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An Interview with Candace Pert, Ph. D.
by Lynn Grodzki, LCSW
Have you ever had a "gut feeling" about anything — the sense that there is a definite connection between your mind and your stomach that helps you to make decisions? Or have you experienced the phenomena massage therapists call "muscle memory" — when deep emotions and memories of the past surface during the massage, as though they were stored within the tissue of your body? For Candace Pert, pharmacologist and professor at Georgetown University, these kinds of experience only confirm what she knows to be true: the mind is not just in the brain, it is also in the body. According to Pert, the vehicle that the mind and body use to communicate with each other is the chemistry of emotion. The chemicals Pert refers to are molecules, short chains of amino acids called peptides and receptors, that she believes to be the "biochemical correlate of emotions." The peptides can be found in your brain, but also in your stomach, your muscles, your glands and all your major organs, sending messages back and forth. After decades of research, Pert is able to finally make clear how emotion creates the bridge between mind and body.
Candace Pert lives in a world where emotions make scientific sense. As former Chief of Brain biochemistry at the NIH for 13 years, she studied the inner workings of the body with an eye towards identifying and locating the chemistry of emotion. In 1993, Pert appeared on Bill Moyer's landmark TV program, Healing and the Mind, where she explained her theories of emotion to a national audience. She attracted attention for being that rare scientist who can explain her work with a sense of humor and passion.
Pert, pharmacologist and professor at Georgetown University, was Chief of Brain Biochemistry at the NIH for 13 years. She has authored over 250 publications and lectures internationally on the subject of neuropeptides and emotions. Pert's early experiments as a molecular biologist led to the discovery that the brain makes its own chemicals (such as endorphins) that create emotional states. She then found these chemicals, identified as peptides and receptor molecules, located throughout the body, not only in the brain. Peptides and receptors act as messengers in the body. They form an elegant system of chemical communication between the brain and the rest of the body, sending information rapidly back and forth. After researching peptides for fifteen years, Pert took a daring step. She began to refer to peptides and receptors as the "biochemical correlates of emotion." In these peptides and their receptors, Pert believes she has found the material manifestation of emotion in the body. These days Pert spends substantial amounts of time consulting on the trials of a new drug, Peptide T, that is part of a non-toxic AIDS therapy. She takes some time from her research and teaching schedule to lecture internationally on the issues of neuropeptides and mind-body communication.
I began to correspond with Candace a few years ago. In May of 1995, we sat down to talk about a subject that interests both of us: the need for a more unified theory of emotion. She answered questions about her work and offered some new, startling insights into how our bodies interact with our minds through the chemical pathway of emotion.
Grodzki: Candace, could you review what led to your understanding that peptides and receptors are the biochemical correlate of emotion?
Pert: In the late seventies and eighties, I performed numerous mapping studies in the brain of both the peptides and their receptors. The receptors tended to map out in areas like the amygdala and the hippocampus that had been previously implicated as being part of the emotional circuitry. We could also map the peptides in other areas of the body, such as the immune system and the glands. At first nobody could make any sense out of this. Why would these molecules be circulated in all of these areas? What purpose might they serve? To most people who are in the Western scientific tradition of separating brain and body, this seemed counter-intuitive.
But my team realized that this system of molecules formed a communication network throughout the brain and body. It seemed consistent with my almost intuitive feelings about the biological basis of emotions. I was familiar with some of the concepts coming out of California, from Esalen to Stanford, of how health and disease, mind and body are intertwined. What we were seeing made sense to me.
Grodzki: So you combined your intuitive understanding of mind and body, along with what you were seeing in the lab.
Pert: Yes. There was one more thing. Darwin had hypothesized that the biochemical basis of emotions, the physiological correlate, would be highly conserved in evolution. We in fact had found these neuropeptides in one-celled animals. Blanche O'Neil did a series of elegant studies on the opiate receptors of one-celled organisms to show that biochemically, theirs were just like ours.
Grodzki: Up until now there hasn't been a unified theory of emotion, one that explains the concrete workings of emotion and its existence in the body and the mind.
Pert: My research not only contributes towards a unified theory of emotion, but it also explains how a lot of alternative medicine works.
Grodzki: How do you understand the connection between memory and emotion?
Pert: Experiments show that the hippocampus area of the brain is the access or gateway into the whole emotional experience. Almost every variety of peptide receptor is found in the hippocampus. Through the peptide network, which is anything that has peptide receptors on it, you can access different memories, mood states or developmental stages. Strong emotions are the key variable that make us bother to remember things.
There is a lot of evidence that memory occurs at the point of synapse in the neurons. One cell communicates with another. And we know that at the synapse, there are changes that take place in the receptors. The sensitivity of the receptors are part of memory and pattern storage. But the peptide network extends beyond the hippocampus, to organs, tissue, skin, muscle and endocrine glands. They all have peptides receptors on them and can access and store emotional information. This means the emotional memory is stored in many places in the body, not just the brain. The autonomic nervous system is pivotal to this entire understanding. Its importance is much more subtle than has been thought. Every peptide that I have ever mapped and more can be found in the autonomic nervous system. There is an emotional coding to the way our autonomic patterns are elaborated.
Grodzki: The autonomic nervous system includes the spinal chord and the ganglia that are down either side. Is it possible that emotion could be stored in places like this indefinitely?
