Carl Jung's Collective Unconscious

For Freud, the unconscious was simply the part of the mind that stored all the experiences that you repressed and forgot about. Jung, however, took this idea beyond the individual level.
Carl Jung's Collective Unconscious
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Feelings, thoughts, memories, rituals, myths… With his theory of the collective unconscious, Carl Jung argued that these common elements of humanity are a kind of mental heritage. As a social group, we inherit these meanings. According to Jung’s theory, these meanings somehow impact our behavior and emotions.

You’ve undoubtedly heard of this particular Carl Jung contribution to the world of philosophy and psychology. This idea made him stray away from psychoanalytic theory. It also distanced him even further from Sigmund Freud. For Freud, the unconscious was simply the part of the mind that stored all the experiences that you repressed and forgot about. Jung, however, took this idea beyond the individual level.

“The pendulum of the mind oscillates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.”

-Carl Jung-

This psychiatrist, psychologist, and essayist didn’t consider the unconscious a personal manifestation of the individual. On the contrary, in his clinical practice and personal experience, he intuited a kind of universal consciousness that goes much deeper. The collective unconscious was more like a starry night, or the primordial chaos that archetypes emerge from. It’s the mental inheritance that all humans share. 

There are few theories as controversial as this one in psychology. Jung’s theory tried to understand the subconscious mechanisms that affect our thoughts and behavior.

A man walking in a colorful scenery.

Does Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious have any practical application?

Carl Jung himself said once that the collective unconscious theory is one of those ideas that is so transcendent and important it seems almost absurd. However, if you delve deeper into the idea, you begin to find familiar and even revealing elements.

This is one of the cornerstones of Jungian thought. Nevertheless, it was also the origin of many of Carl Jung’s problems. As he explains in his books, he spent half his life defending the collective unconscious theory from those who criticized him for not using the scientific method to develop it.

At this point, you may be wondering what exactly the collective unconscious is. The simplest way to understand it is using an analogy. You can think of Carl Jung’s collective unconscious as an inherited database. It’s like a cloud database that stores the essence of our human experience and which we all access with our unconscious mind.

Likewise, the collective unconscious is made up of certain elements: archetypesThese mental phenomena are like units of knowledge. They’re instinctual mental images and thoughts that we all have about our surroundings. One example of that would be the idea of “maternity” and what it means to us. Another example is “person” as the image of ourselves we want to share with others and the “shadow” that represents what we want to hide from others or even ourselves.

Carl Jung and the collective unconscious.

Archetypes, emotions, and the purpose of Carl Jung’s theory

Carl Jung’s collective unconscious attempts to delimit a fact of life. None of us develop in a bubble, none of us are separated from society. We’re gears in a cultural machine. There’s a sophisticated entity that feeds us blueprints for life and instills meanings in us that we inherit from those who came before us. 

Thus, the archetypes we mentioned before remind us of the emotional patterns that we all have. When we come into this world, we create a bond with our mothers. At the same time, as we develop our identity, we want others to value and appreciate us for it. We also choose to hide what we don’t like or what makes us uncomfortable.

Carl Jung’s theory and his ideas about the collective unconscious reflect many of our deepest human instincts. There we find love, fear, social projection, sex, wisdom, and good and evil. Thus, one of this Swiss psychologist’s goals was to help people build an authentic and healthy self in which all the archetypes could exist in harmony.

Another interesting aspect of Carl Jung’s collective unconscious is that he believed that our mental energy changes with time. Each generation has cultural, sociological, and environmental differences. All of that impacts the mind and the unconscious plane where new archetypes take shape.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.