SPP: If you could just help us understand a little bit about what Primal Therapy is, what you guys do at the Primal Institute.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: I guess maybe the best place to start in 1969 or 1970 Dr. Arthur Janov published a book called “The Primal Scream”. So the Primal Scream that phrase is now a part of sort of an American lexicon. The original title of the book is really a metaphor it simply refers to the sounds that people make when they’re in pain, someone who’s crying or sobbing is making all sorts of sounds or someone who’s really furious and in a rage is also making certain type of vocal emotions.
So that’s what it’s about it’s not about voluntarily screaming or any such. Really what we do is we try and help people regain the capacity to feel certain emotions that they have repressed for most of their lives. Now for me a lot of that is sadness and loss. So essentially what we do is we help people to get into touch long forgotten emotions that have to do with loss and sadness. Now that said, this may have to do with your parents getting divorced when you were a kid, it may have to do with your latest girlfriend leaving you, and it really runs the gamut.
That’s it in a nutshell what we do we talk with people about all of the issues in their life, their career issues, their marriage wows, their financial concerns. And if you give people enough freedom and enough safety they will talk about those things, but eventually they will run down to where they’re talking about their history in a very meaningful way. And for most of us that history has to do with things that happened in our families when we were growing up. So that’s make sense to you?
SPP: It does yeah. And that was actually one of the things that I was wondering about in doing my own research it seemed a lot of the primal therapy is targeted towards childhood, maybe early adulthood. Is that where it usually ends up, or is that where you’re trying to get to with your patients?
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: Well both. Primal theory came about usually a scientist comes up with a theory then tries to stick reality into the theory. Primal theory came about the opposite way, which is clinical experience with our patients time after time after time pointed to certain realities. So yes in a sense we’re targeting a person’s early history, but that’s not sort of a random just target. We target early history because that’s invariably where people need to go to resolve the issues in their life.
What makes a person keep choosing the same girlfriend who’s always abusive towards him? Or what makes a person keep choosing a guy who’s like her father and ignores her all the time. These kind of adult patterns are rooted in childhood experiences. So invariably that’s where the therapy needs to go. Now people vary you just can’t walk into a room and start crying about what your father did to you when you’re 10-years-old.
So a lot of therapy of course takes place discussing here and now issues ones career, what’s going on in the marriage, the things you fight about. Ultimately things do wind up going back to ones early history and that usually involves our family.
SPP: I was also wondering do you often get people who have issues they want to deal with but claim that they had a perfect upbringing or they had a great childhood and are surprised by the fact that there was an issue when they were younger?
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: That’s a great question. Yes that happens a lot, particularly another interesting fact, at least I think it’s interesting, about the Primal Institute is 50% of our patients are from all over Europe and the other 50% from all over the United States. In other words, we’re not a neighborhood clinic but somebody who’s living in Westwood or Santa Monica just happens to drop into. People hear about us, as I said there’s many books and all sorts of literature, and people come to us from different cultures.
So for instance, and this is perhaps an unfair generalization, in Japan for instance it’s a very big part of the culture you do not criticize your parents. So people from varying countries and various cultures they don’t have quite such a casual attitude about criticizing families as we Americans do. It’s not a big deal if you’re having a beer with your friend to say “Oh my mother’s driving me crazy”, but in a lot of cultures people don’t say things like that. So the answer to your question is “Yes.” A lot of times people they are completely perplexed as to what their current adult problem may have to do with their childhood, and were very surprised when after several weeks or several months of therapy they can trace it back to things that they thought were not issues in their idyllic families.
SPP: Often that they’re trying to cope or creating defense mechanisms for things that happened when they were younger. Are you guys trying to crack through that kind of?
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: Well yes and no. I mean people are wonderfully creative when it comes to defenses. In fact, the more painful a person’s childhood the more robust their defenses will be. For instance, someone whose had a father who always beat the hell out of them, dad came home every night at 6:00 and he had a few beers and if I looked at him funny man he took his strap off and he gave me a couple of whacks. If you speak to someone like that 9 out of 10 times they will say “But you know what that was good that my father did that, because he taught me discipline and he taught me to really pay attention, and he taught me respect.”
So the more painful ones childhood is the more you come up with creative intellectual rationalizations for why it was good. I mean not everybody, of course there were some people that had bad childhoods and are quite aware of the fact that they had bad childhoods, but let me just make another important point. Most of the people that come to us had mixed childhoods, in other words, most of the people that come here their parents were good decent people and their parents did probably 110% to make a good life for their kids.
