Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious refers to the idea that each human shares a common set of mental concepts. These mental concepts appear to exist in the collective psyche of the entire human race.
The idea underpinning this concept is that our deepest unconscious mind has been shaped by centuries of shared human experience. This heritage that we all share profoundly influences our thought processes, seemingly across cultures and contexts.
To exemplify this, Jung coined the concept of the Jungian archetype. This is a type of person that appears in nearly every culture, as defined below.
Jung suggests that the ” mother ” archetype is present in the collective unconscious, and people may have subconscious associations with this image that influence their lives. Similarly, according to Jung, various cultures have a common idea of a “wise old man.” This idea can also be considered an archetype that originates from the collective unconscious.
The collective unconscious (not to be confused with collective consciousness in sociology) helps to explain why certain themes, symbols, and stories repeatedly appear in literature, religion, and art across different cultures and times.
However, each human (despite being connected the collective unconscious) also has unique experiences and interpretations of these shared concepts.
Definition of Collective Unconscious
The concept of collective unconscious refers to a shared, inherited reservoir of information and experiences within all human beings’ unconscious minds.
According to Carl Jung, who is regarded as the “father” of this concept, every person’s psyche is tied to the collective unconscious due to our shared heritage. We share a set of common symbols and archetype which seemingly span cultures and eras (Lawson, 2019).
As stated by Hakim (2022),
“In Jungian psychology, the collective unconscious is part of the unconscious mind which is derived from ancestral memory, and experience and is common to all humankind, as distinct from the individual’s unconscious” (p. 491).
According to Jung, the collective unconscious is made up of two layers.
- First Layer: The first is the personal unconscious, which contains an individual’s unique memories, experiences, and repressed elements.
- Second Layer: The second layer is the collective unconscious, which contains all humanity’s shared memories and experiences (Lawson, 2019).
Unlike the personal unconscious, which is shaped by an individual’s experiences, the collective unconscious is inherited genetically and not shaped by personal experiences (Cambray, 2010).
According to Jung, the collective unconscious is accountable for the noticeable shared behavior, ideas, and feelings among various cultures and societies (Lawson, 2019).
The collective unconscious concept offers a unique perspective on how our unconscious mind is connected to broader cultural and societal forces.
10 Examples of Collective Unconscious
- Archetypes: Archetypes are universal symbols and character types found across cultures. They have significant cultural relevance, for example, in religious and cultural texts. Common Jungian archetypes include the hero, the mother, the shadow, the trickster, and the wise older man.
- Dreams: Jung believed dreams provide a window into the collective unconscious. He worked with his patients to examine the symbols and images in people’s dreams, believing them to span cultures. For instance, the common dream of being chased by an unknown figure may reflect a shared fear of danger that we inherited from our ancestors.
- Emotions: Certain emotions, such as fear, anger, and joy, are believed to be universal human experiences that connect to our collective unconscious. When you feel joy or fear, other people have likely felt the same emotions similarly (For more on shared emotions, see my article on instinct examples).
- Myths and Legends: Myths and legends from different cultures share similar themes and images, indicating the influence of the collective unconscious. For example, in many cultures, heroes often have to struggle for the greater good, indicating a shared understanding of the importance of sacrifice and heroism.
- Religion: The symbols and stories of organized religions, such as the creation story, redemption, and paradise, are believed to be rooted in the collective unconscious. So, for example, Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups share similar beliefs about faith and salvation. Similarly, most religions have myths related to harvest festivals, and Christians share many Christmas myths with the pagan religions of Northern Europe.
- Fairy Tales: Fairy tales worldwide have similar themes, storylines, and archetypes, suggesting their link to our collective human experience. For example, many children are told stories about a prince and princess who act as the cultural ideal in their cultures.
- Language: Certain words, phrases, and expressions in different languages embody shared beliefs, traditions, and values, which may be related to the collective unconscious. Saying “bless you” after someone sneezes may have been a tradition that has been passed down for generations and is deeply ingrained in culture, for example.
