Ever wondered how your collective unconscious can affect your everyday behaviour? Are you afraid of snakes but never actually seen one?
You’re not alone. In fact, it seems the inner psyche has been the topic of study for many scientists – but one, in particular, stands out to this day. Behavioural scientist and psychologist Carl Jung made the study of the unconscious mind his life’s work. Jung worked alongside Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century and was fascinated by the way the mind worked. He found different levels of the mind, which could be applied according to memory, experience, or simply, just existing. Jung coined the term collective unconscious to refer to a segment deep in the mind or the unconscious mind.
The collective unconscious is not shaped by personal experience, but rather, as Jung describes, the “objective psyche”. This is what Jung proved to be genetically inherited. These are things like sexual instincts or life and death instincts – such as fight or flight.
Jung and his studies of the collective unconscious
Carl Jung was born in Switzerland in 1875 and 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 Freud and they shared in their interest in the unconscious. Jung went on to develop his own version of the psychoanalytic theory, but a lot of his analytical psychology reflects his theoretical differences with Freud.
On discovering these different levels of mind, Jung was able to apply the collective unconscious model to everyday behaviour. What if we are the way we are not because of the experiences we’ve had in life but rather because of instinct?
Theory of the Unconscious
Like Freud, Jung regarded the psyche as made up of a number of separate but interacting systems. The three main ones were the ego, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious.
According to Jung, the ego represents the conscious mind as it comprises the thoughts, memories, and emotions a person is aware of. The ego is largely responsible for feelings of identity and continuity. Again, like Freud, Jung emphasised the importance of the unconscious in relation to personality. However, he proposed that the unconscious consists of two layers.
The first layer called the personal unconscious is essentially the same as Freud’s version of the unconscious. The other is Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious. This is a level of unconscious shared with other members of the human species. Jung proposes this is from our ancestral and evolutionary past.
Conscious vs unconscious
It may be easier to understand the collective unconscious if you first understand what the basics are of personal consciousness. For those familiar with Freud’s Id theory, it follows a similar pattern.
So the contents of personal consciousness are usually repressed, or forgotten experiences. These may have been particularly unpleasant, and usually, these have occurred in early life. Whatever the reason, these are experiences that were at one time in your conscious mind.
The collective unconscious is more likely to contain instinctive traits. These are separate from the conscious mind and are part of evolutionary psychology. Even though we cannot control the collective unconscious, the field of analytical psychology views behaviours as stemming from unconscious beliefs.
This can be explained by genetic memory, or instinct, which can manifest itself even if there has been no trauma. Jung also explains this in his theory of archetypes.
Jung believes symbols from different cultures are often very similar because they have emerged from the archetypes shared by the whole human race. For Jung, our primitive past becomes the basis of the human psyche, directing and influencing present behaviour.
An example of these archetypes can be seen in some of our everyday behaviours in a number of ways. For example, a study found one-third of British children at age six are afraid of snakes. This is in spite of the fact that it’s rare to ever encounter a snake in the UK. The children had never come in contact with a snake in a traumatic situation, but snakes still generated an anxious response.
Another example is in the association of fire with danger, even if we have never been burned. Through conscious learning (i.e. we can learn fires are hot and can cause burns, or even death), you can still have a phobia of something. This is true even in cases where you have not experienced the thing you are actually frightened of.
Such associations are, of course, irrational. But they are all the more powerful for that. If you have experienced anything like this, chances are your collective unconscious has come into play!