Sometimes there’s a bit of disparity between the parent’s intentions and the child’s needs and the child’s experiences. So dad might be working 14 hours a day to provide for the family and that’s good and that’s a real sacrifice and a measure of the father’s character. At the same time the experience of the child is where’s my dad? I have a father who never pays attention to me, who never goes to my Little League games.
SPP: I feel like you could as a child maybe have different needs than even your parents perceive and it’s not their fault if they don’t recognize those.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: That’s right it happens all the time.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: For the past 30 something odd years I’ve been watching people cry a lot about their childhood and I’ve never seen anybody cry about wishing that the family had a nicer car or a bigger house, or went on better vacations. That’s not the stuff that affects us at kids, we don’t care about having a Lexus or whether or not dad drives a Chevrolet, we want time with our parents, we want them to be interested in us, and we want them to come to our ballet recitals and our football games. That’s what we care about when we’re kids.
SPP: I think that’s an important message for everybody so.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: Yeah that whole notion of – well I’m older than you obviously – but the Baby Boomer generation they coined this phrase Quality Time. I spend quality time with my kid and that’s such BS. I understand if you’re a woman and you want to have a career, I understand that you’re entitled to a career. I understand if you’re a man and you want to get ahead. The reality is quality time is quantity time. When you’re a kid you need attention from your parents and you need a lot of attention. And those things don’t matter to kids.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: So if you’re not there it doesn’t make a difference if you spend two hours quality time it’s not enough.
SPP: Do you ever have people who come in and you help them experience their past and they kind of remember things that they didn’t expect and that ended up being extremely painful or that they’ve really managed almost completely blocked from their conscious mind.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: Pretty much seven days a week yes.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: That happens all the time. Not so much, I mean sometimes it’s a common occurrence until ones memory in therapy gets better. The more you unblock emotions the more your memory improves, but it’s better to think of it in terms of it’s not so much that you’re going to be remembering things that you’ve long lost forgotten, it’s more that your memories take on new meaning.
Like you might remember seeing your dad in his favorite chair reading the paper all the time, now in therapy you might connect that memory with your need for him to pay attention to you, before it was just a memory of theirs dad in that stupid chair reading the stupid paper. But perhaps what is new is the emotion that’s attached to the memory which is why doesn’t he ever pay any attention to me? How come he’s always in a bad mood reading his paper.
SPP: If you could just walk me through, if I were to come into your office and sit down for a therapy session, what is the typical process that you go through? I mean how do you start with this? What are some of the questions that are asked? How do you get these people to get into that state of mind to remember these memories from childhood?
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: Well that was a fantastic question I think you’ve done your homework. That’s a really good question. One of the things that’s radically different about this therapy has to do with time. Now what is Barry talking about? Time the typical therapy session right now in the world if you go to your neighborhood therapist, whether it be a psychiatrist or a social worker or a psychiatrist, psychologist it doesn’t matter, the typical therapy session now is 45 minutes. Now I don’t know about you but by the time you get your parking validated and tell the therapist what he’s been doing since you saw him last, the time is up. Not to mention that therapy, conventional therapy takes place, you’re both sitting in a chair in a well lit expensively decorated office.
So even if you got emotional the atmosphere is not conducive to really letting go and being emotional. Now we conduct therapy under very different conditions. When someone comes here for therapy for the first month they are the only patient that the therapist sees. So they will come in for open ended sessions. Now that was a revolution in the field of psychology. In other words, to come in to have a session and you’re not sitting face-to-face in a well lit expensively decorated room, you’re in a treatment room where the lights are low, you’re lying comfortably on a couch or on some pillows on the floor, and you have as much time as you need to actually tell another human being about your life.
That alone is the biggest facilitator of bringing up these feelings. You don’t have a therapist watching his own watch with a patient in the next room ready to come in. So you can take – I would love to try this in a formal experiment some day. I think you could go to any shopping center in the United States, pick any 10 people at random, put them in a room with an interested person and have them talk to that person for two hours. That person will be very emotional in a matter of a half hour. So longwinded though I may be, what I’m trying to say is we have changed the environment in which therapy needs to take place because people cannot get down to those emotions that we’ve talked about in an atmosphere where they’re feeling rushed. So it’s very important to have therapy in an environment that allows emotions to actually come up.