- Rituals: The rituals carried out in different cultures, such as birth or death rituals, contain similar symbols, leading many to believe that they are rooted in the collective unconscious. For example, Indian and African cultures both have traditions of burning the dead, which suggests a shared understanding of death (For more on rituals that span cultures, read my article on the four main types of rituals).
- Art: Artistic expressions, such as paintings, sculptures, music, and poetry, often contain universal symbols and motifs that connect to our collective unconscious. Artworks often feature symbols and images that are universally recognized, such as love, joy, pain, and suffering.
- Humor: Certain types of humor, including puns and slapstick comedy, are thought to be rooted in shared archetypal and cultural patterns present in the collective unconscious. If a joke makes you laugh, it’s possible that the reason is because it relates to our mutual comprehension of the world.
Origins of the Collective Unconscious
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung introduced the concept of the collective unconscious, while working with Sigmund Freud in the psychoanalytic movement; however, he developed his ideas independently of Freud’s theory.
He saw that humans were not only influenced by their individual experiences but also by a shared cultural inheritance that shapes human behaviors and attitudes (Jung, 2012).
Jung first introduced the concept of the collective unconscious in his 1916 essay, “The Structure of the Unconscious.”
In this work, he recognized that the mind was inhabited by symbols, ideas, and archetypes that were not accessible to conscious awareness but resided in the unconscious part of the mind (Lawson, 2019).
He rejected Freud’s notion that the unconscious was merely a repository of individual repressed thoughts and feelings.
Fact File: Sigmund Freud
Jung and Freud were contemporaries who were influential in early 20th Century psychoanalysis. Freud, perhaps the more famous scholar (i.e. for his concept of the Freudian slip), believed that humans went through a series of crises as they went through their childhoods, which they needed to overcome or else they would develop subconscious psychological disorders. Here, for Freud, the subconscious contained individual hangups from childhood rather than being a hidden repository of collective human knowledge.
Jung believed that there was both a personal and collective unconscious. The collective element was an inheritance passed down through generations, from our deep evolutionary past to the present day (Jung, 2012).
He mentioned that all people share the same psychic structure that shapes what he called the “psychological types” in human nature (such as introversion and extraversion) (Snowden, 2017).
This inheritance, he believed, contained the memories and experiences of the human race and was an essential part of our psyche.
To study the collective unconscious, Jung developed therapeutic techniques such as active imagination, dream analysis, and exploring archetypes (Lawson, 2019).
His pioneering work in psychology laid the groundwork for future research. Besides, his ideas continue to be influential in many fields, from psychology to anthropology, sociology, and philosophy.
The Collective Unconscous and Synchronicity
Synchronistic events – events that appear to occur for a reason rather than chance – were believed by Jung to occur when an archetype in the collective unconscious is activated.
An individual going through a personal dilemma might experience a meaningful coincidence because an archetype in their collective unconscious is triggered. Their unconscious holds answers or clues, that will come up during synchronistic events to help the person make sense of a situation.
For example, an individual might be grappling with a significant decision and then encounter an external event, like a phrase in a book or a conversation overheard, that provides insight into their situation.
Jung would say that this is a synchronistic event that was triggered by the activation of an archetype in the collective unconscious that – subconsciously – can help you through age-old struggles.
Jungian archetypes are universal symbols, patterns, and motifs that exist in the collective unconscious, as put forward by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.
Jung believed these archetypes could influence human behavior, emotions, and thought processes.
Here is a brief description of the major Jungian archetypes (Jung, 1959):
- The Shadow – This archetype represents the darker, primitive, and unconscious aspects of human nature. Jung saw it as the repressed and suppressed aspects of oneself that a person might encounter and need to face to achieve balance.
- The Anima/Animus – This archetype means the idea of femininity/masculinity, irrespective of the sex of the individual. It is believed to influence attitudes towards relationships and how men and women interact.
- The Self – This archetype represents the integration of all aspects of the personality, conscious and unconscious, and the manifestation of the individual’s potential for wholeness.
