Understanding the Collective Unconscious

The collective unconscious is a concept originally defined by psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Sometimes referred to as 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.

Who Is 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.

The biggest difference between their explanations of the unconscious is that Freud believed that the unconscious was the product of personal experiences, while Jung believed that it was inherited from the past collective experience of humanity.

Jung's Theory of the Collection Unconscious

According to Jung, the collective unconscious 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. Though humans may 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 expressed through universal concepts called archetypes. Archetypes can be signs, symbols, or patterns of thinking and behaving that are inherited from our ancestors.

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. Some examples of archetypes that Jung proposed include:

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

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:

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

Jung believed that the mother archetype could contain either 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

Jung used his theory of the collective unconscious to explain how fears and social phobias can manifest in children and adults for no apparent reason. 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.

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.

Dreams

Dreams were thought to provide key insight into the collective unconscious. Jung believed that due to the archetypes represented, specific symbols in dreams are universal. In other words, the same symbols mean similar things to different people.

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.

The Role of Bacteria in the Collective Unconscious

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.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. LoBue V, DeLoache JS. Detecting the snake in the grass: attention to fear-relevant stimuli by adults and young children. Psychol Sci. 2008;19(3):284-289. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02081.x

  2. Dinan TG, Stilling RM, Stanton C, Cryan JF. Collective unconscious: how gut microbes shape human behavior. J Psychiatr Res. 2015 Apr;63:1-9. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.02.021

Additional Reading