Earlier this week I thought of an old friend and work colleague I had not been in contact with for many years, Professor Patrick Neary, who works and lives in Canada, and a few hours later an email arrived from him with all his news and recent life history detailed in it and in which he said he had thought of me this week and wondered what I was up to. Yesterday in preparation for writing this article, I was reading up and battling to understand the concept of the psychological ‘Shadow’, one of Carl Jung’s fascinating theories, and noticed a few hours later that Angie Vorster, a brilliant Psychologist we recently employed as a staff member in our Medical School to assist struggling students, posted an article on the ‘Shadow’ in her Facebook support page for Medical Students. Occasionally when I am standing in a room filled with folk, I feel ‘energy’ from someone I can’t see, and turn around and a person is staring at me. Watching a video last night, in a scene about religious fervour, all the folk in a church were seen raising their hands in the air to celebrate their Lord. Earlier that afternoon I couldn’t help noticing that a whole stadium of people watching a rugby game raised their hands in the air, in the same way as those did in the church, to celebrate when their team scored the winning try. Sadly, perhaps because I read too much existentialism related text when I was young, I don’t have any capacity to believe in a God or a religion, but on a windy day, when I am near a river or the ocean, I can’t help raising my hands to the sky and looking upwards, acknowledging almost unconsciously some deity or creative force that perhaps created the magical world we inhabit for three score years and ten. All of these got me thinking of Carl Jung, perhaps one of my favourite academic Psychologists and historical scientific figures, and his fascinating theories of the collective unconscious and synchronicity, which were his attempts to explain his belief that we all have similar psychological building blocks that are inter-connected and possibly a united ‘one’ at some deep or currently not understood level of life.
Carl Jung lived and produced his major creative work in the first few decades of the 20th century, in what some folk call the golden era of Psychology, where he and colleagues Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Stanley Hall, Sandor Ferenczi and many others changed both our understanding of how the mind works and our understanding of the world itself. He was influenced by, and for a period was, a protégé of Sigmund Freud, until they fell out when Jung began distancing himself from Freud’s tunnel vision view that the entire unconscious and all psychological pathology had an underlying sexual focus and origin. He acknowledged Freud’s contribution of describing and delineating the unconscious as an entity, but thought that the unconscious was a ‘process’ where a number of lusts, instincts, desires and future wishes ‘battled’ with rational understanding and logical ‘thoughts’, all which occurred at a ‘level’ beyond that perceived by our conscious mind. He went further though, and after a number of travels to India, Africa and other continents and countries, where he did field studies of (so-called) ‘primitive’ tribes, he postulated that all folk had what he called a collective unconscious, which contained a person’s primordial beliefs, thought structures, and perceptual boundary creating ‘archetypes’ which were all universal, inherent (as they occurred in tribes and people which had not interacted together for thousands of years due to geographical constraints), and responsible for creating and maintaining both one’s world view and personality.
To understand Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious and its underpinning archetypes, one has to understand a debate that has not been successfully ‘settled’ since the time of Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle (and other folk who became known later as the empiricists) believed that all that can be known or occur is a product of experience and life lived. In this world view, the idea of the ‘Tabula rasa’ (blank slate) predominates, which suggests that all individuals are born without ‘built-in’ mental ‘knowledge’ and therefore that all knowledge needs to be developed by experience and perceptual processes which ‘observes’ life and makes sense of it. Plato (and other folk who became known as Platonists, or alternately rationalists) believed that ‘universals’ exist and occur which are independent of human life processes, and which are ‘present’ in our brain and mental structures from the time we were born and that these universals ‘give us’ our understanding of life and how ‘it’ works. For example, Plato used the example of a horse – there are many different types, sizes and colours of horses, but we all understand the ‘concept’ of a horse, and this ‘concept’ in Plato’s opinion was ‘free-standing’ and exists as a ‘universal’ or ‘template’ which ‘pre-figures’ the existence of the actual horse itself (obviously religion and the idea that we are created by some deity according to his plan for us would fall into the platonic ‘camp’ / way of thinking). This argument about whether ‘universals’ exist or whether we are ‘nothing’ / a Tabula rasa without developed empirical experience has never been completely resolved, and it is perhaps unlikely that it will ever be unless we have a great development of the capacity or structures of our mental processes and function.
