June 14, 2010

Nurture Sidelined in Pursuit of Genetic Answers

Research any major health issue in some depth and you will likely find yourself immersed in the world of genetics. From diagnostic evaluation to the treatment of disease and development of therapies, genetics has permeated medical science. More than just health questions are being resolved with genetic investigation. For example, two new genome studies have demonstrated that Jewish people across the globe do belong to a distinct ethnicity with shared ancestry, putting to rest the assertion that Jews are a group of unrelated persons with the same religious beliefs. 
The value and potential of genetics should not be underestimated. Genetic engineering, which alters the structure and characteristics of genes directly in a laboratory, has been responsible for many important medical advances, including the creation of synthetic insulin and human growth hormone. Gene therapy, whereby genes are inserted into a person’s cells and tissues to treat disease, is in its infancy but is being used with some success. And DNA sequencing has allowed researchers to study the molecular structures associated with many human diseases. Notwithstanding, the pursuit of genetic solutions--especially in medicine--is not without cost. There are many moral, ethical, legal and privacy issues in play. Here I will discuss some social implications of genetic medicine from my approach as a psychiatric orgone therapist.  
We know from Wilhelm Reich that very much of who we become as adults, in terms of our physical health and overall sense of well-being, is a consequence of how we were raised as children. Reich understood that experiences, what can be referred to as “nurture” or “environment,” beginning as early as the prenatal period and extending into childhood, are of extreme importance. It is what happens to us that determines the location and extent of what Reich termed “armoring,” the chronic contractions in the body that block the free flow of our biologic energy. 
Reading Reich and understanding his theoretical framework is one thing, but when one treats patients using the therapy he developed, there can be no doubt that traumatic events occurring during the newborn period, infancy and childhood exert a profound, lifelong influence. Reich understood that even the prenatal period was influential, stating in Children of the Future that pelvic armoring in the mother impedes the full bioenergetic functioning of the fetus. 
With emphasis the world over now focused on gene research, my concern is that people are becoming increasingly less inclined to pay attention to and investigate “nurture,” the experiences of early life and their consequences. For example, a recent Stanford University study found some women are “genetically programmed” to have more success losing weight with certain diets. Whether diets can now be effectively tailored to one’s genetic make-up may or may not prove true. What I don’t see is any attention given to a main cause of obesity: the chronic anxiety that comes about as a result of stressful childhood experiences. 
Many overeat to feel less anxious. Those with this problem know just what I’m talking about! But why does eating relieve anxiety? What we know as orgone therapists is that excess fat accumulation in many ways serves the same function as muscular armor. Fat binds energy, and in so doing reduces anxiety. 
One way to reduce obesity in individuals who eat when anxious is with therapy. However, therapy is aways an after-the-fact solution. The problem of obesity could be addressed in large part by preventing anxiety through better childrearing practices. This is but one of countless examples of how “nurture” has been sidelined in favor of genetic explanations.
Then there is the almost daily procession of physical and emotional conditions that are being linked to genetic make-up. Brain aneurysms, heart disease, cancer, depression, anxiety, anger, criminal behavior, shyness and even gambling, along with a multitude of other conditions have all been claimed by researchers to be associated with specific genes. But how far will these cause and effect associations get us? After all, scientists know well that genes do not execute rigid, predetermined programs of development and that they are very responsive to the environment. So, as I see it, even if we completely understood the mechanisms of heredity, it would give us only half of the picture. 
I don’t believe the nature versus nurture question will be solved by gene research, nor do I see a future where our understanding of genetics will prevent and cure virtually all of human illnesses. Yet, with an unceasing focus on the discovery of the next “genetic breakthrough,” the public (influenced of course by the media) is adopting an ever-more rigid and mechanical mindset about human functioning.
The media often overstates the potential of reported research.The Social Issues Research Centre in Great Britain states the “media is often the primary source of science information and, as such, can have a profound impact on how the public views the risks and benefits of scientific advances.” Further it reports that “...because of this influential role, many commentators have been highly critical of the quality of media reporting, suggesting that reporting is ‘hyped,’ irresponsible, and hurtful to the public's understanding of important scientific issues.”
Distorted reporting is more than hurtful to understanding. It raises, unjustifiably, hope in those suffering with disease by implying that treatment of their condition will become available or, worse yet, is even just around the corner. The problem is not just with the media. There are even some in scientific circles who are saying that only funding and time stand in the way of unraveling the mystery of how to correct, and even prevent each and every physical and emotional problem. This overly optimistic attitude has become widespread and there is a growing, and incorrect, belief that genetic solutions will provide the magic cure-all. 
Tremendous improvement in emotional and even physical health is possible with properly conducted psychiatric orgone therapy. These improvements don’t come about with medications, and certainly not with gene therapy. Rather, it is the ability to empathically connect with patients and to slowly and systematically remove armor and allow the expression of emotions buried since childhood. That this is so speaks against the idea that genetics is the dominant factor determining one’s ability to function and lead a happy, healthy life.

