Objections to the Birth Trauma Hypothesis

Ian S. Creswell
From Magonia 11, 1982

One must congratulate Dr Lawson for a most original and mentally stimulating piece of theoretical writing [link here] on the apparent similarity between relived birth image traumas and the reported observations of abduction percipients, a number of important objections to this theory come to mind. Without rejecting the general ideas put forward in Dr Lawson’s paper, grave doubts enter the picture, both from the area of psychoanalytic psychology, from other more general sections of psychiatric medicine and from ufology itself.

Although not wishing to be absolutely negative, upon careful thought the regretful opinion must be that there is no real basis for assuming that the images involved in close-encounter experiences of the third and fourth kinds are either partly or wholly the result of relived images associated with the so-called trauma of birth.
The results of so-called test situations we find unconvincing and the means by which these were brought to light in general highly unsatisfactory. While by no means denying the possibility that psychological processes are at work here, in fact quite the contrary, what we would rather suggest is that research and investigation is directed down other paths than images of birth trauma or other forms of psychopathology.
Before any particular theory is proved to be factual every part of the content of this group of ideas must be compatible with other valid knowledge and evidence in the area that one is writing about. Some amount of deviation is allowed, as no scientific subject can remain stationary for long periods of time without becoming stale. The very centre of Dr Lawson’s theory of a universal birth trauma is based upon the work of Otto Rank and the psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, a follower of Rank. Their theory of mental imagery reappearing later on in the individual’s life as the cause of later neurosis and general behaviour disorders has now been almost completely rejected within psychoanalytic and psychiatric medicine. It is now mainly of interest for its historical place within psychological thought and is rarely if ever employed within the treatment of the psychoneuroses. (1)
Rank died in the United States in 1939, and outside America his theories are no longer the subject of discussion, although many of his suggestions have influenced others. Dr Nander Fodor, a New York analyst, makes use of the Rankian theory of the birth trauma, which he claims to have based upon clinical rather than philosophical foundations, in his extraordinary books, The Search for the Beloved and New Approaches to Dream Interpretation. Since nearly every aspect of human behaviour – not excluding constipation – is traced back in these books to the trauma of birth, it is a little difficult to see why they needed to be written at all.
But if Dr Fodor is somewhat lacking – in imagination as to origins, nobody can accuse him of lacking ingenuity in his interpretations. He informs us, for example, that children may start life with a handicap owing to prenatal influences, one of which is the violence of parental intercourse, the memory of which is said to be clearly apparent in the dreams of adult life. The fact that there exist no nerve connections between mother and unborn child does not trouble Dr Fodor, who postulates that communication takes place by telepathy. According to this theory, then, prenatal influences and the trauma of birth play a major part in the formation of character and determine mental health in adult life.
A more scientific exposition of this view has been put forward by Phyllis Greenacre, who believes that constitution, prenatal experience, birth, and the situation immediately after birth together play some part in predisposing the individual to anxiety. She notes that loud noises, maternal nervousness, and similar stimuli increase the rate of the foetal heart and the frequency of foetal movements, and supposes that these may fairly be taken as signs of anxiety. Such ‘anxiety’ is, of course, without mental content, but Dr Greenacre believes that it supplies an organic potential which may influence later anxiety reactions.
Turning now to one of the most highly critical reviews of birth trauma and its possible cause of future neurosis we have to turn to what Freud thought about this very speculative theory, bearing in mind that he had changed his own mind about the theory of birth trauma over the years, as can be clearly seen by reading some of Freud’s works. (2)
In the act of birth there is a real danger to life. We know what this means objectively; but in a psychological sense it says nothing at all to us. The danger of birth has as yet no psychical content. We cannot possibly suppose that the foetus has any sort of knowledge that there is a possibility of its life being destroyed. It can only be aware of some vast disturbance in the economy of its narcissistic libido. Large sums of excitation crowd in on it, giving rise to new feelings of unpleasure, and some organs acquire an increased cathexis, thus foreshadowing the object-cathexis which will soon set in. What elements in all this will be made use of as the sign of a ‘danger situation’?
Unfortunately, far too little is known about the mental make-up of a newborn baby to make a direct answer possible. I cannot even vouch for the validity of the descriptions I have just given. It is easy to say that the baby will repeat its effect of anxiety in every situation which recalls the event of birth. The important thing to know is what recalls the event and what it is that is recalled.
All we can do is to examine the occasions on which infants-in-arms or somewhat older children show readiness to produce anxiety. In his book on the trauma of birth, Rank has made a determined attempt to establish a relationship between the earliest phobias of children and the impressions made on them by the event of birth. But I do not think he has been successful. His theory is open to two objections. In the first place, he assumes that the infant has received certain sensory impressions, in particular of a visual kind, at the time of birth, impressions, the renewal of which can recall to its memory the trauma of birth and thus evoke a reaction of anxiety. This assumption is quite unfounded and extremely improbable.
