Chapter 9: From Collective Consciousness to the Collective Unconscious


Following chapter 8, it seemed appropriate to move to the unconscious side of our individual and collective lives. I must assume that you have followed the path I’ve been describing and that it generally makes sense to you. On that path were signposts for the emergence of words and language that derived from behavior. That interplay among the triad cycled forward and back in a continuous movement through history to this day and will likely continue on our evolutionary journey. Put another way, behavior shapes words and language and is impacted by them, endlessly.

When unraveling the concepts embedded in words, language and behavior it may seem obvious that behavior preceded words and language as I maintained in Chapter 3 “Beliefs and Behavior”. Some might argue that assertion by making a distinction between “behaviorally inspired” words and those pronounced by various religions and belief systems. Behavior is observed. Religious and spiritual beliefs often deal with the unseen, unobservable and require the projection of our creative thought and imagination to be manifest in our reality. I would contend that behavior still led the way in shaping those belief systems because much of the teachings reflect the better angels of our species and because of their contribution to our survival. We find words for the unexplainable good and bad of human behavior because we want to hold onto the unexplainable good and reject the destructive bad. More on that later.

Simply, observing the success of others in the struggle for survival, paved the way for communication as we know it across cultures. Words had to be created to express what was observed, validated to be useful, and copied not just through mimicking but, eventually, describing and explaining, whether in words or graphically. As this became entwined with our genes, we then had more capability to assign language to the images, sounds and smells which registered on our brains. We also began to create words and language to describe emotions which were likely with us from birth. We created core words to express these emotions: sad (down), happy (buoyant), angry (annoyed), fear (scared), hopeful (upbeat), insecure (unsure), jealous (envious), love (lust). Then over the eons we developed nuances (in parentheses) to those words which often require us to translate back to the core emotion to understand what is meant.

Standing where we do historically in time, most of us probably have the impression that what we see as “language” happened fast. How could something so pervasive and taken for granted have not been within humans long ago? Most of us probably think of words and language as always a part of the human experience. In some form yes, as noted in other chapters. But just as computer language started with the simple combinations of ones and zeros, its sophistication, speed, growth and change has been on an almost exponential growth path compared to our cultural languages. For better or worse, that sub-set language is now in the mainstream and, more than English, has the potential of being a world-wide language that binds our human species’ culture as we move through the new ages.

The lexicon of words and language grew but not as rapidly as computer language has. Wrapped around and within those words and language is the behavior that triggered the need for an accepted and widely used form of verbalization and, eventually, writing or iconography. It took millennia for hundreds of “languages” to form and be shared by groups of people. They were shared because they were useful to creating a collective consciousness that hardened and embedded the culture. And the shared culture helped them adapt, survive and succeed. Imagine that process extending across subcultures so that “language” mutated, was reciprocally shared and assimilated, and allowed for the larger society to emerge. As cultures intermingled more and more across geographies and relationships were sporadic and as contact was growing, translation became necessary in order to communicate. People started to learn each other’s language and, consequently, their culture, practices, and paths to success. This process happened because it was reciprocally beneficial to both and then to the many cross-cultural encounters as mobility and speed of travel increased.

An anecdote from my life will illustrate this. My wife and I were in Sienna, Italy many years ago and visited a Catholic church built in the 14th and 15th century. Massive, ornate, awe-inspiring building exterior. I was a bit overwhelmed but enjoyed taking pictures of all the sculptured icons, symbols, creatures, angels, and saints. When we joined the crowds of folks entering, the beautiful floor seemed welded to my feet immediately. I almost felt like I was violating an immense painting filled with its symbols and religious stories – themselves needing translation rich with historic and religious meaning. It had lessons to be observed. It celebrated life but warned of our potential for sin, decay and injustice. While not a part of my tradition or knowledge of religious history, and the Empire it sprung from, I stood transfixed observing the huge mosaic circle I was confronting. As I looked and contemplated, I noticed that many of the painted tile represented not just what I knew about Catholicism but incorporated Pagan icons representing the Pagan belief system. Walking away and to this day, I continue to ponder the lessons of what I saw there and recalled from my studies and experience with Latin American Mayan, Aztec and Inca cultures. The dominant or conquering culture embraced some of the beliefs and “language” (pictoral or sculptural) of the assimilated or conquered culture. A challenge to the “conquerors” was to translate the “spoken language” (and otherwise written) to make the conquered’s language meaningful so it would connect and further absorb the defeated. This visual representation of the blending of the old with the new in the Church, is a gesture to inclusion, interdependence, and valuing. Rest assured that old beliefs continued to be practiced because they “worked” for people – old and new alike.

