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The Limbic Imprint

Our first experiences in the world affect us in profound ways. How can we best make our child’s first experience as joyous and loving as possible?

A new baby is an extremely sensitive being—in fact, more sensitive than he or she will ever be during adult life. Yet despite that sensitivity, we don’t cognitively remember our birth experiences. Nonetheless, for better or worse, those early impressions stay with us for the rest of our lives. Twenty-five years of thorough research in the field of prenatal psychology shows a direct correlation between the circumstances of our birth and the subconscious behavioral and emotional patterns in our adult lives. We are very familiar with establishing the basic settings in our TVs, cameras and other devices. Imagine setting the tint of your television to maximum green. No matter what appears on the screen, everything will have a greenish cast. Similarly, if the brightness is set on dim, your screen will show an unusually dark picture. A similar mechanism is at work in our brains. This mechanism, called a limbic imprint, has been deliberately used for thousands of years to train animals, everything from dogs and horses to elephants and circus bears. For example, baby elephants are routinely chained to a small stake in the ground early in life. The elephant rages against the stake with all his might for a few days, until he finally stops. When he grows up and has enough strength to pull this stick right out, he doesn’t ever try.

How a Limbic Imprint Forms

To better understand the limbic imprint, we need to understand the basic structure of our brain. At the tip of the spinal cord there is a segment called the brain stem (sometimes called the reptilian brain), responsible purely for the physiological functions of the body. Even when other parts of the brain are unresponsive, such as in the case of a coma, the brain stem ensures that the basic physiology of the body is still functioning. A comatose person’s lungs and heart still function. Women in a coma continue to menstruate, and pregnancies continue to gestate.

The exterior of the brain is called the cerebral cortex, and it is responsible for our mental activity. Sometimes referred to as the “gray matter,” it’s what we usually think of as the brain—the part that’s responsible for our cognitive functions, such as logic, memory and calculations.

Within the cerebral cortex is the cerebrum, which is divided into five lobes. The innermost of these is the limbic lobe, which is responsible for our emotions, sensations and feelings. The limbic lobe is not directly connected with the cortex. During gestation, birth and early childhood, the limbic system registers all of our sensations and feelings, but cannot translate them into memory, because the cortex hasn’t developed yet. Nonetheless, the echo of these sensations lives in the body throughout the rest of our lives, whether we realize it or not.

We come into this world wide-open to receiving love. When we do receive it, as our first primal experience, our nervous system is limbically imprinted—programmed—with an undeniable rightness of being. Being held in our mother’s loving arms and feeding from her breast provides us with a natural sense of bliss and security; it sets the world as the right place for us to be.

If our first impressions of being in the body are anything less than loving (for example, painful, frightening or lonely), then those impressions will imprint as our valid experience of love. It will be immediately coded into our nervous system as a comfort zone, acting as a surrogate for love and nurturing, regardless of how undesirable the experience actually was. The Effects of the Limbic Imprint

As adults, we unconsciously, automatically recreate the conditions that were imprinted at birth and through early childhood. Research conducted by the pioneers of prenatal psychology, such as doctors Thomas Verny, David Chamberlain and William Emerson, shows that an overwhelming amount of physical conditions and behavioral disorders are the direct result of traumatic gestational experiences during pregnancy and complications during delivery. These can include sensory overload, unnecessary mechanical interventions, chemical stimulation, elective cesareans, circumcision, separation from mother right after birth, lack of breastfeeding and more.

Beyond the devastating effect of trauma during the actual birth, what happens afterward is also a source of trouble. These problems aren’t out of the ordinary; they’re a matter of routine impersonal postpartum hospital care. Lack of immediate warm, soft and nurturing contact with the mother, immediate cutting of the cord, rude handling, needles, bright lights, startling noises… all of this becomes instantly wired into a newborn’s nervous system as the new comfort zone. As the child grows, he’ll continue to unconsciously recreate and attract the same repeated situations of suffering, pain and helplessness, or else become abusive. Even if his rational mind later accurately recognizes this as a pattern of abuse, the imprinting will have already happened in a different part of the brain.

According to a 1995 study by Dr. William Emerson, 95 percent of all births in the United States can be classified as traumatic. Fifty percent were rated as “moderate” trauma, and 45 percent as “severe.” This problem affects all of us.

Born into excruciating labor pains or into the numbness and toxicity of anesthesia, we are limbically imprinted for suffering or numbness. Traumatic birth strips us of our power and impairs our capacity to love, trust, be intimate and experience our true potential. Addictions, poor problem-solving skills, low self-esteem and an inability to be compassionate or responsible have all been linked to birth trauma.

Breaking the Pattern Normally, a woman gives birth the way she herself was born. Due to limbic imprinting, that’s simply the way her body knows how to procreate. If she was born with complications, in all likelihood her body will repeat them. Unless she consciously alters that limbic memory, she will hand down her own birth trauma to her daughter, as she herself received it from her mother.

Giving birth for the first time is a huge opportunity for healing. So much can be done to prepare for a graceful, dignified delivery! How we experience life is greatly determined by our limbic imprint. It affects our likes and dislikes, our vocational and marital choices, what we find attractive and what repels us. We owe it to our children to provide a gentle arrival for them into our world, and learn to give birth without suffering.

In order to give birth to an enlightened masterpiece—whether it takes the form of a human baby, a beautiful poem, a healthy garden or simply a rich, fulfilling day that was worth living—we must first heal our own birth trauma. Despite the powerful force of limbic imprinting, healing is possible. There are many ways to recover our sense of well-being. We must recognize that, however harsh our beginnings, as adults we can change our basic settings, reprogram our limbic imprint and transmute our suffering and helplessness during birth into the love and joy of being alive on this planet.

I invite you to envision the possibilities that would open up for humankind if women fully claimed the original capacity of all mammals to give birth and raise our young without trauma. We can improve the quality of our species in just one generation by letting our children enter this world without being programmed for suffering and pain, instead bringing them into a world of safety, compassion and common sense. We cannot thrive as a species unless we create a new generation that was not damaged in utero by a high level of stress hormones in their mother’s bloodstream or by unnecessary physical and emotional traumas. As Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

When the consciousness of birth shifts from anxiety and fear to love and safety, then we will truly have a chance to reach our greatest potential. We can regain our authentic power, clear the pain of our ancestors from our system, and set the stage for our children to step into their lives as peaceful, empowered guardians of Earth.

Elena TonettiAbout the Author:Elena Tonetti-Vladimirova is the founder of Birth into Being, an international movement for conscious procreation founded in 1982. She produced and directed the 2006 documentary, Birth as We Know It. She travels the world teaching her seminars, conducting apprenticeship trainings and speaking at conferences. For more information, visit