“Attention for screaming” (Primal therapy)


A lot of people scream when they get upset, but only one man has been able to turn yelping into a lucrative career and business. Arthur Janov came up with the concept of Primal Therapy, whose ideas were outlined in his 1970 book, “Primal Scream.”

His hypothesis was that mental issues are caused by trauma early in life, specifically during the toddler years, infancy, and even birth. He suggested that unmet needs during these first three years result in neurosis later in life. To resolve these issues, the traumatic experiences need to be relived and then discharged through screaming therapy.

The sessions involve more than just remembering the traumatic experience; the physical symptoms also manifest themselves again. Janov posits that traditional patient-on-couch therapy focuses on the cerebral cortex, whereas impersonating a howler monkey hones in on the central nervous system, which houses pain receptors.

One problem with Primal Theory is it fails to address any issues that might result from Kindergarten onward. A child orphaned at age 6 and sent to live with an abusive, alcoholic foster father and distant mother would have no issues to deal with per this hypothesis. By contrast, being left in a crib crying for 10 minutes at four months old will cause dormant issues that arise later.

Exorcising these mental demons is similar to the engram removal system in Dianetics. Also like Scientology and other religions, Primal Therapy manufactures the problem, then sells the exclusive solution.

The screaming is alleged to do more than just offer release from mental issues. The shouts are also said to increase the bouquet of bodily aromas and cause body parts to grow. Rather than test this in a lab, where it would be easy to confirm or dispel, these claims are limited to anecdotes. But if screams of rage led to growth, I would have severe gigantism after 40 years of watching the Kansas City Chiefs.

The scream treatment consists of 15 one-on-one sessions, followed by group therapy once or twice a week until resolution. While Janov reports that the healing usually takes 12 to 18 months, it could keep going as long as the patient feels any trace of guilt, sadness, or remorse.

The only independent study of primal therapy included 32 patients, with a 40 percent success rate reported. That’s a less than stellar record, but is too small a sample size to mean anything either way.

Janov downplays the lack of science behind his ideas and methods. He writes in his book, “Feelings are their own validation,” an especially elementary example of circular reasoning. He then adds, “The truth ultimately lies in the experience of human beings. Their feelings explain so much that statistical evidence is irrelevant.” What scientist needs data when there are reports of happy strolls down Candy Cane Lane?

A glaring issue with the whole field is that it purports humans can be prompted to recall events from when we were just days old, even experiencing the identical physical symptoms. Beyond the lack of empirical evidence or studies to support these and other ideas, Janov promotes the dangerous notion that neurosis from repressed memories is the cause of all mental illnesses.

Primal Therapy had a heyday during the Human Potential Movement, and “Primal Scream” portended the glut of self-improvement books that was about to hit. Clients included John Lennon, Steve Jobs, and James Earl Jones. Its lack of verifiable results caused it to fall out of favor and some of its ideas are anachronisms, such as sexual orientation being a choice. When first published, “Primal Scream” argued clients could scream the gay away, along with just about anything else. Janov wrote, “I could go on endlessly listing all the symptoms which Primal Therapy has eliminated, from menstrual cramps to asthma. But that would make Primal Therapy seem a kind of panacea and thus lessen its credibility.” Your words, Janov, not mine.

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