Written by Agata Los

Edited by Andrew Neff

October 2019

Collective Unconscious

Carl Jung's prophetic ideas on our shared human heritage

Collective unconscious

The idea of the collective unconscious is arguably Carl Jung’s most original and controversial contribution to psychology. It was also what separated him from the theories — and ultimately friendship – of Sigmund Freud. Although Jung was an early supporter of Freud because of their shared interest in the unconscious, and similarly to Freud he emphasized the importance of the unconscious in relation to personality, their views on the concept of the collective unconscious differed and eventually led to their split.

Jungian layers of the unconscious

Jung proposed that the unconscious consists of two layers. The first layer is essentially the same as Freud’s version of the unconscious and is called the personal unconscious. This layer represents a repository for all of an individual’s feelings, memories, knowledge, and thoughts that are not conscious at a given moment in time. They may be retrieved from the personal unconscious with a varying degree of difficulty depending on how actively they are being repressed (Ivonin et al., 2015; Manichander, 2016).

Jung expanded the idea of the unconscious with the hypothesis of its second layer – the result of tribal, national, and familial heritage, as well as an archetypal core shared by all of humanity (Thompson 2015). Jung himself called it the collective unconscious (Jung, 1969):

“Personal unconscious rests upon a deeper layer, which does not derive from personal experience and is not a personal acquisition but is inborn. This deeper layer I call the collective unconscious. I have chosen the term “collective” because this part of the unconscious is not individual but universal; in contrast to the personal psyche, it has contents and modes of behavior that are more or less the same everywhere and in all individuals.”

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Prophetic dreams and the case of the “Solar Phallus Man”

According to Jung, one of the early inspirations for the collective unconscious hypothesis was a bizarre case involving Emile Schwyzer, a.k.a. “Solar Phallus Man.” The case involved a severely schizophrenic patient in the Burghölzli Hospital in Zürich who remarked that when he looked at the sun, he saw something that appeared to be a phallus that was responsible for the movements of the wind. This hallucination, Jung said, remained unintelligible for a long time, until he became aware of remarkably similar symbolism in a Mithraic liturgy, part of the Greek Magical Papyri, that had not been published until 1910. In this case, Jung asserted that the psychotic patient could not have been familiar with the Mithraic myth because it had not yet been published. Schwyzer was a store clerk with no higher education, unlikely to have read or heard about such an esoteric symbol. Where could it have come from if not from the collective unconscious? (Cambray & Carter, 2004; Shamdasani, 2003). 

Archetypes & Instincts

Jung believed that the collective unconscious is made up of instincts and archetypes - symbols, signs, as well as patterns of behavior, thinking and experiencing, that are physically inherited from our ancestors and have been in existence across evolutionary time and across cultures (Adamski, 2011; Walters, 1994).

Moreover, the collective unconscious consists of mythological themes, which projected outside, create myths and symbols. Themes of archetypal images are similar for all cultures, they are common to all people of different ages, races, and cultures and correspond to the phylogenetically conditioned part of the human structure. Archetypes appear consistently in all mythologies, fairy tales, religious traditions, mysteries and rituals, and have the same psychological content in the East and West (Pascal, 1992).

 

The collective unconscious and (a lack of?) science evidence

While the theory of the collective unconscious is often dismissed by researchers as being pseudoscientific, this is because it is difficult to scientifically prove that images of mythology and other cultural symbols are inherited and present at birth as suggested by Jung.  However, based on the more recent studies, the existing empirical and scientific evidence to support Jung’s idea could be divided into categories presented below:

1. The collective unconscious is present at birth

Universal predispositions that stem from our ancestral past can be seen in some of our everyday behaviors in several ways, as the collective unconscious is often described as a type of innate genetic memory that can be shared by individuals with a common ancestor or history. For instance, the theory of the collective unconscious may explain the fear of snakes and spiders among children, suggesting that a fear of these creatures could be inborn (Hoehl et al., 2017). Other reports have suggested that fears can be inherited through epigenetic modifications. Researchers from the University of Michigan Medical School have worked with grown children of Holocaust survivors who experienced symptoms of PTSD - though they were not exposed to the traumatic events of the Holocaust, many of them experienced nightmares and flashbacks related to the events (Wighton, 2014).

