A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: unconscious mind

16 Nov 2000 
I enjoyed going through the Skeptic's Dictionary, but I feel there are a couple of places where you are attacking a straw man. Unfortunately my argument has turned out to be fairly lengthy in order to be complete, so I don't expect you to read it right away, but hopefully at some point you can consider these points.

In the meantime, my compliments on the rest of the site which is very well done.

One quibble is your discussion of the unconscious mind, which looks at only the question of repressed memory and whether the unconscious mind can be shown to have some physical location in the brain.

Another definition of the unconscious mind could be those things which occur in our minds, of which we are not conscious.

When I eat lunch, it is the result of a conscious decision. When I fall in love, it is not (typically) the result of a conscious decision. Falling in love, therefore, can be categorized as an example of the operation of the unconscious mind. You can say that falling in love is caused by the operation of various chemicals in the brain, but that's not really saying anything different. If it happens in my mind, and I'm not conscious of it, it's happening in my unconscious mind.

That also brings in your discussion of Jung, which I think also is an oversimplification. In this case, Jung himself should be differentiated from Jungians, who often say a lot of things that Jung himself did not.

Jung says that the unconscious mind has two components, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The personal conscious is based on our own experience and the collective unconscious is wired in to the structure of our brain.

An example of the operation of the personal unconscious is the distance at which you feel comfortable conversing with someone. If somebody moves too close to you, you feel uncomfortable. This distance varies according to which culture you were brought up in. Therefore, it must be something that is learned. However, it is not something that is learned consciously like reading or how to use chopsticks; thus (by definition) it is learned unconsciously. Even if you know consciously why you feel uncomfortable, it doesn't stop you from feeling uncomfortable. The personal unconscious has nothing to do with "repressed memories".

Jung postulated that we have some built-in unconscious functions. Again, one example of this is falling in love. In Jungian terms, we possess an archetype of a spouse which pre-exists in our minds. The operation of falling in love is the identification of this archetype with a particular person. Once we are in love with that person, our interactions make use of the archetype. Other archetypes would include mother, father, infant. It is essentially the same process that causes baby birds to imprint the first animal they see as their mother. Another example would be the torturers in Argentina who, after killing the parents for their political views, took pity on the poor orphaned baby and raised it themselves (numerous such cases). Jung would say that they exhibited an archetypal response to the infant.

(An archetypal response to an infant is typically to take care of it--but only if you identify it as your own.) Or consider childless people who treat a pet like a child rather than an animal. Archetypes are much the same as what are often called instincts.

Keep in mind that Jung started his career working in a lunatic asylum at a time when modern drug-based treatments were not available. There was little that could be done in terms of treatment, but he had ample opportunity to study the ways in which people's minds went wrong. This is what led him to the idea that the basic structures of the mind are the same, but in insane people they operate in inappropriate ways. Thus a stalker might be making use of the spousal archetype, but applying it to a person he never met.

You could study the operation of these common archetypes by studying other primates, and we find that there do appear to be built-in instincts for parenting, forming social groups, etc. For example, childless female apes will play with dolls.

Jung further speculated that humans came ready-wired with a lot of other archetypes as well. He devoted quite a lot of time to comparing religions and mythologies in an effort to identify these. This also involved him in studying such topics as astrology, Tarot cards, etc. to identify their archetypal content.

This is where I think the skeptics get nervous and turn back. A skeptic sees someone who believes in astrology and reacts by saying that astrology can not be proven scientifically. By implication, that person is stupid for believing it. Jung asks, why does that person believe in astrology and not in some other unprovable theory like a flat earth? A belief in astrology is fulfilling some need for that person. Jung was interested in identifying those needs and classifying them under the name of archetypes.

Many skeptics have difficulty understanding the difference between studying a belief and believing it. Jung was interested in astrology because people believe in it. He was also interested in UFOs because people believe in them. He wrote a whole book about UFOs which begins "I have absolutely no interest whatever in whether UFOs really exist or not". The book describes how UFO beliefs share a lot of common features with other archetypal beliefs such as elves. Yet I often see skeptics claim that Jung "believed in UFOs".

You claim that archetypes are invalid because they are not empirically testable. I think this misses the point. The concept of an archetype is merely a classification device. Certain instincts are grouped together because they commonly appear together. You might as well claim that the Dewey Decimal System is invalid because there's no empirical test that will predict the call number of a book.

Jung postulates that since archetypes are hardwired into the brain, they must exist essentially from birth in everybody. One way to deal with archetypes is to bring them into your conscious mind. For instance, you could engage your child-nurturing archetype by raising your own children. You could also engage it by other activities such as coaching a children's soccer team, volunteering at the YMCA or whatever.