SPP: I wanted to ask, I found something interesting, and I think it was on Wikipedia about Janov I guess, the Founder of this. He criticized talking therapies because they dealt primarily with higher reasoning areas and they don’t access this more central nervous system. And I guess what I got from that, and correct me if I’m wrong, is just if you are just talking to somebody as the words come out you’re creating them in your mind. Where what you’re really trying to get into is kind of subconscious or repressed ideas. Is that kind of where you go with it?
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: Yes you’re right in the neighborhood. Yes. Dr. Janov has said that and we have been saying it for 30 years. When you’re just talking, particularly when you’re talking face-to-face to another adult you are accessing the front part of your brain, the latest part of your brain of evolution. The actual more primitive parts of our brain, the part that alleviate emotion the Limbic System is not really activated under those circumstances.
Here’s a better way to look at it, if you think of the lessons that you’ve learned in your life you’ve learned them from experience not some old person saying to you “You know you really should take care of your health or you should really go to school.” In other words, those things are cognitions, they’re intellectual, and they only go so far. But the great lessons that you’ve learned in your life you’ve learned because you’ve experienced something about them yes.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: And it’s the same thing in therapy. So yes we talk to patients initially, obviously you have to talk, but the only thing that really resolves these issues is experiencing the emotions that were never experienced. So in that sense talk therapy is sort of – I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but talk therapy is a like a band aid but when you really need surgery you have to really experience.
SPP: So when you say experience these emotions, I mean what state do you get your patients into? As they’re talking and they’re bringing up memories from their childhood…
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: Yeah.
SPP: …I mean do you just tell them to get into the emotion and feel the pain, the sadness, the happiness or what it may be? How do you…?
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: How do you make happen? That’s another good question. It’s really more of what you don’t do. You know the typical therapist there’s two extremes of therapists. There’s the pontificating sort of Freudian with a goatee and a pipe who doesn’t sell anything. Your head could be on fire and you wouldn’t say anything. Then there’s another type of therapist behavioral cognitive therapist that is constantly talking and telling you how to live your life. Both of those extremes don’t work.
For instance, the other day I was seeing an 18-year-old, usually I see people that are a bit older than that, but occasionally if I run into a mature teenager like that I will agree to treat them. And this guy he was really upset his main focus, he didn’t care about childhood issues, his main focus was his girlfriend of two years broke up with him and he was distraught about it. So I basically asked him how they spend their time together when things were good and what kind of music they listen to, and all that kind of stuff. To make a long story short I had bring in some of the music that they used to listen to. We put some of that on during the session and in five minutes he was crying and feeling all sorts of loss in this environment. All of those related emotions.
So really once you get somebody talking about the right thing you just really have to stay out of their way and not interfere with the process. Mother Nature created this process not us. You have experience when you were listening to some music and immediately you were back, you remember that summer, you remember the sights, smells, and whose your friends were and who your girlfriends were, all that stuff comes rushing back to you.
SPP: This is a little different than what we’ve been talking about, but I found online an interesting study you did about human tears. I was hoping you could just tell us a little bit about it because that seemed really interesting to me.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: Oh I’m glad you asked. One of the things that we’ve always tried to do at the Primal Institute is to always try and relate what we’re doing with what’s going on in other areas in science. Because I mean one of the problems traditionally with psychology before we talked about the irrigated ego and the super ego, but what are all those things? Those are hypothetical intellectual constructs. You can open up a person’s brain you’re not going to find an ego or a superego or evitable complex.
So early on we wanted to find out and stay abreast of what was going on in neurology and brain science and all of those things. Now one of the things we do here, I mentioned earlier definitely we try and help people regain the capacity to feel painful emotions. And one of the things that happen is that people cry a lot, that’s one of the hallmarks of actually experiencing sadness and painful experiences in life. So many years ago I had the idea, Darwin, Charles Darwin asked this question actually long before I did, which is why do people cry? How come we’re the only species that cry? There must be since Mother Nature or God doesn’t do anything random there must be a reason that we shed tears when we cry.
So I got a whole bunch of scientists at the University of Minnesota and to make a long story short I collected tears in many different circumstances, tears of people in therapy sessions, tears of people watching a sad movie, tears that people shed when they’re peeling an onion. We froze these tears and we sent them to other investigators who didn’t know what they were and we found a very interesting thing. The tears that were shed during a therapy session when somebody was reliving one of these painful moments had the highest concentration of a hormone called ACTH and the two other tears, the tears exposed to onion and the tears from a sad movie, had much, much lower concentrations.
