The body: What does it know that we don’t?

By: Raquel Willerman, PhD, MSW, LGSW

What can our bodies tell us about the way we experience ourselves, others and our environment?  This is the subject of a burgeoning area of scientific research on the psychology of the body.  It seems we are just beginning to understand the myriad ways our bodies “know” things that our minds might not recognize.  In other words, our bodies can react to things in the environment outside of our conscious awareness.  In addition, our bodies can “tell a story” even if we would wish to tell a different story.

A simple experiment by Dimberg et al. (2000) illustrates this idea.  They exposed subjects to subliminal images of either a happy or an angry face.  The duration of the images was so brief (only 30/1000 of a second), that subjects were not consciously aware of seeing anything other than a neutral face.  However, the activity of their facial muscles “mirrored” the emotion of the happy or angry face to which they were exposed.  In other words, subjects in this experiment reacted bodily to something they were not aware of seeing.

Results from another study strongly suggest that our bodies register unconscious communication from others, even though our minds may be completely unaware of any such communication.  Heller and Haynal (1996) used microanalysis of filmed interviews to study the non-verbal behaviors of a psychiatrist and the depressed and suicidal patients she was treating.  They found that the psychiatrist was unable to verbally (consciously) predict which patients would re-attempt suicide within the year.  Her success rate in predicting was only 29%, which is not better than chance.  However, a frame-by-frame analysis of the interviews revealed that the psychiatrist’s body made over 200 non-verbal gestures (such as shrugs, grimaces, frowns, gaze, voice quality, etc.) in reaction to those patients who did re-attempt suicide within the year.  These physiological reactions were mostly absent from the interviews with patients who did not re-attempt suicide.  Thus, the psychiatrist’s body correctly predicted most re-attempters even though she was unable to say or “know” that her body was doing this.

What does this mean to us — at the Washington Center for Weight Management and Research —  that our bodies can react to unconscious communications or stimuli without our minds even realizing it?  For me, a psychotherapist, it means that there is great value in being curious about what we are sensing in our bodies.  Just by focusing our attention on the connection between our physiological sensations and symptoms and our inner mental life we make ourselves open to new understandings of our histories, narratives and present situations.  We can listen to our bodies for themes or feelings that may have been kept out of our awareness, yet show up in our lives through bothersome symptoms such as weight gain, bingeing, depression, anxiety or difficulty with relationships.


Dimberg, U., Thunberg, M., and Elmehed, K. (2000). Unconscious facial reactions to emotional facial expressions. Psychological Science, 11 (1), pp. 86-89.

Heller, M. and Haynal, V. (1996). The Doctor’s Face: A Mirror of His Patients Suicidal Projects. In Guimon, J. (ed): The Body in Psychotherapy.  Int. Congress, Geneva, 1996, pp. 46-51.


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