In this episode I’m once again joined by American psychologist Albert Pesso, who together with his wife created Pesso-Boyden System Psychomotor (PBSP). Albert is, together with notable figures such as Peter Levine and Alexander Lowen, the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award issued by the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy (USABP). I’ve had the great privilege of attending a PBSP-group for two years, a group that was led by one of his students, in Norway. In our first conversation we explored some of the most important aspects of PBSP, and how it can effect change on a personal level. In this episode we shift our focus to terrorism, and Al lays out a mental model for how we can understand the psychological underpinnings and dynamics that drive the terrorist impulse.
(2:30) Terrorism – a wicked issue
We start of our exploration by describing terrorism as a “wicked issue”, a challenge which is universal and planetary in it’s extent, and where there is no single, or simple solution. Albert explains how terrorism awakens the “wicked” or “demonic” side of the self, as well as the “god-side” of the self. There is a swing or dynamic going on, between the godliness and demonic tendencies of the human psyche, and this dynamic is formed early in life. He makes it clear that all human beings have the innate tendency for seeing others as either enemies or friends, but what is it that causes some people to become terrorists and act out on these destructive impulses?
(4:40) Limiting aggression in childhood
Albert’s main point is that the terrorist impulse is formed or awakened early in life. What he pointed to as “demonic” and “godlike” energy relates more accurately to the two nuclear energies that run human beings, namely aggression and sexuality; the capacity to destroy, and the capacity to create. These energies need to become integrated and modulated, especially during the formative years. This is what the nuclear family does; in an ideal situation it supports the natural unfoldment and modulation of these genetic drives. Basically, there has to be a mother and father to support the natural development of the child. For instance, if there is no father there will be a lesser ability to limit the child’s aggression.
(7:25) “Holes in roles”
The absence of a father-figure will trigger what Albert calls “holes in roles”. Human beings are hardwired for completion, wanting to make what is divided whole, and will naturally seek out what is just. This means that when a child witnesses or experiences something which is not completed or whole, the child will energetically and unconsciously step in and try to fill this space. The problem with this move is that it also awakens the idea in the child, again on an unconscious level, that “I am the only one that can fill this space”, or “without my intervention everything will go wrong”. This “I am the only One”-quality is also why Albert calls it the “Messiah gene”; one person and no other is going to heal the world! Now, this Messiah-impulse, and the energetic filling of a role, is fueled by the limbic system, meaning it has an energetic and emotional quality, not a verbal and conscious expressive quality. When the child grows up, with the aid of limiting figures (mom and dad), the pre-frontal cortex will help to modulate these energies, but if there is no modulation these energies could turn ugly.
→ For more on “holes in roles” (at pbsp.org)
(9:13) The destructive power of stories of injustice
Albert makes an important distinction, namely between witnessing present injustice and hearing stories of historical injustice. For instance, he gives the example of young children in a Mosque hearing the stories of the Christian crusades, and the atrocities committed against their people by these foreign invaders. He claims that these stories, that the children are inculcated with from an early age, can have a larger impact than witnessing present day injustice. Moreover, societies that exaggerate the importance of historic injustice will actually create psycho-social situations that lead to terrorism. This happens because the child will create an unconscious “movie” inside their head where they are the healer of the situation described. Remember, the human being has a propensity for correcting injustice and making what is broken whole! Furthermore, the child will see the other as the enemy, a move which is thoroughly instinctual.
(11:10) We are hardwired for racial bias
Albert refers to an article he recently read by journalist Nicholas Christof (May 7 2015), which explains how even babies have biased reactions when seeing pictures of other races. We are hardwired for liking our own people. This innate tendency is instinctual, and probably served an important evolutionary function in the past, but with the advent of higher cognitive capacities, supported by the pre-frontal lobes, the impulse of seeing the other as enemy is replaced, and instead sees diversity. The main point here is that if the child hears of cultural or ethnic difference to early it might trigger the instinctual “warrior-layer” in the psyche, instead of the more accommodating reaction of seeing only difference. This means that one of the underlying causes for terrorism is the stories heard before the pre-frontal cortex can modulate the explosive energy embedded in such stories.