It is not credible that a child should retain any but tactile and general sensations relating to the process of birth. If, later on, children show fear of small animals that disappear into holes or emerge from them, this reaction, according to Rank, is due to their perceiving an analogy. But it is an analogy of which they cannot be aware. In the second place, in considering these later anxiety situations, Rank dwells, as suits him best, on the child’s recollection of the traumatic disturbance which interrupted that existence – which leaves the door wide open for arbitrary interpretation.
There are, moreover, certain examples of childhood anxiety which directly contradict his theory. When, for instance, a child is left alone in the dark one would expect it, according to his view, to welcome the re-establishment of the intrauterine situation; yet it is precisely on such occasions that the child reacts with anxiety. And if this explained by saying that the child is being reminded of the interruption which the event of birth made in its intrauterine happiness, it becomes impossible to shut one’s eyes any longer to the far-fetched character of such explanations.
I am driven to the conclusion that the earliest phobias of infancy cannot be directly traced back to impressions of the act of birth and that so far they have not been explained. A certain preparedness for anxiety is undoubtedly present in the infant-in-arms. But this preparedness for anxiety, instead of being at its maximum immediately after birth and slowly decreasing, does not emerge till later, as mental development proceeds, and lasts over a certain period of childhood. If these early phobias persist beyond that period one is inclined to suspect the presence of a neurotic disturbance, although it is not at all clear what their relation is to the undoubted neuroses that appear later on in childhood.
Only a few of the manifestations of anxiety in children are comprehensible to us, and we must confine our attention to them. They occur, for instance, when a child is alone, or in the dark, or when it finds itself with an unknown person instead of one to whom it is used – such as its mother. These three instances can be reduced to a single condition – namely, that of missing someone who is loved and longed for. But here, I think, we have the key to an understanding of anxiety and to a reconciliation of the contradictions that seem to beset us.
Where the theory for birth trauma appears to fail as the cause of all future anxiety in a purely psychological sense is that a newborn baby just can’t function in a very developed conceptive-perceptive mode. The newly born infant, we assume, can only experience its environment by way of sensations of different types and sensory impressions of one sort and another, and by no other means. The sense of self is not present at birth to any great extent, with the young child not aware of the fact that he is a separate personality. His outward world is totally mixed in with his inner world. There is no ego state of personality, for this is still to come.
We just don’t know what kind of mental images are present (if any) in the newly born child. This being the case, logically we can’t say what is in the mind of the developing child in the womb either. Therefore to even hint at the possibility that the conceptive contents of the CE (close encounter) reports are nothing more than relived flashbacks to the area of time before, during and after birth on the part of the percipients is just assuming far too much.
Another factor that we are not very happy about is the part that hallucinations are being made to play in this particular theory. If a person is suffering from any of the different forms of sensory hallucinations then he or she is in a state of very serious mental confusion in which the borders of reality become totally obscured. This is mainly a state that is associated with psychoses rather than neuroses (although the line between them can become very thin in certain cases). A person suffering from a psychotic disorder is usually pretty obvious, as hallucinations don’t exist in a state of vacuum but along with other serious symptoms of psychosis.
Hallucinatory states do not occur just once or twice and then never again but rather recur pretty frequently, usually matching in with whatever particular individual delusional element is present at any given time in the mind of those so disturbed. Yet another feature of most psychotic states is that normal life becomes nearly impossible as the person gets more and more out of touch with reality. How many close-encounter percipients can really be classed as being in this particular category?
We are not happy either with the manner in which the comparison material was collected from artificially created situations involving the use of hallucinogenic drugs, hypnosis or sensory deprivation. Just how often are close-encounter experiences of the third and fourth kinds of this nature?
It is not very unusual to see all kinds of strange entities while under the influence of various hallucinogenic drugs. Pain-killing drugs also at times produce hallucinations of a visual nature when patients suffering from serious illnesses are given large amounts of certain kinds of these drugs. To suggest that these people are reliving images associated with the trauma of birth is far-fetched indeed. These people are not psychotic but only display hallucinatory indications when under drugs and not at other times.
In cases of loss of sensory impressions hallucinations frequently occur but, once again, they don’t when the person is again fully aware of his or her external environment. To assume, as Dr Lawson does, that the images associated with these particular states and the close-encounter images are all of a birth-relived image state is very hard to accept. It appears more like science fiction than the close encounters do.


