The Limbic Imprint

By Elena Tonetti 1993

(Thanks to Lotus Birth for the image – birth without severance.)

Why is it critical for us to understand the importance of healthy, happy gestation and birth? Why is it important to make every effort to eliminate the birth trauma from the delivery room? Is it affecting us? How?

Well, it does affect us, in a very big way.The new baby, way before the birth day, during it and right after, is an extremely sensitive being, in fact, more sensitive than he or she will ever be during the adult life. And not only able to have all those sensations and feelings, but also to not-cognitively remember them! Our early impressions stay with us for the rest of our lives, for better or for worse. Twenty five years of thorough research and studies in the field of prenatal psychology show undoubtedly a direct correlation between the way we were born and the subconscious behavioral and emotional patterns in our adult lives. This is due to the mechanism called “limbic imprint”.

We are very familiar with establishing the basic settings in our TVs, cameras, computers… Imagine that your TV is set on “maximum blue”, then, no mater what movie is being shown on the screen, everything will be very blue; or if brightness is set on ‘dim’ – same thing, no matter how bright is the image in the video, your screen will show a very dark picture!

That exact mechanism is at work with us, mammals. It is the same limbic imprint that is being deliberately used for thousands of years to train animals to serve people: elephants, camels, horses, circus bears. For example, a baby elephant is routinely tied in the yard on a chain to a small stick in the ground. The baby elephant rages all his might for a few days and then stops. When he grows up and has enough strength to pull this stick right out, – it doesn’t happen. He never even tries…

To better understand the term “limbic imprint,” let’s look at the basic structure of our brain. At the tip of the spinal cord there is a segment called the reptilian brain, responsible purely for the physiological functions of the body. That’s the part of the brain that still remains functional when a person is in a coma, for example, in a “vegetable” state, – the basic physiology of the body is still going on, women even keep menstruating and can continue with gestation if they are pregnant.

Then there is the cortex, usually referred to as the “gray matter,” responsible for our mental activity. That’s what we routinely call “the brain”, – the part of the brain responsible for our cognitive functions: logic, calculating, planning…

And then we have the limbic system of the brain, responsible for our emotions, sensations and feelings.

Limbic imprinting happens in that part of the brain, which is not directly connected with the cortex, responsible for cognitive memory. During gestation, birth and early childhood, the limbic system registers all of our sensations and feelings, without translating it into the language of cortex, simply because it’s not developed yet. That memory lives in the body through out the rest of our life whether we know of it or not.

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

If our first impressions of being in the body are anything less than loving (painful, frightening, lonely…), then that “anything” imprints as a valid experience of love. It is immediately coded into our nervous system as a “comfort zone,” acting as a surrogate for the love and nurturing, regardless of how painful, frustrating and undesirable it actually was.

And in the future, as adults, we will unconsciously, automatically re-create the conditions that were imprinted at birth and through our early childhood.

Research done by the pioneers of prenatal psychology, such as: dr.Thomas Verny, dr. David Chamberlain, dr. William Emerson shows that an overwhelming amount of physical conditions and behavioral disorders in are the direct result of traumatic gestation time and complications during delivery, including unnecessary mechanical interventions and an overdose of anesthesia.

Also, it turns out, on top of the devastating effect of trauma during the actual birth, what happens after it,- like routine impersonal postpartum care,- is also a source of trouble: lack of immediate warm, soft and nurturing contact with the mother, premature cutting of the cord, rude handling, circumcision, needles, bright lights, startling noises… all this sensory overload becomes instantly wired into the newborn’s nervous systems as the new “comfort zone”, against all logic. As logic resides in a different part of the brain, which is not quite developed yet. So that person will continue unconsciously recreate/attract the same repeated situation of abuse and/or become abusive. Even if later on in life his or hers rational mind/cortex will recognize this as pattern of “abuse,” the imprinting had already happened in a different part of the brain, which doesn’t have the skill to stop the pattern.

According to a 1995 study by dr.William Emerson, 95% of all births in the United States are considered traumatic, 50% rated as “moderate,” and 45% as “severe” trauma. It affects all of us.

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

Normally, a woman gives birth the way she herself was born, due to the same mechanism of limbic imprint. That’s all her body knows about “how-to” procreate. If she was born with complications, it’s most likely, that she will automatically repeat that scenario. Unless she consciously alters that limbic memory, she will unconsciously 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 step in healing. That’s why the following deliveries are usually much easier. That, of course, is a very general observation.

