Exploring the Unconscious Mind, Part 1 - Kimberly Thompson


The unconscious mind is a real thing. We may have a hard time explaining what it is or how it works, but intuitively we all know that more is going on beneath the surface of our minds than we can explain in words.

We make thousands of tiny decisions every day based on intuition rather than logic.

We are surprised by the attitudes that surface when we are faced with odd or stressful situations.

We have gut feelings.

We know things but don’t know how we know.

A smell brings back memories from our childhood. A certain color triggers emotions and even physical sensations.

The unconscious is alive and active, whether we call it that or not.

Over 100 years ago, the psychoanalysts mapped the unconscious mind. Problems in living, whether they manifested as emotional distress, physical illness, or broken relationships, were thought to originate there. The psychoanalysts sought to tap into the unconscious and to heal it indirectly through methods like dream analysis and free association. Unfortunately, their theories were extremely difficult to test. For many years psychoanalysis was seen as something less than scientific. However, the therapies have persisted, and new methods of testing them have gradually been developed. Some of those methods have come from quite unexpected places, as we will see in this series. Jungian sandplay, a nonverbal therapy that I offer to both child and adult clients, is a powerful healing method originating in psychoanalysis.

Then came behaviorism. Spurred by a desire to leave psychoanalysis behind and to create a theory that could produce testable hypotheses, behaviorists were only interested in behavior observable by others. Behavior itself was seen as purely a result of learning from rewards or punishments. The conscious mind, and particularly the experience of making conscious choices, was seen as an illusion. In their quest to depart radically from psychoanalysis, behaviorism curiously landed with a thump back into the unconscious mind – that unseen repository of motivations, instincts, and associations that leads to observable behavior.

Eventually, pure behaviorism collapsed under the weight of all of the human behavior that reinforcements alone could not explain. Behavioral therapies still exist today, and remain very useful. Some examples from my own practice are gradual exposure for fears and phobias, and behavioral activation for depression. With the exception of behavioral analysis, though, pure behaviorism has given way to a hybrid known as “cognitive-behavioral therapies.”

Cognitive theory produced the first set of therapies that cared much about the conscious mind. Cognitive theory assumes that unconscious material can be made conscious, and the purpose of cognitive therapy is to facilitate that process. Thoughts, feelings, memories, imaginations, attitudes and motivations can all exist in either conscious or unconscious form, but only when they are conscious can people make choices about them. Much of what I do during the therapy hour is designed to stimulate awareness of what is going on beneath the surface of the mind.

Stop a moment and consider: With all this discussion of the conscious and unconscious mind, WHERE do you imagine that it exists? Most of us believe that the mind resides in (or emanates from) the brain. The words we use reflect this: Brainy, brainless, bird-brain, egghead, meathead. We “wrap our heads around it,” “get our head in the game,” “use our heads,” and “apply our brainpower.” However, there is increasing evidence that our minds are functions of our entire body. The unconscious mind in particular is more of an accumulation of instinctual processes, personal traits, and experiences acting as a distributed network rather than a brain-dominated hierarchy.

Muscle memory may really be stored in the muscle.

Trauma may be deposited in particular bodily tissues.

Peptide molecules binding with their receptors, in every cell of the body, may explain emotional experience.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As we go deeper into this exploration of the unconscious mind, we will discover more and more ways that the mind exists throughout the body, and why this is so important. We will explore the collective unconscious, or ways that we are all connected. Finally, we will cover therapies that work with the body in order to heal the mind. It’s going to be an adventure!


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.

One thought on “Exploring the Unconscious Mind, Part 1”

  1. Tim Hill says:

    Thank you Kimberly – I really like your gentle introduction to this topic, and how you tie other theories of mind into it, as well as some ideas about what you can do to start to work with the unconscious.

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