Collective unconscious refers to structures of the unconscious mind that are shared among beings of the same species, it is a term coined by Carl Jung.
According to Jung, the human collective unconscious is populated by instincts, as well as by archetypes: universal symbols such as The Great Mother, the Wise Old Man, the Shadow, the Tower, Water, and the Tree of Life.
Jung considered the collective unconscious to underpin and surround the unconscious mind, distinguishing it from the personal unconscious of Freudian psychoanalysis. He argued that the collective unconscious had a profound influence on the lives of individuals, who lived out its symbols and clothed them in meaning through their experiences.
The psychotherapeutic practice of analytical psychology revolves around examining the patient’s relationship to the collective unconscious.
Psychiatrist and Jungian analyst Lionel Corbett argue that the contemporary terms “autonomous psyche” or “objective psyche” are more commonly used today in the practice of depth psychology rather than the traditional term of the “collective unconscious.”
Critics of the collective unconscious concept have called it unscientific and fatalistic, or otherwise very difficult to test scientifically (due to the mystical aspect of the collective unconscious). Proponents suggest that it is borne out by the findings of psychology, neuroscience, and anthropology.
The term “collective unconscious” first appeared in Jung’s 1916 essay, “The Structure of the Unconscious“. This essay distinguishes between the “personal“, Freudian unconscious, filled with sexual fantasies and repressed images, and the “collective” unconscious encompassing the soul of humanity at large.
In “The Significance of Constitution and Heredity in Psychology” (November 1929), Jung wrote:
And the essential thing, psychologically, is that in dreams, fantasies, and other exceptional states of mind the most far-fetched mythological motifs and symbols can appear autochthonously at any time, often, apparently, as the result of particular influences, traditions, and excitations working on the individual, but more often without any sign of them. These “primordial images” or “archetypes,” as I have called them, belong to the basic stock of the unconscious psyche and cannot be explained as personal acquisitions. Together they make up that psychic stratum which has been called the collective unconscious.
The existence of the collective unconscious means that individual consciousness is anything but a tabula rasa and is not immune to predetermining influences. On the contrary, it is in the highest degree influenced by inherited presuppositions, quite apart from the unavoidable influences exerted upon it by the environment. The collective unconscious comprises in itself the psychic life of our ancestors right back to the earliest beginnings. It is the matrix of all conscious psychic occurrences, and hence it exerts an influence that compromises the freedom of consciousness in the highest degree since it is continually striving to lead all conscious processes back into the old paths.
On October 19, 1936, Jung delivered a lecture “The Concept of the Collective Unconscious” to the Abernethian Society at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. He said:
My thesis then is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.
Jung linked the collective unconscious to ‘what Freud called “archaic remnants” – mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual’s own life and which seem to be aboriginal, innate, and inherited shapes of the human mind’.
He credited Freud for developing his “primal horde” theory in Totem and Taboo and continued further with the idea of an archaic ancestor maintaining its influence in the minds of present-day humans. Every human being, he wrote:
“however high his conscious development, is still an archaic man at the deeper levels of his psyche.”
As modern humans go through their process of individuation, moving out of the collective unconscious into mature selves, they establish a persona—which can be understood simply as that small portion of the collective psyche which they embody, perform, and identify with.
The collective unconscious exerts an overwhelming influence on the minds of individuals. These effects, of course, vary widely, however, since they involve virtually every emotion and situation. At times, the collective unconscious can terrify, but it can also heal.
In an early definition of the term, Jung writes:
“Archetypes are typical modes of apprehension, and wherever we meet with uniform and regularly recurring modes of apprehension we are dealing with an archetype, no matter whether its mythological character is recognized or not.”
He traces the term back to Philo, Irenaeus, and the Corpus Hermeticum, which associate archetypes with divinity and the creation of the world, and notes the close relationship of Platonic ideas.
These archetypes dwell in a world beyond the chronology of a human lifespan, developing on an evolutionary timescale. Regarding the animus and anima, the male principle within the woman and the female principle within the man, Jung writes:
They evidently live and function in the deeper layers of the unconscious, especially in that phylogenetic substratum which I have called the collective unconscious. This localization explains a good deal of their strangeness: they bring into our ephemeral consciousness an unknown psychic life belonging to a remote past. It is the mind of our unknown ancestors, their way of thinking and feeling, their way of experiencing life and the world, gods and men. The existence of these archaic strata is presumably the source of man’s belief in reincarnations and in memories of “previous experiences”. Just as the human body is a museum, so to speak, of its phylogenetic history, so too is the psyche.
