What Is This Unconscious?
Using the psyche-as-iceberg metaphor, think of the unconscious as having three levels. Our powerful experiences, especially when young, are called imprintings and create most of our unconscious.
How do imprintings do this? Our psyches are tough enough so most day-to-day experiences slide off. But when an experience comes along with enough emotional energy, the power of that emotional energy “stamps” the unconscious with the elements of that experience. In engineering this is called a template; in psychology such imprinting forms an archetype for that particular experience. Once formed, an archetype can become a sub-personality and shape how we perceive and behave in the future. Recognizing and using these parts of ourselves consciously is a major key to our success and enjoyment of life.
The Personal Unconscious is created by our personal imprintings and is unique to each one of us. Let’s say I’m three playing in my yard, and the neighbors come home with a new black lab puppy that, relative to me is the size of a horse. They open the back door of the Estate Wagon, and the puppy, seeing me, bounds over to make friends. My back is turned, so suddenly I am hit by what feels like a bear, knocked to the ground and terrified I’m dying in a tsunami of hot breath and moist tongue. The power of my terror imprints sudden contact, black fur, warm breath and moist tongue in my personal unconscious.
Five years later I’m entranced with a new game when burly Aunt Elizabeth enters the room wearing a black fur coat. She swoops me up from behind and gives me a big moist kiss followed by her warm breath – and I go bonkers, reliving the terror of my earlier imprinting. Mom says, “Bill, you be nice to Aunt Elizabeth”, but I stay bonkers. Mom can’t help because I am in a totally different reality than the one she sees.
This is how imprintings are formed and what they can do. When personal, like this example, it can be impossible for others to make sense of our behavior at these times unless we’ve shared our experience, and fear, humiliation, deprivation, etc., with them.
The Cultural Unconscious is created similarly to the personal, except that the imprinting experiences are shared by those who grow up in the same culture. Because of this, advertising can target very specific groups across and within cultures. For instance, in France demand for sexy cosmetic products goes up after motherhood (a French female archetype emphasizing sensuality, especially after giving birth), yet in England the same demand goes down (an English “mother” archetype having elements of Mary Poppins). Though this may sound frivolous, lots of money is spent by marketers to buy such information. Less frivolously, knowing how your own cultural upbringing has conditioned you, helpfully and unhelpfully, can make a huge difference for your life. For more on the cultural unconscious, try these:
Singer & Kaplinsky, “The Cultural Complex”
- Very professional, complete & readable…
Adams, “The Islamic Cultural Unconscious”
- “The Middle Eastern Cultural Complex”
The Collective Unconscious is a psychic level of a different nature. Jung described it as “a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals.” To me this means we come programmed to some degree with the imprintings of our evolutionary ancestors. While this might seem a primitive burden, it can also mean that we have a bedrock level of unconscious commonality that might allow universal connections among us. We don’t know much about it yet, but, if you want to learn more, you can start here.
So What’s the Bottom Line?
Concisely put, much, probably most, of our behavior is driven by parts of us our conscious selves are not in control of. PERIOD.
It’s taken 70+ years for me to understand and begin to live this reality in an “accept-not-control” clarity…
- “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.
- We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
Almost all of my life has been spent with my ego (the servant) instead of my Self (the master) trying to run the show. It didn’t work then, and, even with all the experience since, it doesn’t work now.
We homo sapiens are rational, irrational and non-rational creatures. While the irrational may not be very helpful on this plane of existence, BOTH the rational AND non-rational are.
While most of human history has had too little rationality, this is no longer true in this century’s technomaterial societies. The rational alone will not bring an end to the atrocities of war, genocide and planetary destruction because they are not rationally driven. We need to reclaim our heritage of compassion, empathy and togetherness and bring these non-rational strengths into an equal partnership with the rational.
Places You Could Go Next…
STORIES: “A-1 Imprintings Last a Lifetime” and “In Your Own Image” use my own history to illustrate how enduring and bizarre imprintings can be.
ACTIVITY: “Reframing A-1 Imprintings” will help you remember, laugh about and re-create some of the quirks you carry in your unconscious. There’s nothing like a bit of truth and humor to free us from the absurdities we’ve picked up on our journeys. Just follow the podcast process and remember not to take yourself too seriously… (Not yet available)
THEORY: The “Unconscious Mind” offers a succinct overview and history of unconscious theory
McLuhan “The Medium Is the Message”
- How we’re being shaped by today’s technologies…
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