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A look at four psychology fads

The basics of est, primal therapy, Transcendental Meditation and lucid dreaming.

November 15, 2010|By Eric Jaffe, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Four movements that gained huge followings: est, primal therapy, Transcendental Meditation and lucid dreaming.
Four movements that gained huge followings: est, primal therapy, Transcendental… (Jose J. Santos / Los Angeles…)

Now and then, a new psychology movement bursts onto the popular scene and shakes up the mental health establishment. Typically these efforts tickle the fringe of accepted science, buoyed by celebrities and alternative therapy enthusiasts -- which is to say, they often settle in California. Some, like est or primal therapy, traffic in mental transformation. Others, like Transcendental Meditation, whisper of ancient wisdom. Still others, like lucid dreaming, have echoes of science fiction. While the extent of their legacies varies, these four movements have all stood the test of time. So where are they now?


In 1971, a former door-to-door encyclopedia salesman named Werner Erhard (born John Paul Rosenberg) launched Erhard Seminars Training, or est, in San Francisco. Promising direction, empowerment and enlightenment, the seminars challenged people to throw away their old belief systems and embrace the beauty of the present moment. This breakthrough, once achieved, was known as getting "it" — the term "est" is also Latin for "it is" — and those who got "it," according to Erhard's program, would also get control of their lives.

Gaining this new outlook wasn't easy: est training lasted 60-plus hours over two consecutive weekends, and the sessions were led by authoritarian instructors whose mission, Psychology Today reported in 1975, was to "tear you down and put you back together." As a result, a strict set of rules was enforced. A single day's training, for instance, could last 15 hours with just two breaks. With up to 250 participants attending the seminars at one time, est looked to some media watchers like a form of mass mind control.

But a host of cultural heavyweights championed the program — at one point a former chancellor of UC San Francisco chaired its advisory board — and by 1977 Erhard and his self-transformation empire were big enough to be parodied in the Burt Reynolds film "Semi-Tough." At that time, about 3,000 people were completing the training each month. Many found the help they sought. An evaluation of 67 patients who took est, published in 1978 in the American Journal of Psychiatry, reported therapeutic benefits for those "with good ego strength who are motivated to change." Despite the tough training, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to est during its two-decade run.

The old salesman didn't sell everyone, however, with many mental health professionals cautioning that est harmed more people than it helped. A series of case reports, published in the same journal in 1977, described seven people who developed psychotic symptoms — including grandiosity, paranoia, mood swings and delusions — after partaking in est. (The authors stopped short of saying that est caused the breakdowns, but their implication was clear.) Several years later, after the death of an est participant who collapsed during training, UC Berkeley psychologist Margaret Singer reviewed the program and said in a sworn statement that was part of a civil lawsuit that est indeed caused its participants "emotional distress" and also created a "high probability of psychological and physiological harm."

"People detached from their own identity and became part of this est thing," says Steve Salerno, who examined est for his 2005 book, "Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless." "People will claim that est worked for them, but you have to wonder at what cost."

In 1991, Erhard left the country and sold his intellectual property to Landmark Education, run by his brother Harry Rosenberg. Today Landmark offers a variety of programs, chiefly the Landmark Forum, based largely on Erhard's ideas. The training has evolved — gone is the est-era combativeness of instructors — but it remains wildly popular: Tuition varies by location and costs $495 in California. Landmark reports that 200,000 people worldwide take its courses each year.

Primal therapy

Psychologist Arthur Janov introduced the general public to primal therapy in his 1970 book, "The Primal Scream." The idea behind the treatment is that psychological problems emerge from the repression of early traumas — even those experienced during childbirth. These "primal pains" could be purged only by reliving them and allowing the latent tensions to be released during therapeutic sessions that often left patients screaming and writhing on the floor of the Primal Institute in Los Angeles.

Janov's approach received a huge shot of publicity in 1970 when John Lennon underwent several months of primal therapy before recording "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band," which he later described as "sort of a 'Primal' album." Lennon publicly praised the therapy, telling Rolling Stone that "you are so astounded with what you find out about yourself." Based on his own success with patients, Janov published claims that primal therapy relieved not only psychological maladies but also a range of physiological ailments, including high blood pressure, asthma, ulcers and migraines.

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