- The Persona – This archetype shows the social mask that a person presents to the world. It is the image that a person wants others to see and is the personality formed based on social conditioning, upbringing, and the environment.
- The Hero – The hero archetype is found in many cultures and mythologies. He characteristically embarks on a journey and overcomes different challenges to make the world better. We see the hero everywhere, from Captain America to Harry Potter.
- The Trickster – This archetype represents paradox, transformation, and ambiguity. It may take on different forms in different cultures, including figures such as the coyote, jester or the joker in Batman.
- The Wise Old Man/Woman – This archetype describes wisdom, knowledge, and experience and is often associated with an older person who serves as a mentor or guide.
- The Child – The child archetype depicts innocence, potential, and rebirth. At its core, it is the archetype that represents hope and new beginnings.
- The Mother – This archetype represents nurturing, compassion, and unconditional love. It is often associated with maternal figures like the Virgin Mary or Gaia.
- The Divine Child – This archetype shows the potential for transformation and rebirth, with the child often becoming a hero figure or representing the embodiment of the potential.
These archetypes represent universal models for human behavior that exist deep within the human psyche. Integrating archetypes can help individuals understand themselves better and live a more genuine and satisfying life.
Critique of the Collective Unconscious Concept
Scholars have criticized Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious due to the lack of evidence, overgeneralization, temporal bias, and lack of specificity.
Here are some of the main criticisms of the theory:
1. Lack of Empirical Evidence
The concept of collective unconscious is a theoretical construct with no empirical evidence to support its existence (Jablon, 2019).
While the idea of shared mental concepts may be appealing, some scholars argue that there is no concrete evidence for the existence of the collective unconscious beyond anecdotal evidence .
Jungian archetypes are open to interpretation and subjective, making them difficult to apply universally (Mills, 2018).
While some may find some usefulness in archetypal analysis, critics point out the risk of overgeneralization and reductionism when applying complex human behaviors and experiences to archetypes.
3. Temporal Bias
Jung’s theory was greatly influenced by European and Western history and culture, which some scholars argue limits its applicability outside of these contexts.
Jung’s archetypes, for instance, are based on cultural patterns evident in European cultures, which may not be as relevant or present in different cultural contexts.
4. Lack of Specificity
Critics contend that the idea of a collective unconscious lacks clarity because it fails to explain the mechanics of the unconscious mind and its connection to shared experiences (Drake, 1967).
There is no explanation of the mechanism involved or a clear explanation of how these cultural expressions are communicated across time and space.
Proposed by Carl Jung, the theory of the collective unconscious suggests that a shared, inherited reservoir of information and experiences exists within the unconscious mind of all human beings.
Archetypes, dreams, myths, religions, and other cultural expressions all contribute to the collective unconscious, which shapes our behavior, motivations, and personality in both conscious and unconscious ways.
Although the idea of the collective unconscious lacks empirical evidence and has been criticized for overgeneralization, temporal bias, and lack of specificity, it has motivated further research and comprehension of the human psyche.
The universal themes and symbols in the collective unconscious represent a shared human experience that connects us across time, culture, and location.
Cambray, J. (2010). Collective unconscious. The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470479216.corpsy0201
Drake, C. C. (1967). Jung and his critics. The Journal of American Folklore, 80(318), 321. https://doi.org/10.2307/537409
Hakim, M. (2022). The extra-terrestrial glossary. Mohammed Hakim.
Jablon, O. (2019). The metaphysics of the collective unconscious the metaphysics of the collective unconscious. https://stars.library.ucf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1687&context=honorstheses
Jung, C. (1959). The archetypes and the collective unconscious. Princeton University Press.
Jung, C. G. (2012). The theory of psychoanalysis. Forgotten Books.
Lawson, T. T. (2019). Carl Jung, Darwin of the mind. Routledge.
Mills, J. (2018). The myth of the collective unconscious. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 55(1), 40–53. https://doi.org/10.1002/jhbs.21945
Snowden, R. (2017). Jung: The key ideas: From analytical psychology and dreams to the collective unconscious and more. Teach Yourself.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]