Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Understanding Prenatal Life: For Best Results, Choose Your Sources

Ideas about the experiences of babies before and during birth are a part of some ways of thinking about mental health and about psychotherapy. Some treatments, like regression therapies, focus on the belief that prenatal experiences help to determine individual development and may need to be recalled and processed so a person can move beyond lifelong difficulties. Practitioners of these treatments often claim that they know what prenatal life was like-- even back to conception (or before!)—and can help patients understand and recover from problems that result from that early part of life.

What makes anyone think that they know the experiences of an unborn child, particularly of one who is still constituted of a small number of cells? Major claims about this have come from people who believe that their experiences when taking LSD were accurate depictions of what they had experienced in the earliest parts of their lives. Frank Lake, the author of Clinical Theology, considered that experiences resulting from LSD represented the trauma of birth as well as of separation from the mother. His colleague Stanislav Grof , again using LSD revelations as sources, proposed that there were four stages of experience before birth. The first is at least potentially blissful, although it may be spoiled by the mother’s smoking, drinking, etc. This period lasts until the birth process itself begins, when the infant is said to feel stuck and under inescapable pressure as the uterus begins to contract rhythmically. Third, the passage through the vagina is experienced as a life-death struggle which may also be ecstatic. Finally, birth itself is experienced ecstatically, with a sense of release of pressure and radiant light (although paradoxically some of Grof’s followers have emphasized birth as involving a sense of loss as the physical connection with the mother is broken.)

Later in his career, Lake gave up the LSD method and depended on re-enactments of birth and deep breathing exercises to induce experiences that he believed were representations of prenatal life and the birth experience. His follower William Emerson ( 2002; Somatotropic therapy. Journal of Heart-Centered Therapies, Vol. 5, pp. 65-90) clarified some of this belief system when he stated that one “of the central concepts in this field is the notion that mind pre-exists the nervous system; that there is a level at which the conceptus is aware of essential qualities of feeling present in its inception; and that this awareness records its struggles to survive the hazards of implantation, the history of its gestation, and the detailed drama of its birth at an energetic and cellular level”.

Looking at these ideas, we see that the notion of distinct memories going back to conception is based not on scientific study of early development but on drug-induced experiences and fantasies during group re-enactments. We also see that such beliefs are related to the idea of a soul or nonmaterial animating entity that exists prior to, and separate from, the material body. In addition, we see that these beliefs reject the function of the nervous system as holder of memories and instead ascribe memory to a nonmaterial energy (perhaps the World Soul or some other form of “nonlocal mind”) and to properties of individual cells outside the nervous system.

Anyone considering prenatal experience from the psychological or other science-based viewpoint would reject the perspective I’ve just described. The experiences of adults, however vivid or interesting, would not be taken to indicate anything about the nature of prenatal experience. No nonmaterial entity would be included in a discussion of either prenatal or post-natal functioning, and it would be assumed that all such functioning has the potential to be understood from a materialist viewpoint, even if it is not presently well understood. Memory, in particular, would be thought of as a function of the nervous system and not of other body parts or of nonmaterial elements.

One particularly important assumption about the psychology of prenatal life would be that until injury, disease, or old age interfere, development goes from a less advanced to a more advanced state. In other words, adults have more capacities than children, older children more capacities than infants, and infants more capacities than unborn babies. As a consequence, if an infant does not have the capacity to remember an experience, an unborn baby, who is less advanced in development, will not have that ability either. So, for instance, as a young baby does not have the capacity to understand many adult motives and wishes (like the ones Emerson called “essential qualities of feeling present at its inception”), an unborn infant will also be unable to perceive or remember such adult mental states. Although the baby could be affected by the mother’s physical condition, by stress hormones, etc., it would not actually be able to respond to the mother’s pleasure or displeasure about the pregnancy.

The capacities of newborn babies to show some recognition of sounds they heard a few weeks before birth are of great interest, and no one who has an interest in early development would argue that the fetus is “anesthetized” in some way, or that sensation and memory suddenly and instantly emerge when the baby takes its first breath. But those early abilities are a far cry from the telepathic communication of adult emotion sometimes claimed, and the evidence for them is a far cry from descriptions of drugged states.

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