What is the collective unconscious?
Carl Jung, perhaps the second most famous name in pscychology after Freud, coined the phrase “collective unconscious” in his 1939 work, “The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.” He suggested that, in addition to the personal consciousness we are part of a greater, shared consciousness of humanity. This collective unconscious accounts for values and concepts that are shared among all human kind. Unlike the personal conscious, which is developed from our personal experience, the collective unconscious is inherited from our ancestors. In other words, it is part of our innate being. It is not learned through individual experience.
While some people, even a handful of pscyhiatrists and psychologists, may view the idea of a collective consciousness as so much hippie, new age, nonsense, genetic research and neuroscience is now providing a basis for the concept.
Even the most skeptical psychologists and scientists accept that personality is influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The implication of this acknowledgement is that, to some degree, personality characteristics are passed down from generation to generation through genetic code. We also generally accept that our personality influences the way we view and interpret the world around us. In other words, these codes may influence our values.
What about choice?
The notion that we may effectively be born with predispositions to particular ways of viewing the world does not necessarily mean that we are predestined to do so. Just as scientists are discovering the influence of genetics on our personalities and values, they are also discovering that environmental factors influence our genes. In other words, we may have genetic predispositions to certain ways of viewing our world, but these genes are activated by our experiences. Hence, when we say our values are passed down from our parents, what we mean is that the environment we grow up in and the people we grow up around actually influence and activate our genes.
Sounds pretty far out there, I admit, but there is a growing body of scientific evidence that supports this theory.
One possible way that our interactions with other people may act on our genes may be explained by recent discoveries in neuroscience. These discoveries seem to support the theory that human beings form mind-to-mind connections with each other on a neurological level. These connections happen unconsciously and automatically in virtually every encounter we have.
The facilitators of these connections are called mirror neurons. And we humans have a lot of them, which is a good thing, because mirror neurons are essential to learning and empathy. Mirror neurons work just as their name implies. They mirror in ourselves, on a neurological level, what we witness others experience. In other words, when we see another person eating a banana, mirror neurons fire in the same area of the brain that is responsible for eating a banana ourselves. Likewise, if we watch another person swing a baseball bat, we actually experience on a neurological level what it is like to swing the bat. In this way we learn by watching others. In fact, neuroscientists believe that mirror neurons are essential for learning, especially in infants and children.
Similarly, when we think about doing something, or rehearse it in our mind, as we may do during visualization, the very same neurons that would fire if we were actually doing the event fire when we are just imagining it. This is why meditation and guided visualization are such powerful learning tools.
Realizing the importance of mirror transmitters helps us understand why it is that moods are contagious as well. When we observe someone else in any given mood we receive cues from that person that we may not even be consciously aware of. Although science has not mapped out precisely how this works, I speculate that these cues are then processed and mimicked in our own minds by mirror neurons, which generate the same feelings, moods, etc. that we detect in the other person. This mechanism would also explain the workings of empathy, or how we can immediately interpret other’s facial expressions, etc.
So why is this important?
Recognizing that we share a collective consciousness is valuable on both philosophical and practical levels. Philosophically, this realization should reinforce our sense of community, and make us want to understand the actions of others without judging them. This in itself would go a long way in resolving conflicts between people, and even nations.
On a practical level, recognizing our abilities to spread our moods and energy to others is extremely valuable. When we understand the effect our moods may have on others we can become more conscious of how we are feeling to create moods that are desirable in other people. Imagine a platoon sergeant that is leading his men into a dangerous mission. He knows from his training and experience that if he shows fear, his men will be afraid and this may put them and the mission in danger. So he composes himself prior to briefing his men and prior to going on the mission. His men draw courage and confidence from his demeanor. A less extreme example commonly occurs with parents and their children. If Mom or Dad view going to the dentist with dread, so will the kids. But if Mom and Dad adopt a positive attitude to going, then kids will be less fearful.
The lesson from this is that we are all connected on a neurological level, and have tremendous ability to affect others and the world around us without even realizing it. So it is important to be aware of your moods, states, and attitudes. They are contagious.