posted on Jun, 2 2008 @ 11:15 AM
Jung and Neuroscience
Thanks and congratulations, Masqua, for authoring this very interesting thread, and larding it with so much interesting information.
I'm a kind of Jungian myself. I'm familiar with his writings, not just the popular ones but even some of the Collected Works, such as Archetypes
of the Collective Unconscious, which I found very difficult -- almost impenetrable, to be honest -- the first time I attempted it. I believe
Jung's ideas to be enormously illuminating and useful, even though some of them seem to be the result of poetic insight or intuitive genius rather
than the fruit of anything that might properly be called scientific research.
Much of my early difficulty with Jung arose from the seeming malleability and ambiguity inherent in some of his ideas. What I mean is that they appear
different to different readers, depending on what the reader brings to the work. Despite Jung's own frequent warnings, it can easily appear to a
religious or superstitious reader that the great psychologist is talking about divine or supernatural entities (symbols and archetypes) which have
some kind of independent existence in a mystical realm known as the Collective Unconscious. This is an error. Jung could be superstitious at times
(remember the exploding bookshelf episode during his famous argument with Freud?), yet his theory was not intended to support belief in the
supernatural but, as you say, to explain it -- along with a lot of other mysterious things.
My own confusion was cleared up rather nicely some years ago when I read an explanation of symbols, archetypes and the collective unconscious by a
Jungian psychologist who was also a neuroscientist. The following explanation is based on what I learnt from his writing, but has been somewhat
elaborated since then by my own subsequent reflections.
1. Emergent consciousness threatened by instinct
Although we are self-conscious beings, our selves do not consist only of those parts and aspects of which we are conscious. We also have strong
unconscious urges and drives, which we share with others. These urges and drives are our animal instincts.
Now consciousness is, at root, self-consciousness - the consciousness of oneself as an individual entity, separate from the rest of the world and from
other people. Primitive human consciousness, newly emergent from the shadows of unreflecting animal existence, defined itself only in terms of
consciousness - what Freud and Jung called Ego. The newly conscious mind had no knowledge of its own unconscious, instinctual components.
However, these components -- these instinctual drives -- were there all the same. And consciousness frequently fell victim to them. Some of
them were (and are):
- Anger (uncontrolled instinctive aggression)
- Lust (uncontrolled sex drive)
- Greed (the unrestrained desire to get as much as possible of that which sustains life and pleasure)
- Gluttony (the same)
- Pride (the uncontrolled drive to acquire and hold status)
- Envy (of others' status)
- Sloth (inertia, or the instinct to conserve energy)
Yes, the Seven Deadly Sins are all manifestations of uncontrolled instinct. They are engendered by powerful drives that can disturb, frighten, rule
and even destroy the fragile Ego. Alternately, their actions can be of enormous, unforeseen benefit to the Ego.
Malefic or beneficial, what these powerful instinctive drives have in common is their ability to shove Ego out of the driving-seat of the self and
take the wheel themselves, causing the individual to do things that are not in his own best interest (or which might result in a benefit, but with no
guarantee that they might not be detrimental in the long term).
2. The conceptualization and externalization of instinct
Now remember, the emergent consciousness did not include a concept of these inner drives as part of the self; they seemed to arise from outside,
beyond the circle of light in which stood the Ego. And that is how consciousness, which needed to acknowledge and deal with their existence and
effects, actually conceived of them.
These instinctive drives were seen, originally, as external, invisible entities of overwhelming power that forced the individual to behave in
frightening, often dangerous or destructive ways.
Because, as Shar_Chi pointed out, we all have brains that have evolved the same way (and because we all have the same instincts), the
externalization and conception of these drives as entities took a similar (though not identical) form in all individuals.
Such was the genesis of bush-souls, elemental spirits, ancestral entities and the like.
These externalized projections are the archetypes and symbols of the collective unconscious. They are the conceptual forms in which our
unconscious, instinctive drives are manifested into primitive consciousness. As for the collective unconscious, it is nothing but the conceptual sum
of all of these shared drives, the Boolean space, if you will, in which the set of shared symbols and archetypes consists and operates. Like the
archetypes themselves, it has no objective existence.
3. The origins of magic and religion
As humans evolved language (I suspect this evolution began only after the emergence of consciousness), people could talk about these externalized
entities to each other. The result of these discussions was a coalescence and solidification of the archetypes into gods, demons, spirits, etc. Each
hunter-gatherer band or tribe had its own.
Once externalized, these entities could be dealt with - managed - through ritual, sacrifice, prayer and other methods we think of as magical or
Individuals and tribes who were good at this (whose religious innovations were more effective than others' in managing and controlling these
instinctive drives) would be less at the mercy of their instincts. They would suffer fewer episodes of irrational, destructive behaviour -- violent
confrontations, outbreaks of mass hysteria, etc. -- and as a result enjoy survival and reproductive benefits that others could not. Thus, in primitive
times (and for millennia afterwards, all the way up to modern times) religious individuals and communities enjoyed a selective advantage. If a
religious disposition is something that could be passed on genetically (or even culturally -- memetically), this would account for the universality of
the religious impulse in humans. In fact, I believe this is the reason why most humans today have a predisposition towards religious ideas, and all
cultures evolve religion.
4. Archetypes are neurological phenomena
That pretty much concludes what I have to say. I hope readers of this thread have found it interesting, and if it is at all helpful in resolving the
confusion that swirls about Jung's ideas concerning the collective unconscious and its inhabitants, I shall be more than pleased. At the end of the
day, archetypes are just neurological phenomena, the operations of instinctive drives -- formally, a set of neurons firing in a cascade, or whatever
-- projected onto the screen of consciousness in diffusive, elusive ways. Consciousness and culture take these projections and give them many forms --
magical and religious, as I have discussed above, but also mythical, artistic, political and even scientific (witness Kékulé's dream of the
structure of benzene). Much of human culture, in fact, is based on them. But they are not entities in their own right, and by no means are they to be
thought of as supernatural, or having paranormal attributes and powers.