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Primal Therapy And The Three Levels Of Consciousness

Arthur Janov developed his idea of three-leveled consciousness from Paul MacLean’s model of the triune brain. The latter argued that our brains are, in fact, three distinctly different brains that were layered onto one another throughout the evolutionary development of the animal kingdom. The study of the development of the human brain shows this historic development repeating itself in all of us during our life journey. First to develop is the brainstem. Then the structures of the limbic system. And, finally, the neo-cortex.


Each of these areas has its own distinct way of remembering life events. The brain stem generates and remembers sensations. The limbic system generates feelings and emotions. And the neo-cortex generates and remembers ideas. Although distinct from one another, each brain area shares neural connections. A brain stem sensation connects with, and affects, limbic feelings and emotions, which connect with, and affects, cortical ideas. Janov referred to these shared connections as “chains”. Three-leveled neural circuits that share information about traumatic events he called “chains of pain”.

One of Janov’s contributions to psychology was to argue that our neuroses are generated from the “bottom” of the brain, up. That is to say, trauma-related sensations are causing our negative feelings, emotions, behaviors, and ideations. Therapy, therefore, must follow brain development. He argued that bringing these causal events to cortical consciousness would resolve our neuroses.


Each brain level, he maintained, had its own consciousness. Brainstem activity is first line consciousness. Limbic activity is second line consciousness. And cortical activity is third line consciousness. His studies with Erik Hoffmann demonstrated that different kinds of brainwaves are associated with activity within the three levels of the brain.


Janov’s idea that feelings and sensations drive emotion, ideation, and behavior is consistent with brain science. But, I wonder if the use of the word consciousness when referring to the three brain areas might be confusing to our understanding of the primal process. Today we call brain activity in the first and second lines, low-road sensory processing…a largely unconscious activity. Third line, cortical activity is called high-road sensory processing…conscious processing.


Joseph Ledoux challanges the limbic-system-as-center-of-emotion model. He thinks that we cannot have an emotional experience unless low-level brain signals reach consciousness. Until this happens, we are only having unconscious reactions to low level brain signals. In other words, experiencing emotional fear requires the conscious processing of unconscious survival reactions. This is a good definition of a primal and seems consistent with what Janov states:


“the only way the primal pain [unconscious survival reaction] and the act-out [behavior] it generates can be eradicated is through experiencing the memory of the trauma, to make it conscious.”


I agree that consciousness must exists at every brain level. For example, how could we look at the immune system’s ability to sense and defend against the foreign bodies that infect us, without thinking that it is, somehow, conscious of the difference between “us” and “them”?


However, for the purpose of understanding the process of primal therapy, it might be better to think in terms of first and second line unconsciousness and third line consciousness. We should restrict consciousness to mean high-road (cortical) processing. This avoids the confusion inherent in the larger meaning of consciousness, a topic we know very little about.


For a larger discussion of consciousness, see:


The neurotic act out occurs because of our blind reaction to the unconscious survival signals that are trapped in our low-road sensory processing system (Janov’s first and second line).

The process of primal therapy involves trying to arrange the conditions under which these trapped, low-road, unconscious survival reactions make it to high road sensory processing (consciousness).


We should also note that conscious processing occurs automatically, just as does low road processing. That is, the neo-cortex does not need us to “think about” low-level input. Rather, it automatically collates, associates, and orchestrates informed responses to input received. One important informed response is the shutting down of erroneous low road reactions by the medial prefrontal cortex. This brain area shares a 2-way nerve network with the subcortical amygdalas…the storage area associated with fear conditioning. Achieving this infomed response is essential to the primal process and to the restoration of good mental health.

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