The Nature of Early Memory: Part I
By Peter G. Prontzos
One of the central claims of Primal Theory is that people are able to "remember" much of their very early experiences, even birth (and perhaps even as far back as womblife). While this idea was very controversial when Dr. Janov wrote about it several decades ago [1,2], it is now widely accepted [3,4,5].
Itís important to specify what is meant by "memory". There are two basic forms of memory, explicit and implicit. Explicit memory, also known as declarative memory is, in the words of Eric Kandel, the "conscious memory for people, objects, and placesÖ" while "procedural or implicit memory" is "completely unconscious" and may be manifested in oneís behavior and performance .
While conscious memories can exist from the age of two, memories of earlier traumatic events may only be remembered as "imprints" in oneís physiological and neurological structures, thanks to the infant brainís plasticity. Daniel Siegel has written that ""Implicit memory is available at birth and probably even before...", and added that,
The implicit forms of memory can embed those experiences within the neural firing pattern that are part of your behavioural memory or your emotional memory, perceptual memory, and probably even bodily memory .
Janov claims that a trauma that canít be consciously recalled may still be imprinted in the developing infant, and that it may have long-term effects. As Fran Lang Porterís research indicates,
"While it remains unclear whether young infants can remember painful experiences as actual events, there is evidence that memory for pain may be recorded at a biological level [that may result in] permanent structural and functional changes .
Such changes may shape temperment and, hence, relationships through oneís life [10,11] For instance, Janov hypothesizes that a lack of sufficient oxygen at birth can lead to a
phlegmatic, passive, unassuming, held back personality; someone who is always reacting to the imprint of low oxygen input. Thus, everything becomes a problem, everything is too much, and there is a tendency to give up easilyÖ
Of course, both implicit and explicit memory systems usually work together to produce feelings and behavior, even if one is not conscious of the former. It is Janovís hypothesis that proper therapy must include a conscious connection to oneís physiological imprint. Even though a person cannot, for instance, remember images of what he or she perceived at birth, it may be possible to bring to consciousness the physical and emotional reactions of that experience. Such connections, in Janovís view, are essential to the healing process.
1. Janov, Arthur. Primal Man: The New Consciousness. Cromwell (New York) 1975.
2. Janov, Arthur. Imprints: The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience. Coward-McCann (New York) 1983.
3. Anand, K. and Scalzo, F. Can Adverse Neonatal Experiences Alter Brain Development and Subsequent Behavior? Biol Neonate 2000;77:69-82.
4. Jacobson, B. and Bygeeman, M. Obstetric care and proneness of offspring to suicide as adults: case-controlled study. BMJ 1998;317:1346-9.
5. Cordon, et al. Memory for traumatic experiences in early childhood. Developmental Review 24 (2004) 101-132.
6. Kandel, Eric. Biology and the Future of Psychoanalysis: A New Intellectual Framework for Psychiatry Revisited. Am J Psychiatry 1999; 156:505-524.
7. Siegel, Daniel, and Hartzell, Mary. Parenting form the Inside Out. Penguin (New York) 2003. p. 35
8. Daniel Siegel, Interview, June 2006.
9. "Infant Pain May Have Long-Term Effects". ScienceDaily (August 16, 1999).
10. Cozolino, Louis. The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy. Norton (New York) 2002. P. 98.
11. Propper et al. Gene-Environment Contributions to the Development of Infant Vagal Reactivity: The Interaction of Dopamine and Maternal Sensitivity. Child Development, 2008; 79 (5): 1377 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01194.x
12. Janov, Arthur. Life Before Birth. Via email (December 24, 2008).