Jung says that any archetypes that you keep out of your conscious mind stay in your unconscious where they can affect your actions, not always in a beneficial way.

How to tell which archetypes are most at work in your unconscious? You must examine the operation of your unconscious. One way to do this is to look at your dreams. I think the current scientific opinion is that dreams are side effects of the way that long term memories are stored during sleep. That's why the content of dreams are frequently related to the previous day's events.

Jung, though, is interested in the side effects. Of those random images that are called up by the storing of the day's events, why this one and not some other one? He thought that relating the content of dreams to the archetypes called up (out of all the potential ones in existence in your brain) could give clues to the emotional reaction to those events, particularly unconscious ones. You mention some of these concepts in your entry on dreams.

Jung did appear to have a real belief in synchronicity, which is hard to defend. However, if we consider this to be a case of apophenia, then it becomes consistent with the rest of the body of thought. Apophenia is an effect of the unconscious mind, which gives us clues to its operation. Why does the beetle cause apophenia and not the sandwich?

Jungian analysis based on this theory is that in order to have a fulfilled life, you need to connect all your archetypes to your conscious life. For most people, marriage, raising a family and having a reasonably interesting career or hobbies will more or less cover all of them. But for some people who are unhappy in their lives, it may be because some archetype (built-in instinct) has been excluded from their conscious and hence remains in the unconscious. Analysis consists of identifying the archetype by means of looking at dreams, emotional reaction to works of art, etc. When the archetype is identified, the patient then can look around for ways to incorporate it into his or her life. As noted in your entry on dreams, only the patient himself can provide any useful insight into the emotional content of his dream images.

(Note: modern psychoanalysts do not claim to be able to cure diseases such as schizophrenia. Freud thought it was possible, because the cause of schizophrenia was not known during his time. However, modern psychoanalysts try to help people find ways to cope with their problems, among which may be schizophrenia or other diseases.)

Interestingly, Jungian theory provides an answer to the question that must vex the skeptic: why do so many people persist in believing things that are easily proved to be untrue? The answer is that these beliefs provide the people with a means of bringing certain archetypes into their lives. If by this means their lives are made happier, should we care? As a society, the answer is probably yes, because otherwise we could well end up teaching creationism in science class or funding homeopathy instead of cancer research. Then, as the Jungian said to the skeptic, if you want to have people stop believing in something, you have to provide something else that involves the same archetype. Science is not necessarily the answer. There are cases, for example, of former rabid fundamentalists of the flat earth variety who found fulfillment working with the homeless or sick. Possibly people create elaborate pseudoscientific theories as a way to exercise their needs for creative activity. (There are, of course, also deliberate frauds who are motivated strictly for financial reasons.)

So, is Jungian theory science or pseudo-science?

This is not a useful question since there are plenty of other possibilities besides these two.

There is a certain amount of hard science since part of the theory is based on research on animal behavior (and human behavior).

The archetype concept is just a classification system and is more related to social science. (Calling something a "matriarchal society" has little or no predictive value.) The "collective unconscious" is not any kind of mystical concept but simply a term for the instincts and other built-in wiring of our brains, as it affects behavior.

Jung had a interest in topics such as astrology, mythology, etc. Unscientific? All these topics are products of the human mind. So are art and science. One way to study the human mind is to study its products. Of these products, some have predictive value (science), some do not. It would be inducing a bias into the research to remove from consideration all products of the human mind that do not have predictive value.

Jung appeared to have a genuine belief in synchronicity and possibly telekinesis (the exploding knife). However, if these are considered as examples of apophenia then they are not inconsistent with the rest of his theory.

I can't claim to have read all of his voluminous writings, but I have read quite a lot of it, and nowhere do I see him claim any belief in astrology, ESP, clairvoyance, spiritualism, etc. He is, however, interested in belief in these topics as examples of the workings of the human mind. Many skeptics may be deceived by the fact that he neglects to denounce these topics as unscientific. In fact, he is not interested in the question of whether such things actually exist, but rather in the question of how people think about and react to them.

There is one example of a dream Jung cites, which he says predicts the outbreak of WW I. This is not given as an example of clairvoyance, though, but as an example of how his mind was unconsciously analyzing the unstable nature of society (particularly in Germany) at the time, a matter in which many historians would agree. However, he doesn't claim any predictive value, since he says he didn't understand the meaning of the dream until after the event.

The situation is complicated by the existence of many "followers" of Jung who do in fact believe in clairvoyance, etc. Not many of these people are found within the ranks of professional Jungian therapists.