Jung took the Platonist view, and believed that at a very deep level of the unconscious there were primordial, or ‘archetypical’ psychological universals that existed, which have been defined as innate, universal prototypes for all ‘ideas’ which may be used to interpret observations. Similar to the idea that one’s body is created based on a template ‘stored’ in one’s DNA, in his collective unconscious theory the archetypes were the psychological equivalents of DNA (though of course DNA was discovered many years after Jung wrote about the collective unconscious and synchronicity) and the template from which all ideas and concepts developed, and which are the frame of reference of how all occurrences in the world around one are interpreted. Some archetypes that he (and others) gave names to were the mother figure, the wise old man figure, the hero figure, the ego and shadow (one’s positive and negative ‘sense of self’) and the anima and animus (the ‘other’ gender component of one’s personality) archetypes, amongst others. He thought that these were the ‘primordial images’ which both filtered and in many ways created ones ‘world view’ and governed how one reacted to life. For example, if one believed that one’s own personality was that of a ‘hero’ figure’, and ‘chooses it’ as one’s principle archetype, one would respond to life accordingly, and constant try to solve challenges in a heroic way. In contrast, if one based one’s sense of self on a ‘wise old man’ (perhaps to be gender indiscriminate it should have been described as a ‘wise old person’) archetype, one would respond to life and perceived ‘challenges’ in a wise ‘old man way’ rather than a ‘heroic’ figure way. How he came to develop these specific archetypes was by examining the religious symbols and motifs used across different geographically separated tribes and communities, and found that there were these similar ‘images’, or ‘archetypes’ as he called them, that occurred across these diverse groups of folk and were revered by them as images of worship and / or as personality types to be deified. Jung suggested that from these ‘basic’ archetypes an individual could create their own particular archetypes as they developed, or one’s ‘self’ could be a combination of several of them – but also that there were specific archetypes that resided in each individual and were similar across all living individuals and these were conservatively maintained across generations as ‘universals’.
Jung went even further in exploring the ‘oneness’ of all folk with his theory of synchronicity, which suggested that events that occur are ‘meaningful coincidences’ if they occur with no (apparent) causal relationship, but appear to be ‘meaningfully related’. He was always somewhat vague about exactly what he meant by synchronicity. In the ‘light’ version he suggested that the archetypes which are the same in all people allow us all to ‘be’ (or at least think) similarly. In the ‘extreme’ version of this theory (which was also called ‘Unus mundus’, which is Latin for ‘one world’) it is suggested that we all belong to an ‘underlying unified reality’, and are essentially ‘one’, with our archetypes allowing our individual ‘reality’ to emerge as perceptually different to other folk and unique to us, but this archetype generated reality is illusory and ‘filtered’, and comes from the same ‘Unus mundus’ in which and of which we all exist, and to which we all eventually return. He based this observation on similar events to those that which I described above as happening to me, where friends contacted him when he was thinking of them, and when events happened to different folk geographically separate that were so similar that to him the laws of chance and statistical probability could not explain them away. While these theories may appear to be somewhat ‘wild’ in their breadth of vision, it is notable that Physics as a discipline explores this very concept of ‘action at a distance’ as ‘nonlocality’ theories, which are defined as the concept that an object can be moved, changed, or otherwise affected without being physically touched by another object. The theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, whether one believes them or not, are underpinned by these concepts, which similarly, as described above, underpin Jung’s theory of synchronicity.
