Exploring the Unconscious Mind, Part 2 - Kimberly Thompson

Part 1 of this series gave a broad overview of the unconscious mind and why it matters. Using this information as a backdrop, we are now ready to explore another important aspect of human experience – the relationship between body and mind. Understanding how our bodies and minds work together will help us to maintain our health and recover from illness.

Many people view the body as material and the mind as immaterial. The body is made up of atoms and cells and tissue that are part of the physical universe. The mind is made up of ideas and experiences contained by the body but fundamentally different from it. This is called dualism, because mind and body are viewed as two separate things. Dualism is an idea that has been around a long time in Western thought, since the time of the ancient Greeks. This was not the only way that the ancients thought about human nature – in fact, early Judeo-Christian teachings were more holistic in nature –  but over the millennia dualism gradually became the dominant view. It gained further traction as modern medicine emerged. By the time of Descartes in the 17th century, the Church relaxed taboos on the use of human cadavers in medical research only because of a dualistic argument that the body could be examined this way without harming the soul. For our purposes, the soul and the mind are interchangeable ideas, although from the religious point of view, there are some differences.

Eastern philosophies, thousands of years old and the basis for Asian thought, hold a more integrated view of mind and body. For example, the chakra system, proposed and elaborated in yogic philosophy, locates components of the mind within the body, at seven points from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. The free flow of ideas in the information age has resulted in cross-fertilization of ideas between East and West, resulting in a new holistic paradigm of human nature that can be tested using the scientific method. This new paradigm has put a new spin on familiar ideas, including the psychoanalytic idea of the dynamic unconscious. This holistic model says that the body is the unconscious mind.

In the early 1980s, the opiate receptor was first located on the surface of the cell. While receptors had been theorized for many years, actually visualizing them under the microscope had been elusive. The opiate receptor is a molecule structured to bind with pain-killing substances produced by the body. Opiate drugs are able to bind with the receptor as well, because they are similar to these natural pain-killers at the molecular level. The discovery of the opiate receptor was crucial in explaining how opiate drugs work to relieve pain. The method used to find it was then used to identify many more types of receptor. Over 70 types of receptor have now been identified, but it is thought that there may be as many as 300 in all. Three general types of binding chemicals have been identified – steroids, sex hormones, and peptides. Of these, peptides make up the vast majority.

At the molecular level, the spaces between cells are enormous. If the binding substances simply floated around in bodily fluids until they accidentally bumped into the right receptor, very little binding activity would ever take place. Instead, receptors and the substances they bind with attract one another with sympathetic vibrations. These vibrations are responsive to mental states, including motivations, attitudes, and thoughts. It is thought that the peptides, by systematically coupling and uncoupling with their receptors, form the biological basis for emotional experience. Active in every tissue of the body, their systematic binding results in the bodily sensations we recognize as our emotions. Intriguingly, each time a receptor binds with its substance, its structure changes, so that a record of the binding is held inside the shape of the receptor. This is cellular memory, preserving emotional experience deep in the tissues of the body.

In this way, the unconscious mind exists as a program written throughout the physical body. When the intense emotions associated with unhealed trauma and unresolved emotional conflict are stored there, this system-wide program may manifest as medical illness. The operation of the immune and endocrine systems may be compromised, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis that manages stress thrown out of balance, and we become vulnerable to conditions that may be life-threatening, such as cardiovascular disease. This system-wide program also manifests as psychological distress, broken relationships, and generally poor life functioning. Current stressful life circumstances – such as pregnancy, labor and delivery, and new motherhood – can reactivate old unhealed pain.

We don’t need to understand very much of science to grasp the body-mind connection. Body-mind interactions are familiar to us in our daily lives. We get depressed and irritable when we are sick or injured. Many of us feel emotionally fragile when our hormones are fluctuating (remember that sex hormones make up a whole category of binding substances throughout the body). When we are hungry or exhausted, our emotional tolerance is stretched thin. No matter what hardship we are experiencing, recovery will be faster and better when the needs of both body and mind are met.

The key to healing the unconscious is processing. Processing happens when old memories are allowed to surface into consciousness, and the system-wide program is overwritten with new emotional experiences. A safe and nonjudgmental environment is required for this to happen. In the next post, we will explore some of the therapies used to accomplish this.


Pert, C.B. (2006). Everything You Need to Know to Feel Go(o)d. Hay House, Inc.

Pert, C. B. (2010). Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine. Scribner: New York.


I am Dr. Kimberly Thompson, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lubbock, Texas. I am a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. I work with mothers from the time the first pregnancy test is positive through the empty nest and beyond. I also work with children struggling with anxiety, depression, or adjustment. My particular expertise is in perinatal women (pregnant and postpartum), and in mothers of small children. My book, Perfect Mothers Get Depressed, is intended to help women suffering from depression during pregnancy or the postpartum period. It is based on my original research, and is available from Praeclarus Press or on Amazon. If you live within driving distance of Lubbock, you can work with me face-to-face. Others living within the state of Texas can work with me online. Subscribe to my blog to have future posts delivered to your inbox.












One thought on “Exploring the Unconscious Mind, Part 2”

  1. Sarah says:

    This is fascinating — thank you, Dr. Thompson!

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