Pert: Absolutely. Emotional memories are our earliest memories. One of my earliest memories is that I struck a match when my mother was making dinner. I just started a tiny fire, and she came over and put it out with her dishrag. I can still see the terror in her face. I think I must have been one year old. Emotional memories are long term memories, stored where we need them, for survival.
Grodzki: Let's say you had forgotten this memory and you are in a situation where something similar happens, perhaps your own daughter plays with matches and you find your reaction has an intensity that suggests an earlier incident was attached to it. How is early emotional memory retrieved in the body?
Pert: You can access emotional memory anywhere in the peptide/recptor network, in any number of ways. For example, if you have a memory that has to do with food and eating, you might access it by the nerves hooked up to the pancreas. You can access through any nodal point in the neural loop. Nodal points are places where there is a lot convergent information with many different peptide receptors. In these nodal points there is potential for emotional regulation and conditioning.
Grodzki: Massage therapists often talk about "muscle memory" — the phenomena that massage can elicit intense emotional response in a person, often of childhood upset.
Pert: As soon as you hit the muscle, you are sending a stimulus into the spinal chord. You are accessing the spinal chord. That's another nodal point, by the way, in the loop. When I talk about emotional conditioning, I mean we are repeating some old patterns, which is the way we are constructed. We have some autonomic aspects of ourselves.
Grodzki: So we are programmed to be able to repeat emotional experience and we can access it through the body, in many ways. What happens to emotions that are not able to be fully expressed?
Pert: I have a whole theory about this. I believe that emotion is not fully expressed until it reaches consciousness. When I speak of consciousness, I include the entire body. I believe that unexpressed emotion is in process of traveling up the neural access. By traveling, I mean coming from the periphery, up the spinal chord, up into the brain. When emotion moves up, it can be expressed. It takes a certain amount of energy from our bodies to keep the emotion unexpressed. There are inhibitory chemicals and impulses that function to keep the emotion and information down. I think unexpressed emotions are literally lodged lower in the body.
Grodzki: This is a fascinating idea, that emotion is moving up the body. Do you make a distinction between emotion that is felt, versus emotion that is felt and understood?
Pert: Yes. That is a good way of putting it. In my mind, there are levels of integration. You are integrating lower brain areas when you move the emotion up and get it into consciousness. That's where you begin comprehension.
I often tell a story in my lectures. I show a picture of a woman with hot coffee, who has dropped the cup and burned herself. She reacts to the scalding coffee by being startled and feeling pain. The emotional reflex moves up and up and up the body. When it finally gets to the level of the thalamus she says, "Oh, it's hotter than it ususally is." But then I make a joke. I say, "Its only when it gets all the way up to the cortex that she can actually blame her husband." That's where we put the whole spin on it. Unexpressed emotions are buried in the body — way, deep down in the circuitry of the organs, or the GI tract, or a loop in a ganglium.
Grodzki: This gives more credence to the concept of a "gut feeling." Its amazing to think of our organs as storage places for emotion and emotional memory.
Pert: We even know what the memory storage looks like. It's protein molecules coupled up to receptors. Some thought it only gets stored in the brain. But it looks like that in the body, too. Your memories can get stored that way in the pancreas, for example.
Grodzki: There is a belief that unexpressed emotion is harmful to the mind and body. If you haven't fully grieved a loss, for example, your weakened immune system might make you a candidate for an illness, like cancer. How do you understand it, as a scientist?
Pert: I think there is overwhelming evidence that unexpressed emotion causes illness. I'm a molecular Reichian!
Grodzki: Reich had a model of working with emotion that is sometimes called the "conflict model" of catharsis. He thought there were two psychic forces at work in every individual. One is the force that wants to express emotion. The other is the force that seeks to prevent its expression, which he termed resistance. He thought the pressure of the two forces caused stasis, so his therapy techniques were designed to exhaust and weaken the resistance, to allow emotional expression to occur.
Pert: I see it this way. The raw emotion is working to be expressed in the body. It's always moving up the neural access. Up the chakras, if you will, but really up the spinal chord. The need to resist it is coming from the cortex. All the brain rationalizations are pushing the energy down.
The cortex resistance is an attempt to prevent overload. It's stingy about what information is allowed up into the cortex. It's always a struggle in the body. The real, true emotions that need to be expressed are in the body, trying to move up and be expressed and thereby integrated. That's why I believe psychoanalysis in a vacuum doesn't work. You are spending all your time in your cortex, rather than in your body. You are adding to the resistance.
Grodzki: You suggest a vertical model of catharsis, letting the emotion move up the body, perhaps finding ways to relax the cortex to allow the unexpressed emotion to be first experienced and then cognitively integrated.
Pert: Let the emotion all bubble up. Let the chips fall where they may. My personal experience using catharsis was with the New Identity Process [a method of group psychotherapy that works directly with emotional energy.] I think the NIP bonding [a healing technique that combines deep emotional expression within the safety of therapeutic touch] might serve to relax the cortex and let the emotion come through. I believe that the process of catharsis is not complete without saying things, because we must involve speech and the cortex, to know that the emotion has come all the way up and is being processed at the highest level. To feel and understand means you have worked it all the way through. It's bubbled all the way to the surface. You're integrating at higher and higher levels in the body, bringing emotion into consciousness.
Candace Pert, Ph.D., is the author of "Molecules of Emotion".
Lynn Grodzki, LCSW, is a New Identity Process therapist in Silver Spring, Md. You can reach Lynn at Lgrodzki@erols.com. This interview was originally published in "Pathways Magazine", September 1995.