Monday, August 29, 2011
Examining Unconventional Theories: More on the "Primal Wound"
Like many other unorthodox belief systems, Nancy Verrier’s “Primal Wound” theory just keeps on keeping on in spite of clear evidence that it can’t be correct. For those who are just coming in, the Primal Wound idea is the entirely speculative notion that babies adopted in the first days or weeks of life are deeply troubled by separation from the birth mother, and that this disturbance causes psychological difficulties that continue to be experienced right into adulthood.
An interview with Verrier at http://blog.adoptionmosaic.org/interview-with-nancy-verrier/ shows a continuing emphasis on some easily refutable points.
The first of these is the assumption that infants are psychologically more vulnerable in the period soon after birth than they are later. This belief depends on a logical fallacy; it’s based on the idea that if childhood is a vulnerable period, and people in later life are less psychologically vulnerable, then earlier and earlier developmental periods are times of greater and greater vulnerability. In fact, though, both physical and psychological vulnerability have schedules in which a somewhat later period is more sensitive than the earliest time. As an example, the probability of birth defects from exposure to rubella is much less right after conception than it is 6 weeks later.
Critical periods in development, when normal events are more easily disturbed by trauma or disease, are different for different aspects of developmental change. Emotional attachment to a caregiver has not developed at birth and is not apparent until 6 months or so later. Think about this a bit-- what has there been for the baby to attach to, before birth? In the interview with Verrier, she says the baby knows nothing but that mother. In fact, though, the baby knows nothing but the inside of that mother, not the outside.
Are we to assume that newborn babies are grieving for the taste of the amniotic fluid and for the sound of the mother’s stomach rumbling, not to mention other less socially-acceptable noises? If not, what are we to think they miss? Is it the “psychological connection” mentioned by Verrier, which she says is not severed with the umbilical cord? What was that connection? Are we actually talking about a telepathic communication between mother and baby, as posited by the ‘50s psychoanalyst Nandor Fodor? If so, why doesn’t such a connection continue after birth-- is it somehow dependent on physical transmission through the cord? There seems to be quite a confusion of material and non-material events here.
Verrier argues that babies remember not only birth but prenatal events back to conception because of cellular consciousness. This idea, that experiences are imprinted on cells and need not be represented in the nervous system, has been popular among Scientologists for many decades (see Janet Reitman’s recent history of Scientology). It has also much been much favored among advocates of Janov’s primal therapy, including the Australian physician Graham Farrant, who believed that there were memories from the egg and sperm stages too (see http://primals./org/articles/farrant3.html). There is certainly no evidence that this type of memory exists or that either subjective experience or recall can occur without the functioning of high levels of the nervous system; this also applies, by the way, to the “body memory” idea much discussed by Bessell van der Kolk. Once again, this belief seems to involve a confusion between functions of cells and some posited non-material component of the personality.
Now let’s consider Verrier’s idea of “biological mirroring”, which seems to be the experience of observing others who share some of one’s genetically-determined behavior traits. I wonder whether Verrier is aware that human infants don’t even recognize themselves in the mirror until 15-18 months of age? How are they then to compare their own more subtle behavior characteristics with those of others until a much more advanced age? And when they do notice differences, what does this mean--- would we see psychological problems caused by being the only girl in a large family of boys, or the blue-eyed child of heterozygous brown-eyed parents? As for genetically-determined behavior traits, I would be at a loss to name even one that is obvious and is inherited according to a dominant-recessive pattern (we can’t expect tongue-rolling or tasting certain chemicals to be easily observed). Instead, behavior traits like temperament are determined by combinations of genes and environment. The big similarities in behavior of some separated twins, so much emphasized by the media, need to be considered in the context of other separated pairs who have little in common. Before arguing for the positive impact of “biological mirroring”, Verrier needs to present evidence that children in families where there are strong resemblances are somehow psychologically healthier than those in families where the roll of the genetic dice has produced varying temperaments and appearances.
The Sunday New York Times (Aug. 28, 2011) this week carried an obituary whose details reminded me strongly of Verrier’s claims. This was the obituary of Budd Hopkins, an abstract expressionist painter-- and, more to the point, the instigator of the “alien-abduction movement”. According to the Times, “Many who shared their stories with Mr. Hopkins had no conscious memory of their abductions at first. But they had lived for years, he said, with the nagging feeling that somewhere, something in their lives had gone horribly wrong….. by his reckoning, 1 in 50 Americans has been abducted by an alien and simply does not know it.” Here is a theory of emotional discomfort that is as much supported by evidence as the theory of the Primal Wound. Is there the slightest reason why anyone should accept either of these ideas?