Primal Therapy and the Split Self
Janov used the terms ‘real self’, unreal self’, and the ‘split’ in his discussions about the development of neurosis. What do these terms mean?
Simply put, the real self is the person who is responding accurately to environmental cues. The unreal self is the person who is responding to traumatic memories, which have superceded those environmental cues. The reason that real-time environmental cues get superceded is because traumatic memories are survival-related and given priority when they emerge. The split is the moment in which this misdirected attention begins to happen. The split can occur 6 hours after the trauma ….if the trauma is not processed within that period.
Early on, an attentive mother can prevent a split by helping her child process traumatic moments as they happen. Later in life, a knowledgeable helper can prevent a split by working with the just-traumatized person to process that trauma. Since it takes 6 hours for traumatic experience to become embodied, timely action would prevent fear memory making and its power to create the split.
When these timely healing interventions don’t happen, we become fear conditioned. A sensorimotor memory containing all of the defensive survival reactions that occurred during the trauma gets stored in primitive brain structures. This is the area of unconscious stimulus and response, called the low-road of information processing.
After the memory is made, it’s dormant until an environmental cue brings it out of storage. Once the information re-activates, it begins to move toward consciousness…toward high-road information processing. This is the second step in our nervous system’s dual processing structure. Normally, these two phases occur seamlessly and sequentially. When information reaches the second step it is said to have been made conscious.
Traumatic information is overwhelming information…too much for the high-road to process. So, the nervous system represses it . This results in information getting sequestered within the first step. It appears that the nervous system’s more primitive, low-road of information processing has been adapted to act much like a capacitor that stores energy surges in an electrical circuit. And, like a capacitor, it holds the excess charge until it can be safely introduced into the high-road of information processing...a little at a time.
Fear conditioned memories contain survival-level information. So, each time they're cued and approach consciousness, we get distressed and the information is repressed once again. The nervous system participates in repression, as well as the person’s operantly conditioned behaviors, which were discovered (out of life experience) to help suppress the distress of the rising trauma information. Left unprocessed, a fear conditioned memory can chronically generate danger signals throughout a lifetime. To stop the danger signalling, traumatic information must be introduced to consciousness.
Paul Vereshack sets the intention of primal therapy this way: Think of traumatic information as if it were a wild animal. You want to study this animal. If you chase after it, it will flee. Rather, set a camera up in a clearing and wait for it to appear. Then, take the picture. The wild animal represents re-activated components of the sensorimotor fear memory complex that were generated at the time of trauma. Taking the picture represents connecting those components to consciousness…the primal.
When components of the fear memory have reached consciousness, they can be analyzed alongside real time information. If the newly conscious traumatic information does not match the real time information, the medial-prefrontal cortex can turn off the fear signals. This is called impulse control.
I’ve said that the real person becomes the unreal person when she begins responding to her fear memories, rather than to her immediate external environment. Each primal reduces the energy of the fear memory…its ability to drive neurosis in real time. This energy reduction is incremental, permanent, and proportional to the amount of information primaled.
If we define illness as being a disruption of the dynamic balance that exists between ourselves and our environment (1)…and we understand that the nervous system's sequestration of traumatic information from consciousness IS the disruption. Then, we can see how primaling begins to restore emotional health.
What are some of the healthy consequences of having primaled?
· As we connect aspects of the fear memory to consciousness, a window of choice begins to open, where there was none before. We create “breathing room” for thought.
· We experience insights, which are a result of presenting previously lost fear information to consciousness. This allows the high-road of information processing to do what it does automatically: collect, collate, analyze, associate, and formulate accurate responses to…information coming from the low-level of information processing.
· We start to feel more comfortable in our bodies. We become less defensive. This change is observable by others and measurable via stress testing, fMRI brain imaging (2), vital sign testing, etc. As our behavior starts getting into ‘synch’ with the present moment, we begin our return to the real self.
· The incremental movement away from the rigid nature of the unreal self, toward the real self is a blessing. It represents emotional freedom.
A special thanks to friend and fellow traveler, David Mclean, for suggesting the topic of this blog.
1. Sydney Macdonald Baker, M.D., Detoxification and Healing.
2. Arthur Janov, Why You Get Sick, How You Get Well, Appendix C: Brain Maps.