On Prenatal Life:
The evidence is increasing–traumas while being carried in the womb have a lifelong effect and can change brain function and structure permanently. One study is critical in all this. Lancet reported a study of blood samples taken from 46 fetuses where the abdomen was punctured and a needle inserted into the liver. The fetuses responded with a 590 percent rise in stress hormone cortisol levels, and 183 percent rise in endorphin levels, the internally manufactured painkiller. It is clear that the fetus can respond to pain and can set in motion all the biochemical factors involved in pain and stress.
It is also likely that these rises affect other hormones. These enormous pains can be coded and stored for a lifetime affecting our behavior. A trauma in the womb can change the set-point for noradrenaline output for life, making the person susceptible to lifelong tension, irritability, and hyperactivity (and hypermotility). While some stress is galvanizing and can aid adaptation, prolonged, inordinate stress can produce maladaptation: not for just the time of the trauma, but for a lifetime. Long term excess cortisol secretion can last a lifetime, damaging brain structures such as the hippocampus, resulting in memory loss later in life.
There is evidence that the more painkillers a woman takes during labor the more likely her child will be to abuse drugs or alcohol later on. Karin Nyberg of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, looked at medication given to the pregnant mothers of 69 later adult drug users and 33 of their siblings who did not take drugs. Twenty-three percent of the drug abusers were exposed to multiple doses of barbiturates or opiates in the hours just before birth. Only three percent of their siblings were exposed to the same levels of drugs in-utero. If the mothers received three or more doses of drugs, their child was five times more likely to abuse drugs later on.
Enough animal studies have been done to confirm this finding– that exposure to drugs in the womb changes the offspring’s propensity for drugs later on. In short, when dealing with alcoholism or addiction we need to look far earlier than previously believed. And, I submit, these imprints need to be addressed only in terms of the nervous system involved at the time. The reliving, in short, must be with the brain system that registered the pains. (For a full discussion of this point please read my Biology of Love, and Primal Healing).
The forces driving our behavior are located largely in three different brain systems: (1) the cortex, seat of conscious-awareness, (2) the limbic system, which mediates feeling and (3) the brainstem, which processes instincts and survival functions. Imprints of early events take place in different parts of the brain depending on their force and when they occurred. The aim of therapy must be to establish fluid lines of communication among the levels of consciousness.
In over 100 years of psychotherapy, very little has changed, except cosmetically. It is still the 50-minute hour, the sit-up, face-to-face-talk with a plethora of insights swaddled in the gentle and dulcet tones of a concerned therapist. There is still the horror of the unconscious as a place of ill-defined demons–something to be avoided at all costs. No one says it, but it is implied in the careful steering of the patient into the present and away from the past. The Freudians now call it ego-psychology but it is still psychoanalysis with a slightly different focus, an habiliment antique get-up with a modern facade.
Psychotherapy has been in the business of awareness for too long. Since the days of Freud, we have apotheosized insights. We are so used to appealing to the frontal cortex, the structure that has made us the advanced human beings that we are, that we forgot our precious ancestors, their instincts and feelings. We may emphasize how our neocortex is so different from other animal forms while we disregard our mutually shared feeling apparatus. We need a therapy of consciousness, not awareness. If we believe that we have an id stewing inside of us, there is no proper treatment because the cause is an apparition–a phantom that doesn’t exist. Or worse, it is a genetic force that is immutable and therefore cannot be treated. In any case, we are the losers.
Sadly, in the name of progress, psychotherapy has moved away from the past into a more present approach. The same is true for all of the cognitive/behavior therapies. There is an apotheosis of the present, of the here-and-now, and a move away from the one thing that is curative–history. We are historic beings, imprinted neuro-physiologically with our past. Any proper treatment must address that history. More sadly, for 100 years, we have been talking to the wrong brain! It is that brain that prevents any hope of a cure for emotional illness. Talking to the brain that talks was fine a century ago, but now we know so much more about the brain and what it contains; and we know that the damage done to us is imprinted on lower levels of consciousness–far below where words live. We need to learn a new language–that of the unconscious–a language with no words, just feelings and sensations. I submit that psychotherapy has not changed radically in all this time because we always believed that words (insights) could help us make profound change in patients; after all, we call it “mental illness.” And, in fact, words often are the defense against feeling. Our goal is to produce feeling human beings, fully conscious ones, not intellectually aware giants. I believe that neurosis is not significantly helped by insights, anymore than neurosis is installed through lack of insights.
Why is that so important? Because we can only heal where we were wounded. We know now that emotional wounds lie deep in the brain out of conscious/awareness. Although the lower brain “talks” to us all of the time, we have never learned how to talk to it. It talks to us in our nightmares, in our high blood pressure and migraines, in our sexual difficulties and in our inability to get along with others. Our history is asserting itself in our every waking moment; yet we go to psychotherapists who want to concentrate solely on the here-and-now. Yet we are walking archives, living in the there-and-then. We have focused on the present and words because it is the easiest to access and takes no great effort. On top of that, we have not known how to access history. We do now. To get better we need to take the emotional trip to our history and undo the damage through reliving. The trip is not difficult because we can ride the vehicle of feeling back into the past. There is where our problems begin and there is where resolution resides. Knowing how to get on the vehicle of feeling is a little more complicated. If we get on the right train every stop we make will be the right one. If we get on the wrong train, every stop will be wrong.
 (Salk, L. et al., “Relationship of Maternal and Prenatal Conditions to Eventual Adolescent Suicide.” Lancet 1 1985, pgs 624-627.
 K. Nyberg. Epidemiology, Vol 11, page 715
Life Before Birth is available at www.ntiupstream.com, www.amazon.com, www.barnesandnoble.com and select bookstores.