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

Friday, May 6, 2011

Newborns, Emotions, and Adultomorphism: Sources of the Primal Wound Myth

On several occasions, I’ve argued on this blog about some exaggerated views of newborn babies as adult-like in their feelings and thoughts. Those views may be described as “adultomorphic”-- a made-up word that’s parallel to the term “anthropomorphic” (meaning assigning human characteristics to something that is not human). “Adultomorphic” thinking attributes adult characteristics to infants and young children, and sometimes even to unborn babies. The myth of the “primal wound”, according to Nancy Verrier an emotional scar caused by early separation from the birthmother, is an example of adultomorphic thought.

Some authors offer adultomorphic descriptions of newborn babies and claim that they are supported by empirical investigations. This fact raises the question: who and what were the sources of the “primal wound” and similar ideas? I would suggest that a major contributor to this belief was David Chamberlain, a psychologist who was one of the founders of the Association for Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH), an organization that supports a variety of unorthodox beliefs about prenatal life and even the influence of past lives. Chamberlain was also one of the founders of the Santa Barbara Graduate Institute, a nonaccredited organization that specializes in unconventional methods and belief systems.

In 1988, Chamberlain published a book called Babies Remember Birth; ten years later, that publication became part of The Mind of Your Newborn Baby. Chamberlain cites Nancy Verrier’s The Primal Wound but does not use that specific term. Nevertheless, he advocates strongly for the belief that babies before and at birth experience a range of emotions similar to those adults can experience, as well as thinking in adult-like ways. If this were true, of course, events like immediate separation from the birthmother could certainly have the impact claimed by proponents of the primal wound belief.

But let’s look at the evidence Chamberlain puts together to support his belief in the adult-like minds of newborn babies.

He argues first of all that the psychoanalyst Otto Rank believed that birth trauma was at the root of all psychological problems. This in itself might be irrelevant, but according to Chamberlain, Rank found that focusing on birth trauma enabled him to reduce the length of therapy from years to months. Chamberlain concluded that this supported the idea that experiences at the time of birth are highly significant.

Second, Chamberlain refers to the Vienna-born psychoanalyst Nandor Fodor, who “described many examples of adult memory flashes, dreams, or symptoms linked with birth” (Chamberlain, 1998, p. 89). He notes Fodor’s suggestion that telepathic communication between mother and unborn baby has an effect on the baby. (However, Chamberlain does not refer to Fodor’s extensive dream analyses, with their meticulous interpretation of symbols, including the meaning of specific numbers in dreams, and their interpretation of the letters Y and V as having sexual significance. Fodor also believed that infertility resulted from fear of responsibility and/or rejection of one’s femininity.)

Third, Chamberlain cites L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the “Church of Scientology”, and his “auditing” methods that “frequently uncovered birth memories. His handbook of techniques for ‘auditors’ taught a method of tracing symptoms back to their origins, some of which were at birth or in the womb… he found that people were capable of going into a mental state called ‘dianetic reverie’ … in which they could have access to painful ‘recordings’ (not memories) ‘locked’ in the cells of the body… during dianetic reverie, Hubbard claimed, people could relive traumatic incidents that had occurred at any stage of cellular development from zygote to newborn… Hubbard was elated to report that the recording of a mother and child pair in dianetic therapy compared word for word, detail for detail, and name for name” (Chamberlain, p. 91). (This claim of “recording” seems comparable to Verrier’s belief that “cellular memory” is involved in the primal wound she posits.)

Chamberlain goes on to refer to the investigations by Stanislav Grof of experiences during LSD use. Grof “found his clients [on LSD] constantly returning to aspects of their birth experience. Grof developed the conviction that labor and delivery exerted a profound and lasting effect on personality… Grof has developed a system of ‘holotropic’ therapy in which-- by a variety of sounds, music, and movements-- memories of childhood, birth, and before birth are evoked without drugs” (Chamberlain, p. 95).

Chamberlain also states his belief that children sometimes describe their births spontaneously and correctly, although their parents report that they have not described the births to the children. (He does not, however, note whether the children have seen pictures or heard stories of births which they may adapt to their own story, or whether they have overheard adult conversations.) Chamberlain reports having hypnotized ten pairs of mothers and their children ages 9 to 23 years, elicited their birth descriptions, and found many similarities.

Here is the evidence on which claims of adult-like emotions and thoughts among newborns are based: a claim of efficacy of birth-focused psychotherapy; a claim of telepathic communication; the views of Scientologists; reports of experiences under LSD treatment; hypnotic recall (incidentally, long ago shown not to be more accurate than ordinary memory); and unverified reports that children have told birth stories without receiving information from adults. Are these sufficient to establish the idea that newborns have adult-like emotions and cognitions? It does not appear to me that these reports are even relevant to the question.

The primal wound idea rests on the assumption that adult-like emotions exist before, during, and immediately after birth. The natural history of emotional development contradicts this idea, and the points put forward by Chamberlain appear to play no role in the argument.

Chamberlain’s book repeatedly emphasizes the idea that because newborns share characteristics of adults, they need and deserve careful treatment. Like many other authors dealing with issues about newborns, he seems to feel that if newborns are not seen as adult-like, people will feel that they do not need excellent nurturing and thoughtful care, but that instead they are simple “masses of cells” without thought or feeling. Let me point out, however, that a newborn need not have to be like an adult in order to require tender care. He or she can simply be a newborn-- what a newborn really is-- neither an insentient machine of flesh, nor an adult mind in a tiny body, but a human being whose needs are all the greater because of the early stage of development. That those needs are very different from the needs of an adult does not make them unimportant. It does mean, though, that we grown-ups may need to work hard, and pay attention to relevant empirical research, in order to avoid “adultomorphizing” and drawing very wrong conclusions.


  1. I've been thinking about these "alien abduction" stories as birth memories, or birth memory dreams. They talk a bout an operating room, mno-coloured people, bright lights, and a pain in the belly. Seems likely, do you think?

  2. Well, not really likely, in my opinion. Could be a adult's memory of giving birth, if that's what you mean-- but how would a newborn baby know what an operating room is? As for the pain in the belly, if you are thinking that's the umbilical cord being cut-- there aren't any sensory nerves in it, so that can't be it.

    Of course, memories can be suggested by various events and "feel" the same as veridical memories. Cf. Elizabeth Loftus. So a person's idea of what it's like to be born could contribute to a "memory" of this kind.

    But please understand, I'm not saying they are really alien abductions!

  3. Alien abductions...hehehe....but in fact believers in alien abductions do have some things in common with Primal Wound believers. Both are convinced that they know what happened to them, that their memories are true, not due to suggestion, false memory, or wishful thinking, and that their theories, abducted by aliens or primally wounded shortly after birth explain everything. Personal experience and belief in that experience are the only criteria that matter and both groups are indignant that science seems to be attacking their cherished belief systems.

    Science is about ideas that can be tested and proven true or false, theories that can revised or discarded as new facts emerge. Pseudoscience is about belief that is defended no matter what the facts say.