Understanding the Collective Unconscious

The collective unconscious is a concept originally defined by psychoanalyst Carl Jung and is sometimes called the objective psyche. It refers to the idea that a segment of the deepest unconscious mind is genetically inherited and is not shaped by personal experience.

According to Jung's teachings, the collective unconscious is common to all human beings and is responsible for a number of deep-seated beliefs and instincts, such as spirituality, sexual behavior, and life and death instincts.

Carl Jung

Born in Switzerland in 1875, Carl Jung founded the school of analytical psychology. He is responsible for proposing and developing the psychological concepts of collective unconscious and archetypes, along with introverted and extroverted personality.

Jung worked with Sigmund Freud, another prominent early psychologist. In his early studies, Jung's work affirmed many of Freud's ideas. As time went on, the two split in their principles of psychology. Jung contested Freud's principles of psychoanalysis.

A big difference between their explanations of the unconscious is that Freud believed that the unconscious was the product of personal experiences, while Jung believed that the unconscious was the product of collective experiences inherited in the genes.

The Theory

Jung's theory on the collective unconscious was that it is made up of a collection of knowledge and imagery that every person is born with and is shared by all human beings due to ancestral experience. Although individuals do not know what thoughts and images are in their collective unconscious, it is thought that in moments of crisis the psyche can tap into the collective unconscious.

Instincts and Archetypes

Jung believed that the collective unconscious is made up of instincts and archetypes, that manifest basic and fundamental pre-existing images, symbols or forms, which are repressed by the conscious mind. Humans may not consciously know of these archetypes, but they hold strong feelings about them. According to Jung, these mythological images or cultural symbols are not static or fixed; instead, many different archetypes may overlap or combine at any given time. 

His theory was that humans are unconsciously aware of the implications of these archetypes because they are inherited.

Some examples of archetypes that Jung proposed include:

  • The mother
  • Birth
  • Death
  • Rebirth
  • The anima
  • Power
  • The hero
  • The child

Jung considered the mother archetype to be the most important. He thought the archetype not only manifested in the literal form of personal mother, grandmother, stepmother, mother-in-law, or nurse but also in the figurative form of mothers, including:

  • Mary, Mother of God
  • The church
  • Country
  • The earth
  • The woods
  • The sea
  • A garden
  • A plowed field
  • A spring or a well

Jung believed that the mother archetype could contain positive aspects, such as motherly love and warmth, or negative aspects such as the terrible mother or goddess of fate.

Complex Beliefs

Deep-seated beliefs regarding spirituality and religion are explained as partially due to the collective unconscious. Jung was convinced that the similarity and universality of world religions pointed to religion as a manifestation of the collective unconscious. 

Similarly, morals, ethics, and concepts of fairness or right and wrong could be explained in the same way, with the collective unconscious as partially responsible.

Phobias

Genetic memory may explain specific phobias, a fear of a specific object, or of certain situations. Sometimes a phobia of snakes (ophidiophobia) manifests in children even when there is no apparent traumatic origin for their fear. For example, a study found that one-third of British children are afraid of snakes at age six, even though it's rare to encounter a snake in the British Isles. The children had never come in contact with a snake in a traumatic situation, but snakes still generated an anxious response.

Jung used his theory of the collective unconscious to explain such fears and social phobias. Fear of the dark, loud sounds, bridges, or blood may all be rooted in this collective unconscious, which is proposed as an inherited genetic trait.

Dreams

Dreams were thought to provide key insight into the collective unconscious. Jung believed that many symbolic objects and symbols have a universal or uniform meaning in dreams due to the archetypes represented. However, unlike his contemporary Sigmund Freud, Jung believed that dreams are highly personal, and dream interpretation requires knowing a great deal about the individual dreamer. Freud, on the other hand, often suggested that specific symbols represent specific unconscious thoughts.

More than just being repressed wishes, Jung believed that dreams compensate for parts of the psyche that are underdeveloped in our waking lives. This allowed for the study of dreams as an instrument for research, diagnosis, and treatment for psychological conditions and phobias.

Is It a Scientific Theory?

Historically, there has been some debate around whether the collective unconscious requires a literal or symbolic interpretation.

In scientific circles, a literal interpretation of the collective unconscious is thought to be a pseudoscientific theory. This is because it is difficult to scientifically prove that images of mythology and other cultural symbols are inherited and present at birth. Instead, a symbolic interpretation of the collective unconscious is thought to have some scientific grounding because of the belief that all humans share certain behavioral dispositions.

New Research Into the Role of Gut Bacteria

The collective unconscious is currently being examined in a different light. Psychiatric research is now looking at the role of bacteria in the collective unconscious. Genes in gut bacteria outnumber the genes in the human body, and these bacteria may produce neuroactive compounds. It's thought by some researchers that these neuroactive compounds may be part of the collective unconscious which regulates human behavior. If so, studies of gut microbes may be a very important part of the psychiatric research of the future.

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