Jung’s exposition of the collective unconscious builds on the classic issue in psychology and biology regarding nature versus nurture.
If we accept that nature, or heredity, has some influence on the individual psyche, we must examine the question of how this influence takes hold in the real world.
On exactly one night in its entire lifetime, the yucca moth discovers pollen in the opened flowers of the yucca plant, forms some into a pellet, and then transports this pellet, with one of its eggs, to the pistil of another yucca plant. This activity cannot be “learned“; it makes more sense to describe the yucca moth as experiencing intuition about how to act.
Archetypes and instincts coexist in the collective unconscious as interdependent opposites, Jung would later clarify. Whereas for most animals intuitive understandings completely intertwine with instinct, in humans the archetypes have become a separate register of mental phenomena.
Humans experience five main types of instinct, wrote Jung: hunger, sexuality, activity, reflection, and creativity. These instincts, listed in order of increasing abstraction, elicit and constrain human behavior, but also leave room for freedom in their implementation and especially in their interplay.
Even a simple hungry feeling can lead to many different responses, including metaphorical sublimation. These instincts could be compared to the “drives” discussed in psychoanalysis and other domains of psychology.
Several readers of Jung have observed that in his treatment of the collective unconscious, Jung suggests an unusual mixture of primordial, “lower” forces, and spiritual, “higher” forces.
Proof of the existence of a collective unconscious, and insight into its nature, could be gleaned primarily from dreams and from an active imagination, a waking exploration of fantasy.
Jung considered that ‘the shadow’ and the anima and animus differ from the other archetypes in the fact that their content is more directly related to the individual’s personal situation’.
These archetypes, a special focus of Jung’s work, become autonomous personalities within an individual psyche. Jung encouraged direct conscious dialogue of the patients with these personalities within. While the shadow usually personifies the personal unconscious, the anima or the Wise Old Man can act as representatives of the collective unconscious.
Jung suggested that parapsychology, alchemy, and occult religious ideas could contribute to understanding the collective unconscious.
Based on his interpretation of synchronicity and extra-sensory perception, Jung argued that psychic activity transcended the brain. In alchemy, Jung found that plain water, or seawater, corresponded to his concept of the collective unconscious.
In humans, the psyche mediates between the primal force of the collective unconscious and the experience of consciousness or dream. Therefore, symbols may require interpretation before they can be understood as archetypes. Jung writes:
We have only to disregard the dependence of dream language on environment and substitute “eagle” for “aeroplane,” “dragon” for “automobile” or “train,” “snake-bite” for “injection,” and so forth, in order to arrive at the more universal and more fundamental language of mythology. This give us access to the primordial images that underlie all thinking and have a considerable influence even on our scientific ideas.
A single archetype can manifest in many different ways. Regarding the Mother archetype, Jung suggests that not only can it apply to mothers, grandmothers, stepmothers, mothers-in-law, and mothers in mythology, but to various concepts, places, objects, and animals:
Other symbols of the mother in a figurative sense appear in things representing the goal of our longing for redemption, such as Paradise, the Kingdom of God, the Heavenly Jerusalem. Many things arousing devotion or feelings of awe, as for instance the Church, university, city or country, heaven, earth, the woods, the sea or any still waters, matter even, the underworld and the moon, can be mother-symbols. The archetype is often associated with things and places standing for fertility and fruitfulness: the cornucopia, a plowed field, a garden. It can be attached to a rock, a cave, a tree, a spring, a deep well, or to various vessels such as the baptismal font, or to vessel-shaped flowers like the rose or the lotus. Because of the protection it implies, the magic circle or mandala can be a form of the mother archetype. Hollow objects such as ovens or cooking vessels are associated with the mother archetype, and, of course, the uterus, yoni, and anything of like shape. Added to this list there are many animals, such as the cow, hare, and help animals in general.
Care must be taken, however, to determine the meaning of a symbol through further investigation; one cannot simply decode a dream by assuming these meanings are constant.
Archetypal explanations work best when an already-known mythological narrative can clearly help to explain the confusing experience of an individual.
