Janov gives us a glimpse of the nature of the Imprint and how it is safely accessed during primal therapy: “During this process, it is entirely possible that she won’t know what she is going through until months after the primals have been started. This is because she will only feel a piece of the original trauma at a time, just enough to be integrated. Later, the trauma will begin to make overall sense as more and more of it is experienced. It is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together”. (1)
If we accept the premise that the Imprint is a complex fear conditioned memory, which is primarily sensorimotor in composition, and we understand how our nervous system processes such information, then we can conceptualize the Imprint.
Imagine your body at the moment of trauma. It physically responds to the “attack” instantaneously. Somehow, your nervous system instantly assembles a complex web of body-wide, defense-related sensorimotor responses which are unique to your trauma. This coordinated web of survival responses defends against the attack. You cannot prevent this complex response. It’s entirely reflexive…like the blink of an eye.
In order for this to have occurred, we must conclude that each separate sensorimotor event is energetically connected to each of the others. Otherwise, how could there be an instantaneous coordination of thousands of separate physical responses, all directed toward one goal…. survival?
If the threat is survived, the entire energetically connected set of reactions gets stored as a long-term memory. This means that it can get chronically “recalled” throughout life. Since the content of the memory is sensorimotor, the recollection is a feeling and/or series of feelings, which are made up of muscle tensions, proprioceptive sensations, an organized sequence of muscle movements, and the homeostatic settings of internal organs as regulated by the autonomic nervous system.
Why is this memory formed? Because that unique web of responses saved your life. Now, the nervous system has a tool with which to even more efficiently respond to that attack….should it happen again. Over time, though, this response gets generalized. This allows future events having similar feelings to trigger the original responses…over and over again. We refer to these chronically expressed behaviors as anxiety neuroses…disordered behaviors that have no apparent cause.
This is what Janov is stating when he says: “ …the memory of a repressed trauma is far more complex than simple verbal recall; it contains the original state of the entire system during the trauma and can be literally relived.” And “In the primal, whatever the individual cell networks did originally to survive they will do again”. (2) An imprint of a trauma is a fear conditioned memory, comprised of the totality of the sensorimotor responses to that trauma.
The function and effect of an Imprint is clearly described in this statement by LeDoux where he describes fear conditioning this way: “The ability to rapidly form memories of stimuli associated with danger, to hold on to them for long periods of time (perhaps eternally), and use them automatically when similar situations occur in the future is one of the brain’s most powerful and efficient learning and memory functions. But this incredible luxury is costly. We sometimes, perhaps all too often, develop fears and anxieties about things that we would as well not have.” (3)
LeDoux’s is a concise statement about what causes the anxiety-related neuroses, chronic anger, emotional withdrawal, and even depression (indirectly). The resolution of this category of emotional disorder requires that we, somehow, get the bits and pieces of the sensorimotor survival responses into consciousness. Primals accomplish this. With each primal, an aspect of the fear conditioned memory is made conscious and de-energized, as the medial prefrontal cortex is now able to exert its inhibitory influence over the limbic system, including the amygdala. The energy driving the neurotic act out is, thus, permanently decreased in direct proportion to how much of the imprint is primaled.
(1) Janov, A. (1996), How You Get Sick. How You Get Well, Dove Books, California, P 240.
(2) Janov, A. (1996). Why You Get Sick. How You Get Well, Dove Books, California, P.216
(3) LeDoux, J. (1996). The Emotional Brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. Simon & Schuster, New York, P.266.