Written by Gunnel Minett

New discoveries in neuroscience have lead to a much better understanding of the human psyche. Although the human mind can’t be studied under a microscope, or even placed anywhere in the body, by studying the biology of the brain and body, science has learnt a lot about how the human mind and psyche develops. This in turn has lead to what can be described as a major turning point in psychotherapy. For body- oriented psychotherapy such as Breathwork, this is very promising since it can mean that Breathwork can finally start to play a role in mainstream psychotherapy.

Classical psychology

Modern science is said to have its origin in the rationalist movement in the 17’s century when it started to move away from religious control. One of the leading figures in this development was René Descartes. His famous quote “I think therefore I am” referred to his view that there is a separation between body and soul. For him, the soul was the important part that made rational thinking possible. The body was merely a machine, a container for the soul that had much less importance. Emotions consequently were of no real importance. The good side of his argument was that a) it did not in any way contradict the Christian idea that God created man (unlike animals) in his image and b) it still meant a focus on the soul, i.e. that the church could disregard this new view and let science study the body in far more detail than previously.

Even if Descartes views have been questioned over the years, his dual approach to body and mind has remained as origin of the popular (folk psychology) view to this day. (Folk psychology refers to the everyday, intuitive view we hold of how ‘our mind/soul lives in our body’ that is based on a mix of biology and culture.) In the last century discussion about mind and consciousness expanded greatly. There are now many views but very little consensus. It is like a giant jigsaw puzzle where people are trying to link up pieces here and there but where a number of pieces still are the wrong way up and need to be dealt with before they can contribute to the overall picture.

Sigmund Freud is usually seen as the father of psychology. His theories on the unconscious mind added greatly to understanding the human psyche. Still the Behaviourism that followed Freud’s theories in the 1940’s and 50’s was very much in line with Descartes views on the body as a machine and emotions to be disregarded. According to behaviourism all that is needed is to focus on changing behaviour. Why and how we express certain behaviour is of no real importance since it can all be changed by systematic training.

Classical psychology in Breathwork

Many Breathwork schools base their theory on the teaching of Rebirthing developed by Leonard Orr, Sondra Ray and others. Their theories are very much in line with the dualistic, folk psychology view of body/mind. In particular Orr, who has a religious background (as a Born Again Christian) has developed a theory to explain (Rebirthing) Breathwork based on concepts such as what he calls “8 Biggies of Human Trauma:” • Birth Trauma • Parental Disapproval Syndrome • Specific Negatives • School Trauma • Past Life Karma • the Unconscious Death urge • Religion Trauma • Senility. In summary, these are crude versions of Freudian psychology in combination with his interpretation of Eastern ideas of Karma.

The main theory behind Rebirthing (accepted by most Breathwork schools) is that the power of the breathing itself is all that is needed to change a person. Orr himself is known to have said that Rebirthing is like disposing of rubbish. You don’t need to examine what is in the bag. By simply breathing you can get rid of it all. To help this ‘disposal’ of unwanted behaviour and emotions the use of ‘Affirmations’ is widespread. This is a way of formulating positive statements in order to change unwanted behaviour. (Such as: “Immense wealth and richness are flowing to me from known and unknown sources of the Cosmic Abundance” – a daily affirmation from http://www.everydayaffirmations.org ) This is very similar to Behaviourism’s argument that understanding the mind and origin of unwanted behaviour is irrelevant. All that is needed is to ‘dispose’ and ‘reprogram’.

A major problem with the Affirmation approach is that it tends to focus on a ‘positive’ outcome in which only certain behaviours and emotions are approved. This means a focus on being ‘loving’, ‘forgiving’, ‘caring’, ‘understanding’ etc. in a very superficial and one-sided way. Rather than having an underlying positive approach that all emotions are important communication from our ‘true self’, this approach is focused on creating a positive persona – an outer image of good – rather than a true change in a person based on understanding of the human psyche.

Modern (neuro) psychology

One of the consequences of Descartes dualistic view of the body/mind is to disregard animal behaviour. According to Descartes animals do not have a soul since they do not have a human ‘thinking’ mind. To study animals will therefore not be of help to understand human behaviour. Modern technology has meant that biologists have got much better tools to study both animal and human biology. Their conclusion has been that quite contrary to the Christian belief that Descartes shared; that the difference between humans and animals is not at all as great as they thought. On the contrary science has been able to prove that we are only a few genes away from earth worms or even bananas. By studying animals we can indeed learn a lot about human behaviour. And why not, since our closest cousins are chimpanzees.

This new approach to understanding the human psyche has meant a new view on the human mind. From a clear focus on the thought process in the conscious mind, emotions and the unconscious mind have come to be seen as the important parts. So rather than being generated by our thoughts, emotions are being seen as generating thoughts and in many ways reflecting the centre of our intelligence.