I also want to talk about what I call “mechanical mysticism,” the distorted perception that results in a mistaken belief that absolute salvation is possible through science. People routinely associate mysticism with religion, spirituality or the occult, and view science as antithetical to such thinking. We know from Reich that mysticism is much broader. He tells us, in Ether, God and Devil that, “...mysticism comes about when real processes are distorted...and are not in harmony with what is objectively so.” He goes on to say, “...the mystic becomes stuck in the absolute.” 

In mechanical mysticism, the power and possibility of science (or the mechanical) assumes a godlike role. The belief in ultimate salvation at some future time, whether through the arrival of the messiah, or by genetic engineering, is fundamentally mystical. The mechanical mystic working in the world of genetics views genes in much the same way as the religious person views God. Both are seen as being a root cause of human functioning and in both there is placed all hope for human redemption. Thus the person “of religion” and the person “of science” are not, necessarily, so opposite in their thinking.
The popular attitude toward the power and possibility of genetics serve as an especially good example of mechanical mysticism in action. Given this perspective there is the belief that all illness can be prevented or cured through an understanding of genetics, and that ultimately the human race can be perfected--absolute salvation achieved--in this way. 
Mechanical mysticism has the capacity to lead us to the same dark places as religious mysticism. Hundreds of millions have died because of religious mysticism. The endless procession of holy wars throughout the ages stand as testimony to religious mysticism’s deadly potential. Few appreciate the Holocaust was also mystically rooted. 
Between 11 and 17 million people were murdered by Hitler in the name of improving the human species by eliminating those with undesirable genes. His method was by employing eugenics, the study and practice of selective breeding as applied to humans, with the aim of improving the species. It was widely popular in the early decades of the twentieth century, falling into disfavor only after the collapse of Hitler’s regime. Eugenics is an example of mechanical mysticism and it has, in many ways, the same goal as genetic engineering. 
Please remain calm! I am not comparing Hitler’s plan to create a superior race with the whole of modern-day genetic science. But there is an important parallel between genetic engineering and eugenics. Genetic engineering involves direct manipulation of an individual’s genes through molecular cloning and transformation in a lab. Eugenics employs the much less scientific practice of breeding to modify and “improve” the genes. Either way, eugenics and genetic engineering are the same in so far as both involve manipulating genes with the goal of “improvement.” When the underlying belief system is that, through genetic modification or through eugenics, one is going to ultimately “perfect” the human species you can be sure mechanical mysticism is at work.
Of course, the implication that mankind will perfect the human race through genetic science is unfounded. Heaven on earth won’t come by way of science any more than it will come by way of religion. Only preventing armoring, from conception onward, can slowly, generation by generation, bring about the changes in people that will make them happier and healthier. 
In the U.S. alone billions upon billions of dollars are being spent every year on genetic research, and the expenditures in both the public and private sectors continue to skyrocket. Here are a few recent examples. In March 2010, GenomeWeb News reported that the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute plans to spend $76 million over the next five years to study human genomic variation and genetic links to disease. Also in March, Florida lawmakers earmarked $50 million in state funds to entice Maine’s Jackson Laboratory, a genetic research company, to build a $710 million research and medical facility in their state. 
Imagine if even a small fraction of this money was used to research and understand the importance of the prenatal and early childhood period. Imagine what could be done to help parents and other caregivers improve the way children are raised. The benefit to all humanity would be enormous! Only time will tell if we will ever shift away from pure science and back toward simply raising healthy children.


Marlise Wind, Wallingford, PA said...

Dr. Schwartzman: You raise a lot of great questions in this post, and give thought-provoking answers as well. Whether nature or nurture is more decisive in determining how a person lives his life is much less relevant a question than: What can I do to live my life more sanely? And what can I do to help my child do the same? Your blogs help to answer these life-changing and life-affirming questions. Thank you.

Tom Ballman said...

Dr. Schwartzman:

Would you consider genetic research (minus Eugenics) just an elaborate and highly costly acknowledgement of paired variations in disease susceptability? Much like knowing your family history?

Dr. Schwartzman said...

Tom, your question regarding paired variations requires some explanation for those not familiar with orgonometry, the technique Reich devised to better able one to think functionally, that is, how nature functions. Reich tells us, using illustrations, that paired variations arise from a "common functional principle." As an example, an amoeba that divides will split into two daughter amoebae. They are not the same as the generating amoeba, and they are not the same as each other, they are paired variations.

With regard to disease, susceptibility is certainly inherited. However environment, particularly the earliest experiences prenatally and from the moment of birth, have an incredibly important role in modifying, for better or for worse, the expression of disease.

Genetic research has opened many avenues of investigation. It is a tool that can look backward to explore family history, and it will be used with increasing benefit in the future to manipulate DNA to effect yet unimaginable alterations in all living things.

However, as I have said, this field of science will never take the place of raising children as they need to be raised, so that they grow up to be happy, healthy and able to enjoy life.

For those interested in Reich's orgonometry technique for clear, functional thinking I recommend the book titled "Before the Beginning of Time" by Jacob Meyerowitz.

Lloyd Bagwell said...

