News from the womb

Psychology of the Future by Stanislav Grof

I recently read Stanislav Grof’s Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. It’s basically a summary of his life’s work: from LSD psychotherapy in Prague during the fallout from World War II, to Holotropic breathwork in the States, taking in psychosomatic traumas, psychedelic mysticism, spontaneous psychic crises, death & dying… all revolving around Grof’s fascination with the information about intra-uterine experience that seems to sprout from all these arenas.

This isn’t the place for a detailed exposition of his theories. Suffice it to say that his basic premise—that the foetus registers the experience of the womb and birth, and that bringing these deep impressions into consciousness can reveal their potent role in shaping our lives—remains both convincing to anyone with an open mind prepared to read his evidence, and radically unaccepted by mainstream psychology and popular opinion.

He can seem reductionist; this was always my main point of contention with his theories. Perhaps in this summing-up he’s aware of that, and takes pains to stress that he’s merely trying to bring another dimension into our map of the psyche. I’ve a lot of sympathy for people in this position. When your discoveries are so curiously neglected by the mainstream, the act of shouting louder to get yourself heard often forces you to be more strident and reductionist than you might otherwise have been. Wilhelm Reich‘s brilliant theories suffered greatly on this account; Grof seems to have kept his balance admirably.

His model of “COEX systems” (systems of COndensed EXperience) is, to my mind, his best guard against reductionism. He sees various intense experiences—reaching through adulthood and childhood traumas and joys, back through birth and the womb, and beyond into the transpersonal realm of past lives and karma—as all hanging together, grouped by common resonance into a single multi-faceted system. Any reductionism here seems to be a necessary relic of linear time, where birth necessarily precedes life; but linear time, of course, loses some of its monolithic grip when your means of investigation are altered states (what Grof calls “holotropic consciousness”, i.e. consciousness moving towards wholeness).

The most persuasive case study presented in this book is that of Joan, a middle-aged woman dying from stomach cancer. Her description of her LSD experiences, as part of the project at Spring Grove in Baltimore that Grof headed with Walter Pahnke in 1971, are moving in the extreme. There are very good cases to be made for psychedelic therapy in any number of situations. But, as Grof notes, the idea that it’s still difficult to license it for terminal patients who are deemed beyond medical help, is both ridiculous and revealing. It shows clearly that our culture’s problem with the issue has little to do with the idea that psychedelics might mess people’s lives up in some way, and much more to do with an unwillingness to do what Joan and people like her want to do: face death consciously.

Regarding Grof’s theories on the crucial role that womb experience has to play in shaping our lives, it was interesting to read a couple of related news stories today.

There’s the catchy headline ‘Womb experience makes men gay’, reporting on a study that seems to show a correlation between male homosexuality and being the younger of several brothers. I’d not heard about this one, but apparently there is a correlation; and what’s more, it doesn’t seem to hold if the brothers are adopted step-siblings. The theory from this is an intriguing and blatantly charged one: “A woman’s body may see a male foetus as ‘foreign’ […] prompting an immune reaction which may grow progressively stronger with each male child. The antibodies created may affect the developing male brain.” Talk about sex war!

Then there’s a report on the rise of obesity in the developing world. The theory here is that an infant gestating in the womb of a woman in rural India will be primed, through its connection to the mother’s metabolism, for a certain type of diet—certain foods, certain patterns of eating or, crucially, not eating. If this child grows up and “makes good”, moves to the city, gets an office job and a good salary, their relative inactivity and rich diet can play havoc with their womb-inspired metabolic habits, and leave them with a big ass of lard.

Both stories are notable, in relation to Grof’s work, in that they are wholly materialist, biochemical theories about the role of womb experience. Naturally this aspect is highly important, and Grof would be the first person to acknowledge that. But this can only be the thin end of the wedge for science. With the cognitive sciences amassing more and more evidence for the psyche’s profoundly deep relationship to the body, purely biochemical theories will have to rely more and more on dogma and ignorance to keep psychological elements at bay.

In the refusal to embrace evidence for pre- and perinatal psychological experience, science betrays itself. I think we’re dealing here with the same issue that is revealed in the curious fact that even though Darwinian evolution sees humans as part of a continuum with animals, science habitually carries on the sharp Christian-Cartesian distinction between self-aware human agents and ‘mere animals’ (although there’s evidence of movement in that situation). Similarly, it’s habitual to believe that the roots of consciousness only extend out, to the social sphere in which we’re enmeshed, and not in or down to the inarticulate world of the womb. Or rather, the downward roots are seen to be beyond the pale for consciousness itself, anchored to genetic realms that we can only contact via the abstractions and instrumentations of experimental science. This habitual view may be a self-justifying avoidance of conscious access to these roots as much as it is a rational methodology.

In the face of the evidence from neuropsychology and holotropic research, these habits must wither. All I can say is we had better reflect on the abortion debate in light of this. “Pro-lifers” aren’t, at root, killing abortion doctors to defend inarticulate life because of a belief in the reality of womb experiences. No; they kill in the name of the atomistic personal soul, a wholly inorganic and abstract notion. Such simple-minded concepts need to be killed, but, in the face of extensive evidence from Grof and others, without sacrificing the probability that there is a form of foetal consciousness.

There’s the danger that the work of people like Grof may be held up as evidence—presumably against his will—for the “pro-life” position. We must be clear that yes, some form of experience is going on in the womb; but no, this doesn’t detract in the slightest from the conscious choice that should be given to women about what happens to their bodies. The clarity of the bottom line here shouldn’t detract from the complexity of the issue, nor vice versa.