Much of the previous (mis)understanding of how the mind works has come from lab studies focused on the conscious mind. Later research has been looking at how the brain is multitasking and changing between the conscious and unconscious parts. One such example is driving whilst having the radio on and talking to the passengers. For most experienced drivers, the actual handling of the car and traffic is completely unconscious unless something happens in the traffic that demands attention. Similarly the radio is probably semi-unconscious unless something catches our attention. Even in the conversation that occupies our conscious mind, we may run parallel processes. If we are involved in a discussion we may run a separate thought process in the background holding in mind what we will respond to arguments as well as who said what and why.

By studying human behaviour in this wider context, some scientists have come to the conclusion that it is not the conscious mind that has overall control of our thoughts and behaviour. On the contrary, it is the unconscious mind that has this overall picture and consequently is in charge of who we really are. This is why it is so important to learn to understand our unconscious and how it communicates with the conscious mind. A major part of this is to learn to understand our emotions and where they come from.

A new understanding of the human psyche

In the new book The Archaeology of Mind (Panksepp & Diven 2013), the authors put forward a completely new view on the human mind and behaviour, based on substantial studies of animal behaviour. The authors identify seven emotional systems that explain how we live and behave. These systems originate in deep areas of the brain that are remarkably similar across all mammalian species. These systems draw on information both from within and from the environment and act like a type of driving force for all emotions and behaviour. It is when they are disrupted, that we find the origins of emotional (and psychological) disorders.
The systems are:
- SEEKING/EXPECTANCY: how the brain generates a euphoric and expectant response – FEAR: how the brain responds to the threat of physical danger and death
- RAGE: sources of irritation and fury in the brain
- LUST: how sexual desire and attachments are elaborated in the brain
- CARE: sources of maternal nurturance
- GRIEF/PANIC: sources of non-sexual attachments
- PLAY: how the brain generates joyous, rough-and-tumble interactions
- SELF: a hypothesis explaining how affects might be elaborated in the brain

Because these systems are rooted in older parts of the brain they can be described as a type of emotional intelligence that influences the thoughts as much as the other way around. As said, this is a very different approach to understanding human consciousness than most of the current views (including Breathwork) emotions still are dismissed as irrelevant or just a by-product of the conscious brain.

Emotions and Breathwork

Experiences in Breathwork have shown how a simple relaxed increase of the breathing can trigger even strong emotions. This corresponds well with the understanding that emotions actually are a reflection of a deeper intelligence and should be seen more as a language expressing our unconscious mind than irrelevant by-products. Our problem as human beings is that if we focus mainly on our thought process we may find it difficult to interpret and identify the underlying emotions. This is why studying animals can help us understand human behaviour.

There are many examples of this. As we all know most mammals use smell to learn about each other. It may not be as obvious to us that we do the same. Studies have shown, for instance, that we are attracted / repelled by each other smells. Something exploited in particular by the perfume industry and expressed in the way we greet each other. With body contact (kisses and hand shake) we can ‘sniff’ each other, just like many other animals.

In Panksepp’s systems the SEEKING system is the most important and dominant. It is the driving force behind curiosity, ambition, competition, longing for food, attention, etc. Even romantic pursuit is guided by our expectancy for something positive rather than simply LUST. In its positive form SEEKING is essential for us to explore life to the full (curiosity) and has been a driving force that has helped human beings to develop into the most powerful mammal on earth (creativity and rational thinking). If there are problems in the SEEKING system it may lead to serious psychological problems such as schizophrenia and addiction.

Panksepp and Diven make it clear beyond any doubt that the right way forward for helping people with psychological and behavioural problems is to learn from their type of research. This means to learn from studying what exactly happens, for example, when the chemistry of the brain changes and to hopefully also develop drugs that will help us change the brain’s chemistry in positive ways. Combined with psychotherapy, this approach has been shown to produce very good results.

Is breathing enough?

This new approach to psychotherapy also points out the active parts in a therapeutic relationship. In agreement with David Goleman (Emotional Intelligence, 2006) Panksepp/Diven write: “It has long been known that the most effective psychotherapy occurs when clinicians know how to approach clients with unconditional acceptance, empathic sensitivity, and a full concern for their emotional lives. In a word, effective psychotherapists share their ability for CARE, along with the ability to recruit their healing power of positive emotions.” (Panksepp/Diven p 310)

For Breathwork this means that the old idea that the breathing itself is enough does not hold up. Instead the breathing should be seen as an initiator/activator of emotions that can help us understand ourselves and the underlying motives that control our current behaviour. The real ‘healing’ comes from how these emotions are interpreted and how the relationship between therapist/client evolves. For this to happen, Breathwork needs to bring in more theory and get up to date with current psychological understanding of the human mind.