Bloody and violent aspects of human history were created by people, who did not receive the nurturing, tender care they needed as babies. Dr. Stan Grof’s statistics that 100% of most violent criminals were unwanted babies speaks for itself, loud and clear. Of course, it doesn’t mean, that all unwanted babies are bound to become criminals, of course, not! Most parents manage to rise up to the challenge, fall in love with their babies after all and take good care of them. But it does mean that those unfortunate children, whose parents could not meet their needs, have much less chances of thriving.

Historically, most of the masterpieces of human culture reflect the drama of life – jealousy, greed, lust, hate, lost dreams, unrealized potential,- Shakespeare’s plays, centuries of paintings, classical music – are very beautiful ways of speaking about human despair. Only a small fraction of cultural heritage speaks of Love, Beauty and Fulfillment. Why is that?

I think it’s because the flow of creative juices is determined by how we feel and experience life. And how we experience life is greatly determined by our limbic imprint. That imprint defines our likes and dislikes, what we find beautiful, attractive and what repels us.

So, from what I understand about it, in order to give birth to an enlightened masterpiece, whether it would take a form of a human baby or a beautiful poem, or a healthy garden, or simply a rich, fulfilling day that was worth living–one must first experience being birthed in Love. And for those of us who were born long time ago into a less then ecstatic situation, we need to find ways of healing our own birth trauma that was our driving force from day one. Healthy, loving self-parenting CAN neutralize most of the damage.

There are many ways of recovery of our sense of wellbeing, and I am offering one of them in my birthshops. I will talk about it later in the book.

Healing of one’s birth trauma allows one to enjoy the delicious, juicy experience of comfortably owning a body, being fully engaged in life, and loving it. I think, enjoyment of life is the most practical and secure form of living. Anything other than the deep sense of wellbeing is very expensive, confusing and energy consuming,- we are capable of spending a lot of resources trying to make up for not feeling right inside of our bodies.

What started for me in 1982 as work with the Russian Waterbirth Pioneer, Igor Charkovsky, as a search for ways of eliminating birth trauma for the babies, grew into a deep and beautiful healing experience for me personally. If you want to meet me in my deep commitment to a greater happiness, I’m willing to share with you what I have learned.

We can make an effort to heal our own birth trauma and embrace the opportunity of creating a masterpiece of our lives. We can recognize that however rude our beginning was, we do have a choice as adults to change our basic settings, to reprogram our limbic imprint and transmute our suffering and helplessness during birth into the love and joy of being born on this planet. 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. I invite you to envision the possibilities that would open up for humankind if women fully claimed their original capacity that all mammals have – to give birth and raise our young without trauma.

Call me naïve, but I truly believe that we can improve the quality of our species in just one generation by allowing our kind to enter into this world without being ‘programmed’ on suffering and pain. I envision the new generation coming into the world of safety, compassion and common sense. Please, join me in this vision.

I see Conscious Procreation as a portal to recovery of our species. In this book I’m explaining, how and why… It’s a big philosophical issue – the habitual programming of humans on pain as a norm. That’s why I’m writing this book 🙂 The “programming” is happening one way or the other, whether we are aware of it or not. It’s just the way our bodies work, whether we like it or not. So, I want to share my observations of what works for the positive outcome.

As Einstein said: “We can not solve a problem with the same mindset that created that problem in the first place”. We, the people, have 250 wars going on right now around the globe. We created life-threatening levels of environmental pollution, political systems that don’t work, economies that are not capable of sustaining us and social strategies that ignore us. We are, clearly, due for some changes. If we truly understand how we created this mess, we have a good chance to un-create it.

Social revolutions and political measures are not going to work, because they are designed by people driven by their own birth trauma and geared for covering up of our collective unconscious pain and terror of life (just look at what our planetary governments are doing…) It’s impossible to have a deep sense of wellbeing if there was never a reference point of what it is supposed to feel like. First things first: we need to create that reference point within ourselves. Then we can come up with solutions to our dilemmas that are based on solid ground, not just hectic knee-jerk reactions.

We can not thrive as a species, unless we create a new generation of our kind that was not damaged in utero by the high level of stress hormones in mother’s blood stream. As I say: “It’s much easier to make good new people then try to fix the old ones”.

If their basic settings will not be on “anxiety”, “pain”, “fear”, but will be, instead, set on ‘high’: “love”, “safety”, “deep connectedness”,- then we, the people, will truly have a chance.


-Beloved 2011-09-19 21:39:50

Did Elena Tonetti write this article? I don’t see her credited…or, did you work with Igor Charkovsky as well?

Copyright © 1999-2010 Tony Crisp | All rights reserved