Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

The Expression of Pre- and Perinatal Experience in Cultural Phenomena

Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

The Expression of Pre- and Perinatal Experience in Cultural Phenomena

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: Prenatal psychology is able to shed light on various experiences which appear to be creative mechanisms for coping with difficult situations of transition in life but which on closer inspection also seem to be re-enactments of pre-birth feelings and of birth itself. The symbolism of regression to the womb and of rebirth can be found in various cultural phenomena such as puberty rites, shamanism, the myths of great heroes, fairy tales, sacrificial rituals and initiation fights. However, the same basic pattern can also be seen to lie within the abstractions of philosophy and behind modern, technological enterprise. This basic, recurring pattern of symbolic regression and rebirth appears to be the fundamental way in which pre- and perinatal experience influences postnatal consciousness. The concept of narcissistic transformation is used to define such manifestations of early experience. The potential of this concept to elucidate cultural phenomena can only be hinted at here by exploring in a limited way its application to certain, central areas.


There is much evidence to show that pre- and perinatal experience forms our first and deepest images of security and insecurity, of individuation (*) and disintegration. However, it seems that these experiences are registered in a way other than through ego-consciousness. Nevertheless, traumatic experience in early life can have subsequent effects which are consciously experienced. It can appear in neuroses, psychosomatic complaints and other forms of distress. Modern psychotherapy was thus motivated to render early experience itself more accessible to consciousness so that subsequent integration could occur.

Early memories seem to be stored as complete scenes or episodes in the lower structures of the brain. They are thus unlike later memories which are stored in the cerebrum and which can be retrieved with the use of language. Awareness of early memories is achieved through a repeated acting-out of their content.

Throughout postnatal development, early experience is covered by later experience and is concealed within one's general attitude to life. However, events of an unusual nature, not only threatening but also pleasant ones, or great changes in life can serve to evoke early experience. The most typical example of this is puberty and, as a result, it is the focal point for the expression in culture of pre- and perinatal phenomena.

It is hoped to demonstrate these hypotheses by examining not only the rites of puberty but also shamanism and fairy tales. Then, the fundamental themes found to occur so frequently there-namely, those of symbolic regression to the mother's womb and of rebirth-will be shown to manifest themselves in myth, in sacrifice and in initiation struggles and also to appear in more abstract form in philosophy and in a sinister form in the technological conquest of the environment.

Of course, these are all matters of interpretation. Thus, it is important to state clearly at the beginning that I understand symbols to be expressing fundamental, real experiences, particularly pre- and perinatal ones, in another context of life. For me, all living symbolism is thus the recollection of real, significant events and the expression of them in symbolic form.


As already mentioned, the stage in life which typically involves great change is puberty. It can therefore evoke in us our very first experience of change, the experience of birth itself. The maturing adolescent loses his grip on the world of childhood. The only place he has experienced apart from the familiar world which he is falling away from is the prenatal one. By evoking his memories of life before birth, he finds the security to give up old ties with his identity as a child and, at the edge of the adult world, to plan his new self. Thus, the birth experience becomes a model for individuation, for renewal of identity. …

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