By understanding how the emotional systems works, we can also understand what we need to develop from child to harmonious adult, i.e. what kind of
environment children need to develop fully functional emotional reactions. For instance by understanding the PLAY system and its role it is possible that children can be helped with theoretical learning, social interaction, affect regulation (i.e. emotional responses), etc.

For (breathwork) therapists in particular it is essential to understand the difference between the SEEKING system and the CARING system. Just because a therapist is interested in caring for others does not mean it is coming from the CARING system. The SEEKING system that focuses on expectancy and gratification is often dominant in therapists; in particular those who like to act as guru/teacher for others. That means that they are driven by the search for gratification rather than the drive to care for others. In other words, they want to be important to others in a co-dependent way rather than the unselfish approach many carers have to helping others.

Panksepp/Diven clearly point to the importance of understanding the role of emotions in all forms of human interaction. In their words: “Whatever the reason, we do not really understand much more about how the higher brain functions can weave together our cognitions than we do about how the lower brain generates emotions. We do know that the personality characteristics of therapists – no doubt especially their capacities for affective attunement – are typically more important than the specific procedures they use. It is well known that when one is feeling bad, the attention of caring others can rapidly reduce negative affect. Twelve-step programs are probably so remarkably effective, because they provide the social concern and affirmations that are needed to become reconnected to one’s potential for positive feelings. The social-affective power of other minds can help people deal effectively with negative affects, and thereby the affective terrain of the brain may provide a clearer description of the psychological forces that lie at the heart of most human psychological problems, and the intra- and inter-personal mental dynamics that need to be recruited for optimal therapeutic effects.” (Panksepp/Diven p 455)

The psychotherapy revolution

It is not just Panksepp/Diven who draw from neuroscience to improve psychotherapy. Another leading figure in this field is Allan Schore. In his book The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy (2012) he claims that recent neuroscience research has the potential to cause a paradigm shift in psychotherapy. He presents a number of ground-breaking ideas; Affect Regulation Therapy (ART), attachment, developmental neuroscience, trauma and the developing brain. In particular he points to the wide-ranging applications for the theory of an interpersonal neurobiological model of emotional and social development.

This new approach, which draws on a combination of (evolutionary) psychology and neurobiology, offers clear evidence that for psychotherapy to have a lasting impact it needs to include ‘right brain to right brain’ contact between therapist and client. As Schore points out, with new technology and unobtrusive brain scanning methods it has been possible to probe much further into how problems occur and consequently the effects of various forms of psychotherapy. In particular it is now possible to explore and understand the role of the right brain phase in a child’s early development. It also helps to explain the role of the developing right brain in attachment and trauma, infant attachment and psychotherapeutic change.

Both Panksepp/Diven and Schore agree that understanding the role of emotions and how they are expressed in the brain and body will lead to great changes: According to Panksepp/Diven: “… it is clear that psychotherapy is in the midst of an emotional revolution. The primal affective aspects of mind are no longer marginalized, but, rather, are recognized as the very engines of the psyche……But the bottom line is that further progress with such novel approaches must be grounded in understanding the nature of the underlying pathogenic factors.” (Panksepp/Diven p 457)

Will there be a Breathwork revolution?

It will be very exciting to see where neuroscience will take psychotherapy and if any, what effect it will have on Breathwork. My personal guess is that Breathwork will have to adopt and improve if it is to be part of the revolution. It needs to move away from the (religious) folk psychology view of body and mind and that breathing alone will create change. There is substantial anecdotal evidence to show that this is not the case. For many Breathwork has become an addiction rather than a cure. Those who really have benefited from Breathwork have seen the breathing as a tool to access the unconscious rather than the cure it itself. This means that they have been able to identify their problems and work them through in a different (curious) way than those who have been using Breathwork as a tool for gratification, both triggered by their SEEKING system.

To be part of this very exciting time in psychotherapy Breathwork will need to give itself a thorough rebirth that involves both self-reflection, inventory of the past and a new approach for the future. In other words, a bit of focused work which I am sure will be worth it in the long run given the promises of future psychotherapy.

The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy, by Allan N. Schore, W.W, Norton, London, 2012, http://www.wwnorton.com

The Archaeology of Mind, Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions, by Jaak Panksepp & Lucy Diven W.W.Norton & Company, London 2012,

Emotional Intelligence, Why it can matter more than IQ, by David Goleman, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group (1996)

Keywords; neuroscience, breathwork, Panksepp, Diven, Schore, Goleman

© Gunnel Minett, October 2013

About the author: Gunnel Minett is a psychologist, author and breathworker. Her books, Shri Haidakhan Wale Baba (1984), Breath & Spirit (1994) and Exhale (2004) have been translated into several languages.