Does Jungian analysis work in terms of making people happier or better able to cope with their lives? (Excluding the problem of how this could be scientifically measured.) Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

Does methadone therapy help people get over heroin addiction? Sometimes it works, sometimes not. However, I don't hear skeptics say that methadone therapy is pseudoscience.

I think you should differentiate among

1. What Jung actually said 2. What skeptics claim Jung said 3. What amateur "Jungians" claim Jung said 4. How professional Jungian therapists have modified thinking about Jung's work based on advancing scientific thought

After all, anyone can claim that the theory of relativity proves the existence of ESP, but that's not quite the same as being a physicist. Or as Shakespeare said in The Tempest (I'm quoting from memory): I can call spirits from out of the deep! Why so can I, or so can any man, but do they come when you do call them?
Michael Robinson

reply: I'm worn out just reading your remarks and I won't weary the reader by a lengthy reply. Suffice it to say that I have rewritten a section of the entry on the unconscious to make it clearer that I reject the Freudian notion of the unconscious, not the notion of an unconscious.

As for Jung....I don't think that the collective unconscious and archetypes were posited just for classification. I would prefer an explanation of irrational belief with less metaphysical baggage. To say that an intelligent person believes in something obviously false like astrology because it brings archetypes into her life isn't very enlightening.

I believe that if there is an answer to that question it might be discovered by neuroscientists. The brain seems to be on some sort of incessant quest to make sense out of everything, to find relations and connections, etc. Clearly, there is something satisfying about seeing connections. As Jacob Bronowski pointed out, this is an area where the artist and the scientist excel. I would not be surprised if it were discovered that some people believe in obviously false things like astrology because astrology is immensely satisfying and it is immensely satisfying because there are numerous complex relations and connections that can be manipulated to explain just about anything under the sun. In short, astrology fills them with a feeling of AHA Insight!

28 Oct 1999
While I agree with many of your comments regarding unconsciously repressed memories, I think it's shortsighted to refer to the unconscious mind as a memory machine rather than as a processor.

Modern psychology tends to treat the unconscious as simply the non-conscious processor of information, and suggests that the unconscious mind carries out the bulk of day to day processing. This is illustrated in the example of a person driving a car. After one becomes an experienced driver, it is no longer necessary to pay scrupulous conscious attention to every aspect of the environment. One is able to listen to the radio, have a conversation, etc. But the ability of the brain to unconsciously process is shown strikingly well in the example of a man driving while keeping his attention focused on the car to one side of the windshield. If the car in front of him slams on the brakes, the brain sends an alert that forces the man to pay conscious attention to the car in front of him... if there was no unconscious processing, the man would have only been able to follow events that occurred within the area he was currently conscious of. This function has nothing to do with memory or repression... just the computational abilities of the brain outside of conscious awareness. Nothing mystical or occult, just good hardware design.
Brannon Smith

reply: There is little point in my exploring unconscious processing of mundane data while criticizing the Freudian view of the unconscious mind. And you may be right that modern psychology treats the unconscious mind as simply the non-conscious processor of mundane information. If so, that is too bad, because there is sufficient evidence to support the belief that implicit memories do affect conscious thoughts and actions.

18 Feb 1998
Your new entry on "the unconscious mind" is as interesting as the rest of your Skeptic's Dictionary. However, I am having trouble with your narrow definition of the unconscious as "a mythical 'part' of the mind which stores repressed memories."

Although I am not a native speaker, I would describe, for example, a nervous person constantly fiddling with his pen in a conversation without thinking or being aware of it, as doing it "unconsciously". I would also state that, if I make a decision based on a vague feeling of preference (e.g. for a certain type of car), I may be "unconsciously" influenced by certain facts about car makers that I have neither repressed nor forgotten, but that I am not explicitly thinking of at the time.

I am sure you will not deny such mechanisms exist, but it appears that you have a different word for them. Which is it?

Holger Maertens

reply: Daniel Schacter and Endel Tulving introduced the terms 'implicit memory' and 'explicit memory' in their attempt to find a common language for those who believe there are several distinct memory systems and those who maintain there is only one such system. (See chapter 6, "The Hidden World of Implicit Memory," in Schacter's Searching for Memory.) The kinds of memories you are referring to are implicit memories. Schacter writes: "The nonconscious world of implicit memory revealed by cognitive neuroscience differs markedly from the Freudian unconscious. In Freud's vision, unconscious memories are dynamic entities embroiled in a fight against the forces of repression; they result from special experiences that relate to our deepest conflicts and desires. . . .[I]mplicit memories . . . arise as a natural consequence of such everyday activities as perceiving, understanding, and acting." (pp. 190-191)

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