The collective unconscious is a concept from Jungian psychology that refers to a series of components of the subconscious mind that are shared by all human beings. It is an element of psychoanalytic theory that is opposed to the personal unconscious described by Freud.
According to Carl Jung , the author of this term, the collective unconscious would be formed by a series of instincts shared by the entire human species. At the same time it would also include different archetypes, which would be symbols that would represent some of the most common experiences and characters within our culture.
Jung never tried to make an exhaustive list of all the existing archetypes in culture, since this could be practically infinite. However, he did describe some of the most common, among which are the Shadow, the Elder Wise, the Great Mother, the Tower, or the Tree of Life.
According to some psychoanalytic theories, the collective unconscious would have a great influence on people’s lives, who would act according to their symbols and give them a personalized meaning based on their own experiences. Disciplines such as analytical psychology are responsible for examining the relationship of the patient with the collective unconscious.
Concept of the collective unconscious according to Jung
According to Carl Jung, the collective unconscious is a part of our mind that we are not aware of and that we cannot easily access. It would be formed by a series of images, beliefs and archetypes that would be present in our mind from birth, and that would have their origin in the experiences of our ancestors.
Despite the fact that individuals are not aware of the contents of their collective unconscious, they can direct their behaviors, beliefs and emotions in a very significant way. This occurs especially markedly in times of stress, crisis or extreme tension.
For Jung, the collective unconscious can at least partially explain the most deeply held beliefs about religion and spirituality. This author was of the opinion that the similarities between the most basic ideas of all the world religions suggested that they were actually an expression of this psychological phenomenon.
In a similar way, the collective unconscious could also explain phenomena such as morality, ethics or the idea of justice. Although Jung did not believe that this mental entity was the sole cause behind these constructs, he did think that they played a very important role in its formation.
Different studies on phobias and irrational fears suggest that most of them appear from early childhood. Although many experts believe that this is due to genetic causes, Jung and his advocates think that this phenomenon is actually related to the collective unconscious.
Thus, for example, it has been found that many European children have a great fear of snakes, even though it is very unlikely to meet one of these animals within the continent. For Jung the collective unconscious could be behind this phenomenon.
In fact, some interpreters of the psychoanalytic theory of this author believe that Jung referred to the collective unconscious as a genetic element, so that both ideas could be compatible.
For most psychoanalysts dreams were phenomena that could be used to explore the unconscious and its content. Jung believed that many objects and symbols took on a unified form in dreams, as they actually represented the archetypes of the subconscious.
However, Jung believed that the meaning of each element of dreams was highly dependent on the personality of the individual. For this reason, it did not seem easy to make an interpretation of dreams.
Collective unconscious and archetypes
One of the most important concepts in Jung’s theory is that of archetypes. For this author, the collective unconscious is organized around a series of ideas and instincts that manifest symbols, shapes, images and basic elements in human culture. These are used subconsciously to filter and interpret reality.
The archetypes would not be static, but would evolve with culture and society. In addition, these would provoke strong feelings in people, even when they are not aware of them.
Although there is no complete list of all existing cultural archetypes, Jung mentioned in his works some of the most important:
– The shadow.
– The hero.
– The wise old man.
– The boy.
Each of these archetypes could take many different forms, and be expressed in our own behaviors and in the way we interpret those of others. In addition, they would also be part of the stories that we tell as a society, from traditional tales to contemporary films or novels.
Peoples Psychology and the Collective Unconscious
Jung believed that many elements of the collective unconscious are shared by all individuals regardless of their origin, culture or race. However, others would be specific to a particular people or culture, thus there are certain aspects of this part of the mind that would vary depending on the population.
Thus, Jung argued that elements such as customs, superstitions, legends, artistic elements or religion would be part of the collective unconscious of each people. The archetypes present in all these elements would be different from those of other cultures, and could conflict with those of the general population.
Examples of the collective unconscious
The myth of the hero
One of the most common archetypes within our culture is that of the hero: the character who is involved in an adventure by chance and who has to pass a series of tests before being able to return to his place of origin, completely transformed and having achieved a great benefit for his people.
This myth was described by Joseph Campbell in his work of the same name. As has been proven, most stories (such as movies or novels) follow in the footsteps of this myth, which is why it is considered one of the clearest representations of the collective unconscious.
The figure of the villain
Another of the most important archetypes is that of “the shadow.” According to Jung, this would represent all the negative aspects of human nature that we would like to get rid of. As a consequence, we introduce them in all our stories as the enemy to beat so that the hero can be victorious.
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- “Collective unconscious” in: Britannica. Retrieved on: June 10, 2020 from Britannica: britannica.com.
- “Collective unconscious” in: Wikipedia. Retrieved on: June 10, 2020 from Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org.