In his clinical psychiatry practice, Jung identified mythological elements that seemed to recur in the minds of his patients—above and beyond the usual complexes which could be explained in terms of their personal lives. The most obvious patterns applied to the patient’s parents:
“Nobody knows better than the psychotherapist that the mythologizing of the parents is often pursued far into adulthood and is given up only with the greatest resistance.”
Jung cited recurring themes as evidence of the existence of psychic elements shared among all humans. For example:
“The snake-motif was certainly not an individual acquisition of the dreamer, for snake-dreams are very common even among city-dwellers who have probably never seen a real snake.”
Still better evidence, he felt, came when patients described complex images and narratives with obscure mythological parallels. Jung’s leading example of this phenomenon was a paranoid-schizophrenic patient who could see the sun’s dangling phallus, whose motion caused the wind to blow on earth.
Jung found a direct analog of this idea in the “Mithras Liturgy“, from the Greek Magical Papyri of Ancient Egypt—only just translated into German—which also discussed a phallic tube, hanging from the sun, and causing the wind to blow on earth. He concluded that the patient’s vision and the ancient Liturgy arose from the same source in the collective unconscious.
Going beyond the individual mind, Jung believed that:
“the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious”.
Therefore, psychologists could learn about the collective unconscious by studying religions and spiritual practices of all cultures, as well as belief systems like astrology.
Criticism of Jung’s evidence
Popperian critic Ray Scott Percival disputes some of Jung’s examples and argues that his strongest claims are not falsifiable.
Percival takes especial issue with Jung’s claim that major scientific discoveries emanate from the collective unconscious and not from unpredictable or innovative work done by scientists. Percival charges Jung with excessive determinism and writes:
“He could not countenance the possibility that people sometimes create ideas that cannot be predicted, even in principle.”
Regarding the claim that all humans exhibit certain patterns of mind, Percival argues that these common patterns could be explained by common environments (i.e. by shared nurture, not nature). Because all people have families, encounter plants and animals, and experience night and day, it should come as no surprise that they develop basic mental structures around these phenomena.
This latter example has been the subject of contentious debate, and Jung critic Richard Noll has argued against its authenticity.
Ethology and biology
Animals all have some innate psychological concepts which guide their mental development. The concept of imprinting in ethology is one well-studied example, dealing most famously with the Mother constructs of newborn animals. The many predetermined scripts for animal behavior are called innate releasing mechanisms.
Proponents of the collective unconscious theory in neuroscience suggest that mental commonalities in humans originate especially from the subcortical area of the brain: specifically, the thalamus and limbic system.
These centrally located structures link the brain to the rest of the nervous system and said to control vital processes including emotions and long-term memory.
A more common experimental approach investigates the unique effects of archetypal images. An influential study of this type, by Rosen, Smith, Huston, & Gonzalez in 1991, found that people could better remember symbols paired with words representing their archetypal meaning.
Using data from the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism and a jury of evaluators, Rosen et al. developed an “Archetypal Symbol Inventory” listing symbols and one-word connotations. Many of these connotations were obscure to laypeople. For example, a picture of a diamond represented “self“; a square represented “Earth“.
They found that even when subjects did not consciously associate the word with the symbol, they were better able to remember the pairing of the symbol with its chosen word.
Brown & Hannigan replicated this result in 2013 and expanded the study slightly to include tests in English and in Spanish of people who spoke both languages.
Maloney (1999) asked people questions about their feelings to variations on images featuring the same archetype: some positive, some negative, and some non-anthropomorphic. He found that although the images did not elicit significantly different responses to questions about whether they were “interesting” or “pleasant“, but did provoke highly significant differences in response to the statement:
“If I were to keep this image with me forever, I would be“.
Maloney suggested that this question led the respondents to process the archetypal images on a deeper level, which strongly reflected their positive or negative valence.
Ultimately, although Jung referred to the collective unconscious as an empirical concept, based on evidence, its elusive nature does create a barrier to traditional experimental research. June Singer writes:
But the collective unconscious lies beyond the conceptual limitations of individual human consciousness, and thus cannot possibly be encompassed by them. We cannot, therefore, make controlled experiments to prove the existence of the collective unconscious, for the psyche of man, holistically conceived, cannot be brought under laboratory conditions without doing violence to its nature. […] In this respect, psychology may be compared to astronomy, the phenomena of which also cannot be enclosed within a controlled setting. The heavenly bodies must be observed where they exist in the natural universe, under their own conditions, rather than under conditions we might propose to set for them.