The collective unconscious is a concept developed by psychoanalyst Carl Jung, consisting of an amalgamation of shared ideas said to be universal across humanity. Rather than being consciously understood and passed between individuals, these ideas are instead said to be part of the unconscious mind, underlying the way people think and behave, and Jung believed they were an inherited legacy of thousands of years of human society and culture. Believers in the Jungian idea of collective unconscious argue that it explains many recurring themes in human mythology and symbolism.
Jung believed individuals had a personal unconscious informed by their own lived experiences. The personal unconscious and collective unconscious, according to Jung, interacted to influence the way people interact with each other, as well as society in general. Because people are not actively engaging with the processes going on in the unconscious mind, they may not be aware of the influence the unconscious has on their behavior and ways of thinking.
According to the theory of the collective unconscious, there are certain universal archetypes familiar to all humanity, such as wise old women or innocent children, and these archetypes influence the way people interact with each other. They also play a role in mythology, and it is notable that some cultures have similar mythological themes even if they have no actual contact with each other. Likewise, symbolism in many cultures has surprising commonalities and some people attribute these similarities to the collective unconscious.
Rather than being wholly formed myths and symbols or past experiences, the collective unconscious is a collection of abstract ideas. These ideas are believed to play a formative role in psychological development, as well as the overall nature of human society. The idea of “tapping into” the collective unconscious to access information and ideas is referenced in several schools of psychology, as well as discussions about art, music, and other creative work produced by humans.
Like other theories used in psychoanalysis, this concept cannot be tested in a clinical environment and some people dispute the existence of the collective unconscious. Arguments against it include the fact that in addition to distinctive similarities, there are also wild differences in symbolism, myth, and culture around the world, and the similarities may be exaggerated coincidences. Some people find this concept, as well as other theories developed by the psychoanalytic community, helpful when undergoing analysis or therapy to address psychological distress or process life events.