To suggest that there is any likeness between a human foetus and the type of entity that Betty Andreasson saw during her experiences is taking the imagination to its limit.

We would also view very doubtfully the apparent similarity between the humanoid and the human foetus. There does not appear to be any real link here at all, which becomes only too clear if one checks out the relevant books on gynaecological medicine. To suggest that there is any likeness between a human foetus and the type of entity that Betty Andreasson saw during her experiences is taking the imagination to its limit.
We can find no confident proof in Dr Lawson’s statement: “It is beyond question that there are extensive similarities between perinatal imagery and UFO abduction narratives, as the presentation of parallels from both areas and an analysis of a prominent abduction have shown”. Dr Lawson’s theory, mainly based upon the work of Grof, fails to explain the category of reports known as CE4, rather it makes an understanding of these human experiences harder to form. It is not a very good practice to take a minor and mainly discarded theory from its original subject and then transfer it into the field of another subject which is itself highly controversial, to say the least.
Dr Lawson’s speculative arguments against multiple witness CE3 and CE4 reports ~, seem to be very strange indeed. Firstly, he quotes Allan Hendry’s excellent book on UFOs, but appears to make the mistake that Hendry classifies CE cases involving multiple witnesses as being very doubtful. It appears to me that Hendry is meaning this to apply to mass sightings of a low-definition variety, which are much more likely to have conventional explanations than ufological ones.
To regard encounters involving more than one person as being due to such causes as multiple hallucinations (I have not yet been able to find out just what this means in a psychiatric sense. I have not come across any cases that feature this unusual symptom of mental disorder in literature dealing with hallucinations), folie a deux, imaginary companions and mass hallucinations (really more like mass hysteria which is due to the spread of rumour and the desire to believe something to be true and which correctly belongs in the study of human behaviour) is bordering on the ridiculous.
To further make the point, as Dr Lawson does, that testimony of this type is no guarantee or proof of an objective event, but rather of its subjective psychological validity for those experiencing it is of course fair up to a point, but if taken too far is again illogical. If this is so then no one should ever be trusted who gives evidence in a court case on behalf of someone else in support of them because of possible subjective motivation.
Dr Lawson’s theory appears to pay very little attention to any sort of physical factor involved in close-encounter reports, dismissing them too casually and seeing no link between the events experienced and the physical factors involved. No doubt a great deal of so-called physical evidence is rather ambiguous and can indeed be open to many interpretations. But to make the sort of statement which follows is going to far:
  • “The inescapable fact is that no abduction case has thus far presented unambiguous physical or physiological evidence which compels us to conclude that a UFO landed in that spot, or left that mark on the abductee’s skin, or abducted that family. I am speaking not of probabilities or possibilities but of certainties.”
There are a number of close-encounter abduction reports which do appear to have a clear physical result, either to the environment or to the percipient, and other close encounter reports show the same thing. Just what this might mean as to the nature of the experiences we are dealing with is another matter.

Dr Lawson does not seem to distinguish between close encounters of the third and fourth kinds but tends to regard them as being the same thing, which they may not be at all! There does appear to be, however, a subjective factor present in most close encounter reports of all types, but I don’t feel that this subjectiveness is at all pathological. Rather, it may be more the result of some natural process of the human psychical structure interacting with the electromagnetic-chemical fields of energy both within the percipient’s brain and the environment to produce a manifestation which is both objective and subjective in its cause and effect.
Again one must question the validity of Dr Lawson’s contention that in CE3 reports the dominant creature type is humanoid and that it resembles the human foetus, especially such entities as observed by Betty and Barney Hill, and Travis Walton. It is true that there are more reports of humanoid entities than of other kinds, but the latter are not rare and one must have very good imaginative ability to see any likeness between them and the human foetus. What would Dr Lawson make of a report of the fourth kind that involved more than one type of entity, we can only wonder?
No doubt taking the full range of ufological manifestations into account only tends to lead one to conclude that there is more than just a single cause at work here. I am classing only reports (all across the board) that are unexplained, with the cause of unexplained low-definition reports be in a different from that of medium reports and so on, with perhaps the cause of the closeencounter cases being something else again. These ufological manifestations can not be put down to images associated with birth trauma. They are world-wide and are reported by all social groups, and are generally not the result of any pathological syndrome of either a physical or psychological nature.
Dr Lawson’s theory poses more questions than it answers, leaving too many strands untied and open. He admits that “a causal nexus between specific events of one’s biological birth and particular images has yet to be established”, and that “we cannot yet explain what stimulates the sequence of visual imagery and events which makes up an abduction”.
Another weakness, we feel, lies in the unproved assumption of Rank and others that the presence of birth trauma elements are universal in their manifestations, that it has always been present, that it is something which sets the pattern for future anxiety. Yet not everyone is affected? If what Dr Lawson writes is correct then we all should be having CE4 encounters, yet this is not so. Nor are the percipients of these strange images repeating their subjective manifestations time and time again, which they should be doing if these images really are the long-lost memories of life in the womb, of birth and just afterwards.
Turning to reports of CE3 and CE4 which involve EM effects. Just how can the birth trauma theory fit in to try to explain them, because a birth memory of great anxiety can not stop a motor car’s engine, put out its lights and cut out radio reception?
Turning lastly to historical factors associated with UFO manifestations and the possible appearance of birth trauma effects, we must pose the question: Why did not the present-day images of CE3 and CE4 encounters occur to the extent they do today, taking as true the age-old and universal nature of the birth trauma?
Why did people see airships, mystery aircraft, ghost rockets, all of which do appear to be prototypes of present-day ufological manifestations, instead of just seeing UFOs and their occupants? There can’t have been all that many airships present at birth to give rise to early infant anxiety, or strange unmarked aircraft flying about in the womb prior to birth to cause pre-birth nightmares to the unborn child!
Lastly, a question: how is it possible for the unborn child in the womb to know just what its own appearance is, in order for this to be later superimposed in adult life as part of a close-encounter abduction experience? 


1. Brown, J.A.C. Freud and the Post-Freudians, Pelican Books, 1971, pp. 54-55.
2. Freud, Sigmund. Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. Pelican Books, 1979, pp.291-293