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Emotion and Primal Therapy


Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux (1) has modified his fear memory model in a way that may help to better understand primal therapy and its practice. Some cognitive scientists have held that human emotion was innately programmed into the subcortical brain structures, and that these structures operated separately from cortical brain circuits. This may have generated two assumptions that are now being challenged by LeDoux:


…that there is a separate emotional brain, which involves the limbic region. This is part of the triune concept of brain theory, which has informed therapy practices for years; and


… that, if emotion is a primitive function of the subcortical circuit, when it presents itself in therapy it represents a primitive (bottom-up) “hijacking” of the cortical processes and should be stopped. This has influenced therapies such as Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (2) and Somatic Experiencing (3). The fear of emotional hijacking has led psychologists to reject primal therapy as a healing modality.

LeDoux now believes that cortical processing of subcortical information is a necessary condition for having an emotional experience (fear, etc.).


LeDoux’s New Defensive Survival Circuit Model (4): Defensive survival circuits are evolutionarily wired to detect and respond to innate threats and to respond to novel threats that have been learned about in the past .


When this circuit is activated, there may be little or no conscious feeling that one is in danger. That is, our responses to trauma involve mostly unconscious defensive survival reactions. These reactions become memorized or programmed into the amygdalic circuit, thereby setting up the possibility of their future chronic re-expression…imprint intrusion.


So, emotional fear results when I become conscious that I am in a dangerous situation, one in which physical or psychological harm may come to me. An emotional experience like fear comes about much the same as any other conscious experience: as a result of cortical processing.


The goal of primal therapy is to set the table on which this cognitive interpretation of defensive survival reactions can occur. This leads to a primal.


If LeDoux’s new model is accurate, then the expression of emotional fear is evidence that defensive survival reactions are being cognitively processed. Therefore, emotions should be facilitated, not suppressed.


Finally, in light of LeDoux’s new information, the triune concept of brain might have to be modified. The brainstem and limbic system is a single interacting complex of unconscious information processing (stimulus/response). The cortex is the system of information processing that results in conscious information consolidation and the sophisticated suppression/adjustment of defensive survival reactions to better fit reality. This is the function of the medial-prefrontal cortex. It is precisely why defensive survival information needs to gain access to cortical processing. Also, this process is automatic. It’s what the cortex does when presented with information…it organizes it.


1. https://www.cns.nyu.edu/home/ledoux/

2. Pat Ogden, Kekuni Minton, and Clare Pain, Trauma and the Body. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006).

3. Peter Levine, Healing Trauma, (Sounds True, Inc., 2008).

4. https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/114/10/E2016.full.pdf


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