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What Is the Collective Unconscious?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 25 August 2014
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The collective unconscious is a concept developed by psychoanalyst Carl Jung, consisting of an amalgamation of shared ideas said to be universal across humanity. Rather than being consciously understood and passed between individuals, these ideas are instead said to be part of the unconscious mind, underlying the way people think and behave, and Jung believed they were an inherited legacy of thousands of years of human society and culture. Believers in the Jungian idea of collective unconscious argue that it explains many recurring themes in human mythology and symbolism.

Jung believed individuals had a personal unconscious informed by their own lived experiences. The personal unconscious and collective unconscious, according to Jung, interacted to influence the way people interact with each other, as well as society in general. Because people are not actively engaging with the processes going on in the unconscious mind, they may not be aware of the influence the unconscious has on their behavior and ways of thinking.

According to the theory of the collective unconscious, there are certain universal archetypes familiar to all humanity, such as wise old women or innocent children, and these archetypes influence the way people interact with each other. They also play a role in mythology, and it is notable that some cultures have similar mythological themes even if they have no actual contact with each other. Likewise, symbolism in many cultures has surprising commonalities and some people attribute these similarities to the collective unconscious.

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Rather than being wholly formed myths and symbols or past experiences, the collective unconscious is a collection of abstract ideas. These ideas are believed to play a formative role in psychological development, as well as the overall nature of human society. The idea of “tapping into” the collective unconscious to access information and ideas is referenced in several schools of psychology, as well as discussions about art, music, and other creative work produced by humans.

Like other theories used in psychoanalysis, this concept cannot be tested in a clinical environment and some people dispute the existence of the collective unconscious. Arguments against it include the fact that in addition to distinctive similarities, there are also wild differences in symbolism, myth, and culture around the world, and the similarities may be exaggerated coincidences. Some people find this concept, as well as other theories developed by the psychoanalytic community, helpful when undergoing analysis or therapy to address psychological distress or process life events.

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burcidi
Post 5

I find this idea very interesting, whether it really exist or not, I don't know, but it's definitely food for thought.

The most interesting part to me are the archetypes of collective unconscious. As far as I understand it, these are the way we experience life and how some experiences are the same for everyone even though we don't realize it or learn it from someone else.

There are limitless number of archetypes but the most important ones are the Mother, which is the nurturer, the Shadow, which is our ego and the Mana, which are our natural needs. The list goes on but it's true that we all have these things. That's why I find collective unconscious interesting and I want to know more.

ysmina
Post 4

I'm not totally convinced with Jung's ideas of collective unconscious. If the whole reasoning behind collective unconscious is the similarities between cultures and the common myths, I don't think that's good enough evidence.

I have read about myths a lot. There are some myths that are exactly the same or very similar, just with different names for deities between cultures. I remember an ancient Greek myth that was the same as a myth from natives in South America.

These people might not have every met each other, but it doesn't mean that the myths are the result of a collective unconscious. It can be a coincidence or people who traveled might have shared the myths with people they encountered causing them to spread in other lands.

SZapper
Post 3

@sunnySkys - I've never heard that about Tarot cards, but that is certainly an interesting idea.

I'm not sure about the collective unconscious, but I definitely believe in the personal unconscious for sure. How many times have we found ourselves acting a certain way with no clue why? I think that is the result of our unconscious at work.

sunnySkys
Post 2

From what I've read about Tarot cards, some people believe they help you tap into the collective unconscious. Of course, some people also believe they are the work of the devil, but that's neither here nor there.

A lot of the symbolism on Tarot cards are common across many cultures. Some people think when you do a reading your unconscious comes up with the answer to your question, aided by the collective unconscious.

I'm not sure if that's true, but I do think Tarot cards are a work of art for sure!

burcinc
Post 1

I think some religious concepts are also supportive of the collective unconscious.

For example, Abrahamic religions all say that Adam and Eve were the first human beings to be created and that all people on earth are their descendants.

It is also said that Abraham's two sons- Isaac and Ishmael are forefathers of the people now, people of the West being from Isaac and, people of East being from Ishmael.

I think these common stories of humanity's history is also a sign that there is such a thing as the collective unconscious. Even though we might not know the history well or even believe in these things, we do live similarly and act similarly.

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