Jungian Psychology: In Lieu of a Bottom-Up Understanding of the Psyche
A lot of people, myself included, stop reading when they see terms like ‘mythology’ and ‘archetypes’, but I implore you to give this a chance. Jungian psychology — with all its myths and archetypes — can be mapped on to our increasingly rational lives.
- For eons, we have learnt through stories and myths; these stories almost always have a meaning that is greater than the literal.
- There are archetypes that we all share; we can all intuitively relate to them and use them to help us understand our, and others behaviour.
- The Jungian archetypes, give us an easy, top-down, way to understand a greater truth without needing to know it from first principles.
- Jung, and his contemporaries, urge us to embrace different archetypes at different times in our lives to change our psychological experience. Jung’s work was widely trusted before neuroplasticity was discovered.
What is Jungian psychology?
Carl Jung (1875–1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist, who, after a feud with Sigmund Freud, cultivated his theory of personality which has come to be known as Jungian or Analytical Psychology. This is summarised by Joseph Campbell in Mythos using a version of the diagram below. He describes the psyche is the yellow circle, above the red line is the section of the psyche that is available for us to analyse through personal introspection (including the ego) and the section below the red line is the unconscious (including the shadow). The self communicates to the ego through the language of myths.
(The above image is adapted from Mythos, Season 1 Episode 1: Psyche & Symbol by Joseph Campbell)
Jung postulated two ‘levels’ of the unconscious mind: 1) the personal unconscious which contains memories and habits, and 2) the collective unconscious which contains archetypes and myths in the form of memories passed down from previous generations. He says that these archetypes are universal, inherited tendencies, for example, a baby having an immediate attachment to its mother or people being scared of the dark. In Owning Your Own Shadow, Robert Johnson says “The refused and unacceptable characteristics [of our psyche] do not go away; they only collect in the dark corners of our personality. When they have been hidden long enough, they take on a life of their own — the shadow life.” This shadow is represented by Joseph Campbell in the above diagram, with five lines representing five layers of the unconscious shadow.
Jung described four main archetypes to help us understand ourselves, the persona (mask we wear), shadow (unconscious or repressed aspects of ourselves), anima/animus (masculine or feminine side) and self; as well as numerous others such as the father, mother, child, wise old man, hero, maiden and trickster.
We learn through stories and myths.
Throughout history, we have learnt through stories, stories that are told from one generation to the next, and so on. Not long all that long ago we used stories to communicate our morals and information about our origin (I need not cite verses from any number of religious texts), to me Jung’s discoveries about the human psyche also fall into this category. The origin story in the Judeo-Christian holy books was considered by many to be an accurate recount of our origin, albeit without a bottom-up, or first principles, understanding or explanation of the cosmos. We now know that Genesis is not a literal recount, it is a myth, or story, that conveys greater meaning about our place in the world than what one will get in a physics textbook.
The twelve archetypes described by Carol Pearson in Awakening the Heroes Within and the journey one must take to get to the point where they can express their soul in the world is of a similar fashion to the origin story in Genesis. She got these insights from Jung and many other myths and formed a top-down story about the psyche. Claude Braun and Shaun Lovejoy quote Karl Marx in The biology of consciousness from the bottom up, “Marx termed the top-down phase of scientific thinking the “descent into the abstract.”
Jungian psychology as a user interface.
Braun and Lovejoy describe the two camps in the “war of hermeneutics”. In the first camp are people that claim that consciousness (or as Plato and Aristotle defined it as ‘essence’) has always existed as a miracle and currently doesn’t have any material substance. Many cite qualia and say that consciousness is irreducible. Jungian psychology is born from this camp; it is what leads to claims of archetypes and myths being encoded into our collective unconscious.
If you were to ask me to describe how a plant grows I wouldn’t give you an answer starting with what can be observed and explaining it based on abstract stories and myths; this is because I can explain to you every function of a plant from first principles, or bottom-up. The base unit of a plant is a cell if one understands the psychology and role of each cell; they can extrapolate this up to an understanding of the whole plant.
Braun and Lovejoy claim that “Consciousness of the sort which most amazes people and which is cognised by introspection carried out by literate human adults grows out of (or emerges from) something far less complex, bottom-up.” Similarly to a plant, consciousness, and the psyche, can be reduced to its base units. The second camp in the “war of hermeneutics” tends to have a disdain for the abstractness of Jungian psychology. They aim to reduce consciousness (or the psyche) to its base units and formulate a first-principles, or bottom-up, understanding. Once reduced to this level of simplicity, the psyche loses its allure, and it can be seen as merely a trick to keep living things engaged with life. Johnson toys with this notion when he writes “One might complain that this is a senseless round trip except that the wholeness at the end is conscious.” However, he returns to the conclusion that there is something essential about consciousness.
Many have stopped here and concluded that these two camps are irreconcilable as if these two processes of arriving at truths about ourselves are mutually exclusive. The bottom-up approach lacks pragmatic utility for us, although sometime we may develop a complete understanding of the nature of consciousness and the psyche from first principles. Just as stories in religious texts gave an understanding of morals, Jungian psychology can provide a story-like understanding of our psyche and a way to communicate with it.
I’ll use an analogy of the interaction between the hardware and the software on a computer to make my point. Note that when we describe the hardware, we will most often say the “hardware in the computer”, yet we say the “software on the computer”. The hardware is like the neurons firing in our brain that are the basis of consciousness, and the software operates on top of the hardware, similar to the Jungian archetypes or myths. The hardware in and the software on a computer are not mutually exclusive; they operate together and serve different, yet vital functions. The purpose of the software is as an interface, so people without an understanding of the hardware functioning underneath. Similarly, Jungian psychology is the method from which we can understand truths about our psyche without a bottom-up understanding.
Embracing the shadow
Throughout Jungian psychology, people are encouraged to look into their shadow and discover what archetypes they are hiding from society. “One purpose of shining the light of consciousness on the archetype is to see the specific form it takes in your life,” says Carol Pearson. Once one has found what archetypes they are relegating to the shadow, they should learn to embrace the positive aspects of this archetype and incorporate it into their persona. Most often, people’s ego and shadow are not aligned if you follow Jungian teachings; the aim is to develop your personality so that the ego and shadow are aligned. These archetypes are, claimed to be, encoded in our collective unconscious.
Neuroplasticity (also known as neural plasticity or brain plasticity) is the remapping of the brain from a cellular and cortical level which leads to changes in psychological experiences. Jung and his contemporaries speak of archetypes that are embedded in our unconscious and how we must learn to embrace them to change our psychological experience. It sounds a lot like Jung gave us a story one hundred years ago that helped us understand, at least one aspect of, neuroplasticity from a top-down, user-friendly, perspective.
Although Jungian psychology is not literally true, from a bottom-up perspective, it does give us all a story from which we can understand how our psyche works. The “repair of our fractured world must start with individuals who have the insight and courage to own their own shadow”, Robert Johnson says. Consider for a moment, if we all have an understanding of what ‘makes us tick’ and a story that helps us change certain behaviours, how different our society would be. Carol Pearson talks about the butterfly effect and how one person changing their behaviour can have an impact on all the people they interact with, and so on.