Affective Neuroscience of the Emotional Brain/Mind – What does this theory mean for Breathwork

Written by Gunnel Minett

Dr Jaak Panksepp is one of the world’s leading experts on Affective Neuroscience. This is the theory behind a new approach to psychotherapy based on neuroscience. By studying the brain and its functions, conclusions relating to the mind and psyche can be drawn. This is in a way a return to the roots of modern psychology. Sigmund Freud started his study of human psychology by studying neuroscience, but after problems getting his new theories accepted, he changed direction and concentrated only on developing ‘talk therapy’. That is to say that he focused on the mind in isolation, rather than the mind/brain, the new direction for psychology. This lead to an unfortunate split between mind and brain, or between the disciplines of psychology and neurobiology, that most likely has delayed the development of both disciplines. This is why Panksepp’s research is so important, in particular for body-oriented psychotherapy, the category that breathwork falls under. Following Panksepp’s theory; by understanding the physiology involved in emotions that influence the mind, we can both start to understand the how and why of breathwork, and, more importantly, start to find ways to develop breathing techniques further.

In his article: Affective Neuroscience of the Emotional Brain/Mind: Evolutionary perspectives and implications for understanding depression, Panksepp explains the connections between brain functions and psychological problems such as, in this case, depression. Here we will look at how Panksepp’s research can help explain breathwork.
The basics of breathwork theory

Anyone who has tried breathwork in any form would probably agree that it has an effect. Quite often this effect can be really strong. But we still don’t know much about how and why changing the breathing pattern can have an effect on the psyche. In particular not how this effect can be both short- and long-term. Many forms of breathwork were developed either a very long time ago (in Eastern or tribal cultures) or in modern forms, by people without much knowledge of, or interest in, science or psychology. Therefore modern fact-based breathwork theories are often missing. In addition, many Rebirthers claim that Rebirthing is not psychotherapy, and that they therefore do not need to know about psychology. But, whatever their arguments are, breathwork is a form of psychotherapy, since it is performed with the intention of helping a person to a better and more harmonious life, which is the basic aim of all psychotherapy. And as such, it would undoubtedly be helped by having a proper psychotherapy oriented theory.

Rebirthing’s theory – A list of ‘biggies’

In Rebirthing, the breathing technique that has formed the basis of many of the new techniques, the basic assumption is that all that is needed is to learn the breathing technique and ‘it’ will do all the healing. The therapist (Rebirther) is mainly there to guide the breathing and to witness the healing process that will take place in a spontaneous way, often seen as some form of ‘divine’ intervention. This approach has meant that psychotherapy theories of any kind have not really been necessary. Instead the therapist has often been encouraged to simply ‘tune in’ to their preferred higher being or self to guide them in their work with clients.

The basic theory in Rebirthing can be summarised in a list of root-problems for all ailments that Rebirthing can remedy, put together by the main founder, Leonard Orr. To begin with he had what he called five ‘biggies’. They have now grown to eight.

They are:

1. Birth Trauma – including prenatal and infancy memories. Infancy memories stuck in the body are the basic cause of most terminal diseases. They are terminal only because we use the wrong methods to attempt to heal them.

2. Parental Disapproval Syndrome – this is what most psychoanalysis is about.

3. Specific Negatives – misusing the tremendous power of the human mind to create our own trauma and negative experiences.

4. Unconscious Death Urge is rooted in the belief that death is inevitable and beyond our control, but usually works according to family tradition.

5. Karma from Past Lives – if we had some, and most people do. Conscious reincarnation is an alternative to physical immortality.

6. School Trauma – most people had their divine nature and creativity totally stifled and destroyed by school through emotional energy pollution and unnatural curriculum. Many people become zombies by their 20’s, if not earlier.

7. Religion Trauma – few religions develop our natural divinity and teach mental practices that enable us to realise our potential.
8. Senility – senility and old age are not death sentences, but the beginning of the youthing process. But without mastering spiritual purification, human civilisation seems to make people zombies.


Orr also believes in physical immortality and for many years it was a requirement in many Rebirthing trainings to share his beliefs in ‘youthing’ and the ability to live forever in the same body.
It does not require much knowledge of psychology or neuroscience to see that Rebirthing’s theoretical framework has little in common with fact-based psychological theory. If anything it represents a list of Orr’s personal problems in life, rather than a useful theory for a powerful breathing technique for physical and mental healing. Over the years this lack of theory has caused problems for Rebirthing worldwide and lead to several cases of malpractice by people working as therapists without proper training in psychotherapy. It has also received a lot of criticism from psychotherapy and science and placed Rebirthing on the ‘fringe’ of New Age therapies. This has been a very unfortunate development since breathing techniques such as the technique developed in Rebirthing has a huge potential according to the latest developments in neuroscience-based psychotherapy.

Neuroscience-based psychotherapy.