2. The collective unconscious is a part of shared human heritage

One of the strongest arguments for the existence of the collective unconscious is the research of Joseph Campbell, an outstanding mythographer and anthropologist of the 20th century. According to Jung, the human mind has innate characteristics “imprinted” on it as a result of evolution. Campbell studied the world's religions, art, and stories and discovered common features of myths and parables in various, unrelated cultures of the world - the findings are detailed in the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). In this book Campbell provided examples of stories from various, unrelated cultures of the world and showed how they were using similar structures and following the general pattern laid out by the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Campbell calls this pattern the “monomyth”. (Schafer, 2016)

 

3. The collective unconscious shows a prophetic potential of dreams

Jung’s dreams between 1913 and 1914 provided him with another confirmation of the existence of the collective unconscious. They depicted floods and glaciations in Europe, preceding the outbreak of World War I. Similarly, before the outbreak of World War II, Jung recounted a dream he had when he was on the verge of a psychological crisis about Europe being awash with blood rising to the Alps. He even noticed similarities between his own and his patients’ dreams - “As early as 1918, I noticed peculiar disturbances in the unconscious of my German patients which could not be ascribed to their personal psychology. Such non-personal phenomena always manifest themselves in dreams as mythological motifs... There was a disturbance of the collective unconscious in every single one of my German patients”. These occurrences struck him as evidence of the prophetic potential of dreams emerging from the collective unconscious (Lewin, 2009). 

 

Concluding remarks

Overall, the Jungian notion of the collective unconscious is not well understood or verified in the light of materialist science, that suggests that if something cannot be counted, weighed, observed and explained using currently available methods, then it simply does not exist. Although many neuroscientists and psychologists think that they are being precise and grounded by holding tightly to material evidence, Werner Heisenberg, one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, suggests that by focusing only on the material explanations, many new answers can be provided, but the same way many important topics can be ignored. In his book Physics and Philosophy, he wrote: "[This] frame was so narrow and rigid that it was difficult to find a place in it for many concepts of our language that had always belonged to its very substance, for instance, the concept of mind, of the human soul or of life” (Heisenberg, 1958). As the rigid and dogmatic framework of materialist science cannot provide the answers to many questions in psychology and neuroscience, perhaps it should be challenged to allow broader interpretations? 

References:

Adamski, A. (2011). Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious of Carl G. Jung in the Light of Quantum Psychology. NeuroQuantology, 9(3), 563–571.

Cambray, J, and Carter, L. (2004). Analytic methods revisited. In: Analytical psychology: Contemporary perspectives in Jungian analysis, ed. Joseph Cambray and Linda Carter. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Heisenberg, W. (1958). Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science. Prometheus Books, New York.

Hoehl, S., Hellmer, K., Johansson, M., Gredebäck, G., & Ferdinand, N. K. (2017). Itsy Bitsy Spider…: Infants React with Increased Arousal to Spiders and Snakes. Frontiers in Psychology: 8(October), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01710

Ivonin, L., Chang, H., Diaz, M., Catala, A., & Chen, W. (2015). Traces of Unconscious Mental Processes in Introspective Reports and Physiological Responses. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0124519. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0124519

Jung, C.G. (1969). Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. In: Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9 (Part 1), Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Lewin, N. A. (2009). Jung on War, Politics and Nazi Germany: Exploring the Theory of Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Manichander, T. (2016). Personality. ISBN: ISBN9781329997967.

Pascal, E. (1992). Jung to Live by. London: Souvenir Press. 

Schafer, S. B. (2016). Exploring the Collective Unconscious in the Age of Digital Media. Harrisburg, P.A.: Idea Group, U.S.

Shamdasani, S. (2003). Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology. Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, C. M. (2015). Complexes of the Cultural Unconscious: Trance States and the Re-Creation of the Self. Hakomi Forum, 2014-2015, Issue 27.

Walters, S. (1994). Algorithms and Archetypes: Evolutionary Psychology and Carl Jung’s Theory of the Collective Unconscious. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 17(3):287-30.

Wighton, N. (2014). Fear Through the Generations. Accessed online: https://www.med-associates.com/blog/fear-through-the-generations/ (October 14, 2019).

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