It is very difficult to either prove or refute Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious, archetypes, and synchronicity, and they have therefore often been given ‘short thrift’ by the contemporary scientific community. But Jung is not to blame that even today our neuroscience and brain and mental monitoring devices are so primitive that they have not helped us at all understand either basic brain function or how the rich mosaic of everyone’s own private mental life occurs and is maintained, and he would say it is the fact that we each ‘choose’ different archetypes for our own identity and as a filter of life that makes it ‘feel’ to us as if we are isolated individuals living a discrete and ‘detached’ life, and perceive that our life is ‘different’ to all others. It has also been suggested that the reason why we have similar beliefs and make people out to be heroes, or wise men, or mother figures, in our life, is not because of archetypes but rather because we have similar experiences and respond to our environment and the symbolism that is ‘seen’ during our daily life, is evident in churches and religious groups, in politics and group management activities, and in advertising (marketers have made great use of archetypes to influence our choices by how they create adverts since Jung suggested these concepts – think of the use of snake and apple motifs, apart from the kind mother or heroic father archetypes which are so often used in adverts) on a continuous basis. Jung would answer in a chicken and egg way, and ask where did all these symbols, motifs and group responses originate from if they were not created or developed from something deep inside us / our psyche? His theory of synchronicity has also been criticized by some as being confused with pure chance and probability, or as an example of a confirmation bias in folk (a tendency to search and interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions), and the term apophenia has been developed to describe the mistaken detection of meaning in random or meaningless data. But how then does one explain my friend writing to me this week when I was thinking about him a day or two before his email arrived, or how when I am battling with to understand a psychological concept the psychologist I work with posts an explanation of exactly what I am battling with (even if I have never told her I am working on understanding these concepts this week) on Facebook, or how the ‘feeling’ that one has that someone is watching one occurs, and when turning around one finds that they are indeed watching you. These may indeed be chance, and I may be suffering from ‘apophenia’, but the opposite may also be true.
I have been a scientist and academic for nearly thirty years now, and have developed a healthy scepticism and ‘nonsense-ometer’ for most theories and suggestions which seem outrageous and difficult to prove with rigorous scientific measurements (or the lack of them). But there is something in Carl Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious, archetypes and synchronicity that strike a deep chord in me and my ‘gut feel’ is that they are right, even though with our contemporary scientific measuring devices there is no way they can be either surely proved or disproved. Perhaps this is because I want to and enjoy ‘connecting’ with folk and is caused by some inherent psychological need or weakness in my psyche (or because I have chosen the wrong ‘archetype’ / my current sense of self does not ‘fit’ the life I have chosen and this creates a dissonance that makes me want to believe that Jung was right – how’s that for some real ‘psychobabble’!). But this morning my wonderful daughter, Helen (age 8), gave me a card she had made at school after all the girls in her class had been given a card template to colour in, and the general motif / image on the card (and I assume on all the printed cards) was that of a superman – it’s difficult not to believe that a chosen ‘hero’ motif does not provide evidence for an archetype when such is chosen by a school-teacher as what kids should use to describe their father (though surely myself like most dads are not deserving of such a description). This afternoon I will take the kids and dogs for a walk around the dam around where I live, and will very likely raise my hands to the water and wind and sky around me when I do so, as much as it is likely that the folk who will be going to church at the same time will be raising their hands to their chosen God, and those going to watch their team’s football match this afternoon will raise their hands to the sky when their team scores – all doing what surely generations of our ancestors did in the time before now. While we all appear to act so differently during out routine daily life, there is always a similar response amongst most folk (excluding psychopaths, but that is for another article / another day) to real tragedy, or real crises, or real good news, when it occurs, and so often folk will admit if pushed to that they appeal either to a ‘hero’ figure to protect or save them in time of danger, or a ‘mother’ figure to help ‘heal their pain’ after tragedy occurs, and these calls for help’ / succour are surely archetype related (and indeed it has been suggested that the image of God has been created as a ‘hero’ or ‘father’ figure out of an archetype by religious folk – though equally religious folk would say if there are archetypes, they may have been created in their God’s image).
Our chosen archetypes creates a filter and a prism through which life and folks behaviour might appear different, and indeed may be different, but at the level of the hypothesized ‘collective unconscious’, in all of us, there is surely similarity, and perhaps, just perhaps, as Jung suggests, we are all ‘one’, or at least that mystic bonds are indeed connecting us at some deep level of the psyche or at some energy level we currently don’t understand and can’t measure. How these occur or were generated as ‘universals’ as per the thinking of Jung and Plato, is perhaps for another day, or perhaps another generation, to explain. Unus mundus or Tabula rasa? Collective unconscious or unique individual identity? Mystic connecting bonds or splendid isolation? I’ll ponder on these issues as I push the ‘publish’ button, and send this out to all of you, in the hope that it ‘synchronises’ in some way with at least some of you that read it, though of course via Jung’s ‘mystic bonds’ you may already be aware of all I have written!