The concept of the unconscious has become central to several forms of psychotherapy. People often ascribe the ‘discovery’ of the unconscious to Freud, but the concept of a mind, spirit or will beyond everyday conscious awareness has existed across all cultures throughout the history of humanity. This ‘mind’ may have been conceived to reside in gods, animals, the elements, a single God or, perhaps most recently, in dark matter. The attention and respect paid to dreams for millennia attests to the interest in the non-conscious aspects of the human mind. 

At the end of the nineteenth century, Freud attempted to establish psychoanalysis as an exact science. He combined his own theories with the biological knowledge of his own day. Hypothesising that much human suffering derived from the repression of traumatic memories or unwanted instincts (generally sexual or aggressive), he conceived of the unconscious as being a personal repository within the brain of these unwanted memories and desires. In the therapeutic process, Freud’s approach was to ‘reduce’ symptoms, dreams and imaginative fantasies to find their origin in traumatic experiences or unwelcome instincts. In this way, many people continue to experience relief through their therapy today. 

Arising out of his work in a Swiss Psychiatric hospital, Jung expanded on Freud’s understanding of the unconscious. By paying attention to the apparently strange or odd utterances of people who had been diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, he came to believe that there was meaning and purpose in certain symptoms. Shortly after this, beginning in 1913, Jung recorded his own visionary or imaginative inner journey in what has been published as The Red Book. In noticing the recurrence of certain ancient, mythological themes which his patients – and to a certain extent himself – could have no knowledge of, he came to believe that beyond the personal unconscious that Freud had identified, there was a collective unconscious. He understood this aspect of the human psyche as full of living and dynamic forces (‘archetypes’), pressing for expression and exploration through human life. As a result, in Jung’s approach, dreams, symptoms and imaginative fantasies may be ‘amplified’ to see what is arising from the unconscious and what new things are pressing for expression in our lives. 

These complementary approaches to the unconscious – the reductive and the prospective – are explored by Jung in his 1928 essay, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious, in the Collected Works, volume 7.

Everything of which I know, but of which I am not at the moment thinking; everything of which I was once conscious but have now forgotten; everything perceived by my senses, but not noted by my conscious mind; everything which, involuntarily and without paying attention to it, I feel, think, remember, want, and do; all the future things which are taking shape in me and will sometime come to consciousness; all this is the content of the unconscious. 

Carl Jung, Collected Works 8, paragraph 382

Of course, scientists and academics will often be sceptical of the idea of a collective unconscious. How can people access memories and images which they have never experienced? In an era dominated by materialism, when we live increasingly in our minds, we like to believe that the mind can be reduced to the brain, that there is a material explanation for everything. Other suggestions are considered as primitive superstition. 

However, Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious is neither fanciful philosophy nor a religious dogma. It is an attempt to describe the complex inner world that we all experience and how it relates to the outer, material world. When we peel away everything that is personal in the psyche (that is, conscious experience and Freud’s personal unconscious), something still remains. But it is unconscious, like the tracks left by subatomic particles, it leaves tracks in our dreams and in our imaginative fantasies. How these relate to our conscious thinking and living can be the most exciting work of the therapeutic process.