→ Nicholas Christof’s article: “Our Biased Brains“, in the New York Times, May 7, 2015
(13:30) Understanding why people won’t receive what they need
Albert’s understanding of “holes in roles” didn’t come about in relation to terrorism, rather, it emerged in response to a general issue that he experienced when working with patients. He would observe again and again how some people would simply resist having their needs met! The whole idea of PBSP is to create new memories, and this is done by creating ideal situations where the fundamental maturational needs can be met. This makes it possible for the patient to move on with life in a more positive and constructive way. This therapeutic system relies on the fundamental understanding that we all perceive ourselves, and the world we live in, through the lenses created by past experience. It was only 40 years after PBSP was first created that Albert and his wife, Diane Pesso-Boyden, understood that the patients who refused to take in what they needed, were in fact influenced by stories they had heard in the past. It could be stories about their parents, grand-parents our even further back, stories that created the already mentioned “movies”, where the individual unconsciously imagined being the only healer in relation to the stories told. For some this would evoke the impulses of aggression and sexuality in an outward sense, but most people, would suppress these energies, which of course gave rise to depression, anxiety and different kinds of somatic suffering. Regardless, the most important point here is that they lost the ability to receive what they needed.
(16:15) Creating new memories
To support the healing in these people Albert would create a “counter-movie” that would offset the stifling power embedded in the stories they had heard. Depending on the circumstances this could be creating a situation, symbolically of course, through the use of role-play, where the parents would receive what they needed; where the grandmother didn’t loose her husband during the war; where the great-grandfather didn’t loose his child, home etc. When seeing these ideal situations unfold the patient would finally experience a relief. The contained energy would be set free and the patient would subsequently be able to receive what he or she needed herself. People who are able to take in what they need won’t have the need to compensate or act out. This is how the understanding of “holes in roles” ties into the phenomena of terrorism.
→ If you want a brief glimpse of how PBSP actually works, check out the trailer for the documentary “State of Mind”. The footage gives a sense of how one creates “counter movies”.
(17:25) Pre-frontal cortex modulates the limbic system
Albert goes over some of the same territory, this time using dictators as an example. He claims it’s likely that most dictators, for instance Hitler, lacked a father, and their aggression was therefore never limited. Moreover, these individuals would portray themselves as the savior; the “one and only” who could take down the enemy and save their people! He also emphasizes what is needed to counter this kind of destructive development. First of all, every human being growing up needs a nuclear family; an environment that can provide the maturational needs of place, nurture, protection, support and limits. Secondly, children must not be presented with stories of injustice before they can modulate these stories. It’s worth noting that the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain which is responsible for complex reasoning, is not fully developed before the age of 21!
→ See this description of the basic needs, an essential component for understanding what drives human beings (at pbsp.com)
(19:50) A universal phenomena
It’s also important to understand that the psychological dynamics pointed to by Albert are not culturally specific. It’s not about Muslims, Christians or any other religious group. It’s not limited to certain populations or cultural groups. The principles that drive terrorism are universal! These psychological dynamics can also explain why we’ve seen war throughout human history.
(21:30) Understanding the role of religion in relation to terrorism
When speaking of terrorism it’s natural to speak of religion, and I point to the fact that religion is the cause or inspiration for both good and bad deeds. Also, isn’t it so that many religious stories point to non-violence, peace, love and discipline, and in this regard, serve as a modulator for the harmful manifestations of aggression and sexuality? Albert agrees, but points to how many religions uphold boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, claiming for instance that “our God is the only God”, or “we are the chosen people” etc. He also makes it clear that this dogmatic or sectarian impulse can be found in secular contexts as well, for instance in relation to politics and ideology; “we are the only right party and the other parties need to be destroyed” etc. This kind of polarization is rampant in politics, but there are people trying to change the discourse. Albert highlights Obama’s efforts to bring in negotiation in response to conflicts, and how he himself is an embodiment of diversity (Obama is Christian, his mother is American, his father from Kenya, and he spent some of his first years as a child in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world).
We end of our exploration with a short summary. I would like to add that Albert and I, after the interview, went into a much more open ended and very exciting exploration of how one could possibly create healing situations on a collective level. Is there a way to upscale the principles found in PBSP, so that it’s healing power can effect change in populations at large? This is work in progress and we might come back with another public dialogue on this issue at a later date, so stay tuned. Remember to sign up for the newsletter!
Albert Pesso (bio)
Healing the world and healing the self through the creation of new memories, my first interview with Albert Pesso