Carl Jung’s Collective Unconscious

June 8, 2019

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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.

Short History of the Unconscious

The unconscious was first introduced in connection with the phenomenon of repression. Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) (buy his books from Amazon) investigated numerous cases of traumatic hysteria and observed situations where the behaviour of patients could not be explained without accepting the existence of thoughts or ideas of which the patients themselves were unaware of. 

He also noticed that similar behaviours could be artificially induced using hypnosis with much of the same results. This lead to the conclusion that the original ideas people’s minds possess without awareness were indeed operative and active.  

Sigmund Freud (front left) and Carl Jung (front right) at Clark University in 1909.

Although, at the time, its importance as an active subject began to be acknowledged, the unconscious was severely limited to being a segment that encapsulates suppressed experiences and, therefore, had an exclusively personal nature. Later on, Freud began to admit observing the archaic and mythological features and nuanced his initial position. But is was Carl Jung (buy his books from Amazon) who focused on studying the reoccurrence of the unconscious and elaborated several theses to prove its existence and demonstrate the empirical effects it has on our perception of what we call reality.

The Collective Unconscious

The term collective unconscious was originally coined by Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) and has been elaborately explained in his book Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. It represents a form of the unconscious ( the part of the mind containing memories and impulses of which the individual is not aware) common to mankind as a specie and it originates in inherited structures of the psyche, passed on from generation to generation.

It is distinct from the personal unconscious, which arises from the experience of the individual and is made of contents that were once conscious that were either forgotten or suppressed.  According to Jung, the collective unconscious is comprised of two main parts: instincts and archetypes, or primordial images and ideas.

Archetypes

The concept of archetype is inevitably correlated to the unconscious collective and it indicates the presence of certain forms of universality in the psyche. These forms appear in different disciplines and in each of one they bear a separate terminology, but, in essence, they define the basic ideas, representations, motives or elementary categories that stand at the foundation of our interpretation of the world. 

Jung describes different types of archetypes depending on the empirical manifestations they preferred, such as motifs, events and figures.

Motifs

  •  Creation
  •  Deluge
  •  Apocalypse

Figures

Events

  • Birth
  • Death
  • Separation from parents 
  • Second pair of parents
  • Initiation
  • Marriage
  • Union of the opposites

Conclusion

 A common situation when the unconscious collective becomes uncontrollable and wreaks havoc in a person’s life is when he or she mistakenly identify themselves with a particular archetype. As a result they mindlessly embrace its emotional and cognitive particularities; they might temporarily seem to forget other perceptions, memories, behaviours and thoughts which they usually have. This is an effect of the momentarily exclusion from the mental landscape of the contents that are not consistent with the particular archetype which, for the time being, reigns over perception.  A circumstance like this can lead to great amounts of suffering and confusion as it robs its subject of the most significant gift and responsibility of life: freedom. 

Jung’s answer to this problem is what he called the process of individuation. To achieve individuation and realise one’s true self, he claimed that, rather than repressing these traits, we must ‘integrate’ them by allowing them to surface from the shadow and to coexist with those in the ego, or true self. Analytical psychologists may encourage this integration, or individuation, through therapy including free association.

As a Chinese saying goes: “He who between freedom and security chooses security, deserves neither.”

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