knowledge in neuroscience, in the hope of gaining greater scientiﬁc legitimacy. In agreeing with neurochemists that becoming emotionally upset and screaming can cause a release of endorphins, which produces a feeling of well-being, he actually harms his case more than he helps it. This phenomenon is also well known among athletes, after all, and there is no reason to believe that the “runner’s high” is associated with the release of repressed trauma. The strenuous activity provides a complete explanation of the phenomenon.
The Primal Scream was published more than thirty years ago, and primal therapy is essentially unaltered from its earliest state. While undeniably an inventive and intriguing approach to psychotherapy, it lacks the scientiﬁc validation that potential clients ought to be able to expect at this point in our history.
- Janov, A. The Primal Scream; Primal Therapy: The Cure for Neurosis. New York: Putnam, 1970;
- Janov, A. The Biology of Love. Amherst, MA: Prometheus Books, 2001;
- Rosen, R. D. Psychobabble: Fast Talk and Quick Cure in the Era of Feeling. New York: Atheneum, 1978.