Now what does this mean and why should anyone care? Well ACTH is a stress hormone and too much of it is a bad thing. It’s implicated in cancer, in diabetes, in hypertension, in heart disease, basically in probably every disease too much ACTH is at least a cofactor. So Mother Nature in her wisdom has found a way for us to get rid of some of these stress hormones and one of the ways is by crying, which is a normal activity.
SPP: Wow! You’re making me want to figure out a way to go cry.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: Now it gets better listen to this. Do you know that in every culture across this planet, literally every culture, women live five to nine years longer than men, across the board every culture?
SPP: I mean they do cry more.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: That’s right. Well there’s a lot of reasons.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: One of them is testosterone, which makes us do stupid things and take risks like drinking and smoking and driving without seatbelts.
SPP: Oh yeah.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: The point of all this is that women much more than men across all cultural boundaries retain the ability to be more emotional throughout their lives. They don’t grow up being told hey, be a man, choke it up, what are you crying for? If a man cries it’s a big stigma and that’s when we’re little boys and that has a health consequence. Going through life decade after decade after decade where you’re always choking down your damn emotions actually has a physiological catastrophic consequence. I’m sure that’s not the only reason women live longer but it’s I think a very important factor.
SPP: It makes sense its crazy how you came to the conclusion. That’s an incredible study.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: I’m glad you asked by the way.
SPP: Yeah me too. I guess lastly I kind of wanted to ask, usually we’re just asking questions about what we find or things that we find interesting, but I wanted to get from you what do you find the most interesting about what you do and how you came across it?
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: That’s an interesting question because sometimes when I meet people, I get on an airplane or something, I tell them what I do. A lot of times I like because I don’t want to have the conversation. I’ll just say “I sell stereo.” If I ever do say I’m a psychologist a common follow-up question is “Well isn’t that depressing listening to people’s sadness and pain all day long?” I don’t know maybe it’s me but my reaction is exactly the opposite. What I find tiresome and depressing is when you go to a typical party or something and people are telling you about what car they drive, or how many miles they ran that day, or what horoscope sign they are, or some other boloney like that. I find it refreshing.
I’m speaking to people every day of my life about the things that matter the most to them. The reality of their lives and the problems that they have, yeah it’s kind of heavy but there’s a lot of joy in it too. I mean not every session is relentless crying there’s a lot of joy and I get to see people discover wonderful things about themselves and make important changes in their lives. So I can’t imagine, other than being Eric Clapton, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.
SPP: Well I was going to have that be my last question, but this came up while you were saying that. It’s kind of a grand question here, but do you see a common thread in terms of people’s realizations when they’re in your therapy? I mean I guess you alluded to it earlier saying “Nobody remembers the car they drove” or things like that. Is that kind of the theme throughout?
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: Yeah that’s a very big theme throughout. But the thing that constantly strikes me is, and as I say I’ve been lucky enough to deal with people from pretty much every country I think of or pronounce, all sorts of cultures rich poor and everything in between. And the thing that is most gratifying is that once you scratch your way, whatever the façade is, people are invariably good. They’re really basically good.
A lot of people are hurt and have a lot of scar tissue, but they’re basically good and they want good for themselves and they want good for the people they love. I don’t know that’s an empowering thing to see all the time.
SPP: Yeah I guess on that happy note we should end it there.
SPP: Absolutely. We wanted to thank you. This is extremely interesting. I’m sure our listeners will love this. I just want to check with you if you had any Web sites or books or anything that you recommend that you wanted to point people too.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: Well that’s a good question too. I think well, certainly our Web site www.theprimalinstitute.com and I think the best book a good place to start would be really “The Primal Scream”, which was published in 1970, and the music of John Lennon of The Beatles.
SPP: Ah yeah. I think we can all agree on that one.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: Yeah. I mean he was a genius before he ever had anything to do with therapy and so we can’t take credit for that, but I think we made a small contribution in helping him get in touch with his painful childhood. The genius that he was he was able to turn that pain into creative artistic goals.
SPP: Well then the music listeners of the world thank you. All right Barry, well again thanks so much. This was awesome. I really appreciate you talking to us.
Dr. Barry Bernfeld: Thank you. This was a pleasure for me. I wish you guys the best with your Web site and your podcast. If there’s ever anything I can do to help don’t hesitate.