Hi Dr Schwartzman, I liked what you wrote. One thing that’s really important that you didn’t mention though is why genetics is so popular. Genetic and chemical imbalance theories seem to me to be specifically designed as ways for humans to avoid taking the blame for all the misery in the world. People do not want to be told that they are abusive and that their behaviours and attitudes cause mental/emotional and social problems, and they certainly don’t want to accept it. Both theories are get out of guilt free cards aren’t they? I don’t think things would be like this if Freud hadn’t done such a major U-turn. He let society off the hook (with his death instinct) and his words carried a lot of weight. It was far easier for society to ignore Reich than it would have been to ignore Freud.

Do you know where statements like these come from: almost all personality traits are 60-80% genetic? What research is it based on? I’ve heard similar statements before and they sound ludicrous to me; I’m sure that if you looked at where they come from you could see where the faults in the research are. Armor affects people’s characters so much that statements like that simply cannot be correct. A major problem that comes up all the time is that people see all the results of armoring as being just human nature; it’s a very destructive miscalculation.

Albertt Sikeliuskelius said...

Dear Dr. Schwartzman, you certainly raise some very important questions about today modern genetics and its use. I would like to just make the point that the mechanistic and mystical aspect of genetics is present in the way genes are understood and presented. There is a lot of dogmatism and methaphysical thinking when genes are interpreted as absolute entities that never change deterministically estabish the characteristics of a living organism. This is called scientific reductionism and leads the way to metaphysical thinking and mysticism. On the other side there is enough evidence to see that genes indeed interact with the rest of the cell and are subject to change. Genes can and are modified by the environment and the stimulis that an organism undergoes. They have a lot of plasticity and reactivity. Seeing this eliminates the dogmatism and the absolutism with which they are understood today. Best Wishes,
Albertt Sikeliuskelius

claus said...

Albertt Sikeliuskelius: “This is called scientific reductionism […].” Sorry, I disagree: To me reduction still is an important means concerning the concepts of scientific research. For example “women are female grownups” is a reduction of “woman” to “female” and “grownup”. (I know: Reichians don’t like philosophy of science.) And reducing biological concepts to physical concepts is a matter of interest to orgone research. But I agree: “There is a lot of dogmatism and methaphysical thinking when genes are interpreted as absolute entities that never change.”

Psychiatric Orgone Therapy

One of Wilhelm Reich’s most important and lasting contributions is a unique treatment for emotional disorders called psychiatric orgone therapy. Reich began as a psychoanalyst and was a member of Freud’s inner circle, but moved away from Freud’s method of free association when he developed a more effective verbal approach he called character analysis. Later he came to recognize the existence of a specific biologic energy in living organisms that he called “orgone,” which was coined from the word “organism.” With this discovery Reich was able to combine his verbal method with a technique that could normalize a person’s energy. The result was an entirely new approach to treating emotional disorders that he named orgone therapy.

Reich’s work with patients convinced him the disturbance in an individual’s energy state is caused by contractions in the body, especially in the musculature. He called these contractions “armor,” and established that they begin to develop in infancy as a way to block out emotionally painful events.

Past traumatic experiences are locked in the body--and they remain throughout life. How this happens is not fully understood, but there is no question that anxiety, anger and sadness, as well as the other upsetting feelings and emotions from childhood are not forgotten. Armor not only holds the disturbing past, causing it to remain alive but out of consciousness awareness, but it also affects how one feels and functions. Because living a natural healthy life depends upon whether a person’s energy flows freely or is blocked, the aim of psychiatric orgone therapy is to free up energy by breaking down armor. As these areas of holding dissolve, patients release their long buried feelings and emotions in the safety of the therapist’s office. They most usually surface spontaneously with the specific method Reich innovated, without the need of urging or any intervention on the part of the treating psychiatrist. However, occasionally, pressure needs to be applied to spastic muscles, or other techniques used to normalize the body. Because this treatment combines a verbal approach with a physical technique, it addresses both the mind and the body to bring about profound changes in how one thinks, feels and functions.

Today almost all people seeking treatment from a psychiatrist are given medications to reduce their symptoms. However, with psychiatric orgone therapy it is usual that patients, over time, find themselves able to wean themselves off medication and function without pharmacologic treatment. Reich’s therapy is unique in that it not only relieves distressing symptoms, but also does much more. It enables individuals to expand and feel pleasure, and better enjoy the many satisfactions life has to offer.

There are people who claim to practice some form of “Reichian” or “orgone” therapy, even though they have had no formal training in medicine or psychology. Often the techniques used by these self-proclaimed therapists have little or nothing to do with the very specific methods Reich developed and taught. The value of such therapies is questionable and may even harm those who get involved in them.

Qualified psychiatric orgone therapists have extensive training. They are physicians who have gone on to specialize in psychiatry and then in the very unique subspecialty of orgone therapy. They practice in much the same way as Reich did more than a half century ago. Ph.D. Psychologists who have had proper training can practice a form of orgone therapy safely and effectively. However, it is crucial they have supervision by a qualified psychiatric orgone therapist.