According to the latest findings in neuroscience the link between body and mind has been found to be so strong that you can no longer separate the body into different parts. There is now sufficient evidence to show that the body influences the mind and the mind influences the body in such a way that you can only describe it as a body/mind. One effect of this may be directly link to the question of how breathwork can work. Breathwork’s aim is to establish a relaxed and open breathing pattern, similar to that of deep sleep. To the body this signals relaxation. If the relaxed breathing occurs during sleep it may trigger dreams, as a way of releasing impressions that for some reason are still lingering in the mind. During breathwork the same effect is often achieved with a release of impressions, thoughts, emotions that for various reasons have a special significance in our current lives. So the explanation here may simply be that in a safe environment and with a relaxed breathing pattern we tend to open up the mind to a ‘healing’ process of examination and integration in the same way as in ‘talking therapy’. The body influences the mind.

Emotional networks in the brain

Another of Panksepp’s theories is highly relevant for breathwork. It states that we have emotional networks in the brain that have a direct influence on the mind. It is still not part of mainstream neuroscience to recognise such significance for emotions. Panksepp writes: “Basic emotional networks can be defined by six criteria:
• They generate characteristic behavioural-instinctual action patterns
• They are initially activated by a limited set of unconditional stimuli
• The resulting arousals outlast precipitating circumstances
• Emotional arousals gate/regulate various sensory inputs into the brain
• They control learning and help program higher brain cognitive activities
• With maturation, higher brain mechanisms come to regulate emotional arousals.

Affects are the subjectively experienced aspects of emotions, commonly called feelings. Critical evidence now indicates that primary-process emotional affects are mammalian/human birthrights that arise directly from genetically encoded emotional action circuits that anticipate key survival needs. They mediate what philosophers have called “intentions-in-action”

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What does this mean for breathwork?

Firstly, it identifies and places emotions firmly within (neuro)scientific theory. It may come as a surprise for many that emotions are not already at the centre of scientific theory. But for various historical reasons, emotions have been pushed to one side or completely left out of the picture by a very materialistic scientific view that has been on a direct collision course with psychotherapy and the cathartic expression of emotions. 
Secondly, it tells us that emotions are much older than the newer ‘thinking’ parts of the brain. This, in turn, means that large parts of the body/brain are influenced by very ancient emotional reactions that may not easily have been understood and interpreted by the thinking brain. In body-oriented therapies, such as breathwork, underlying emotions can be identified and expressed. With a properly trained therapist this can help a person to make progress in their psychotherapy. 
Thirdly, neuroscience will tell us that emotions are also chemical reactions in the body. Even if no systematic studies of breathwork have been made, it is fairly safe to say that a change of the breathing pattern, leads to chemical changes in the body. And, according to Panksepp, with emotional arousals gating or regulating sensory inputs into the brain, we can assume that breathwork can have a similar chemical effect on the brain.

Which are the emotions Panksepp is talking about?

Panksepp has divided emotions into seven emotional systems. He writes: Brain research supports the existence of at least seven primary-process (basic) emotional systems – SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, GRIEF (formerly PANIC), and PLAY – concentrated in ancient subcortical regions of all mammalian brains.( ) 

Taking a broad-minded approach to Orr’s biggies, you could argue that this is Orr’s attempt to explain something similar to Panksepp’s emotional systems. But the obvious difference is of course that Panksepp is basing his theory on a life-time of scientific research whereas Orr, at best, has come up with his biggies based on his own life experiences. Still Orr’s biggies are used by Rebirthing practitioners around the world although they do not offer much real help for any form of modern psychotherapy. Instead they have lead to a very one-sided and superficial approach to emotions with a clear divide into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emotions. This is sometimes described as a ‘heart-centred’ approach. To deal with the emotions generated Rebirthers tend to use techniques such as affirmations, forgiveness exercises aimed at replacing ‘bad’ emotions with ‘good’ ones. 
Despite good intentions, this ‘heart-centred’ attitude often has a negative effect. But as conventional psychotherapy will confirm, being too focused on the ‘good’ and to change a person for the better is not very helpful. Instead, unless the client is given time and help to arrive at their own conclusions as to ‘good/bad’, psychotherapy may not have a positive effect. Instead it may lead to cult-like group behaviour where clients are taught how to think and feel ‘the correct way’ (as has often been the case in Rebirthing circles).

What do emotions represent?

One of the aspects of Panksepp’s emotional systems is to clearly show that all emotions, good or bad, are expressions of essential and important aspects of human life. Whether we are expressing rage or care we are doing something that is positive for our survival. The key is instead to identify the origin of the emotions and to help the client to change their effect and to be expressed in a way that the client has control over and that is good both for the individual and their environment. It is also to help the client understand that all emotions may have a good and bad side and that it may be more fruitful to establish why the ancient emotions, intended to help us survive, may be twisted into destructive behaviour.

In summary

Even if neuroscientific articles are a level above the easy read, they represent the future for techniques such as breathwork. Orr’s ‘biggies’ attempt to create a psychological theory may have worked in the early days of Rebirthing when it was simply a milder alternative to mind-altering drugs and other rather wild attempts to reform psychotherapy. But for breathing techniques to develop and become a substantial contribution to psychotherapy in the future, breathwork needs to embrace the new understanding of the psyche that neuroscience is providing. If not it will remain on the fringe and most likely disappear along with its founders and/or be replaced by new breathing techniques with proper theoretical frameworks.

Keywords; neuroscience, emotions, Panksepp, Orr, psychotherapy, breathwork,

© Gunnel Minett 2015