Leap to today where English is the main and preferred cross-cultural language. Some fear that Chinese (mandarin or Cantonese) will share the linguistic stage with the US and England in the next hundred years or so. Others regret that their “native” language is fading and may disappear as have many tribal languages. This is cause for concern because it is a “language border” which some want to close and may fight to protect. It is also cause for celebration because, frankly, human survival requires that language, whether one or a few major ones, help us to cooperate more and more given the urgency of many global problems.

As a metaphor, the “language border” speaks to other borders we build to separate our “collective consciousness” and separate my tribes CC from yours. But there is an invisible border we each may not be aware of, individually or collectively, which is also different from tribe to tribe and is cross-culturally unique. For the West, Freud and followers elaborated on the notion of the unconscious. Some of what they identified and studied was, as far as I know, limited to the Western tribe of humans. In Freud’s scheme, the unconscious could be unearthed and revealed into the awareness of each person with varying degrees of effort and treatment. So too with Jungian theory but through different approaches to revelation and registering in our awareness.

So how does this unconscious dimension of our human experience connect with the collective consciousness? To answer that, I first want to explain the unconscious more fully and, perhaps, bring it up-to-date from “Freudian” times.

I have become fascinated in the last 15 years with the revelations of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Part of my growing fascination came from a struggle I had with the polarity implied by “rationality and irrationality”.   I could make those distinctions when I sorted my own thinking and behavior. I could assume I understood their difference when I observed the words and behaviors of others. But I was often troubled by the feeling that there was something missing from a fuller appreciation of what I observed and experienced. Similarly, “logical”, “reasonable”, “facts” versus “opinions”, “truth and untruth” were words that kind of hung in the shadow of my overall discomfort with humans as “rational” actors.

Two anecdotes may help to explain the quandary I was in. The first, that I recall vividly, happened over a lunch with some colleagues back in the 70s. I was a Vice President in a small international consulting firm. I was with the founder and President and two other VPs. We got into an animated conversation about the direction of foreign developmental aid to less developed, poorer countries. One of my colleagues, a former Episcopalian minister and highly regarded professional in our field, kept coming back to his rationale for the case he was making of how foreign aid should change. There was quite a bit of agreement but there was one area that a couple of us disputed. He added to his rationale, we countered with ours, his was repeated in a bit louder voice and so it went on. We had kind of dug in our heels in a collegial way. I was getting frustrated because we each were citing “facts” and “data” to bolster our rationally presented “cases”. One colleague began asserting that his data and facts were the “truth”. I finally said “Lew, there is no truth until we agree on it!” Mind you, this wasn’t a math or science debate. It was filled with “reasonable” assertions and opinions bolstered by data but we weren’t agreeing on those.

That statement was a “show stopper” for the moment. I recall there was a long pause as people dealt with their surprise, contemplated a response, or absorbed the implications of my declaration, or just wanted the bill. Lunch was about over anyway and there was work to return to.

On the way back to the office I thought about my declaration. Where had that come from? Was it reasonable? Or was it a wild assertion that couldn’t be justified and was worthy of easy dismissal? I concluded I was on to something that I had never before conjured so clearly. However, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. So I filed it away in a memory folder as a future filter to use as I observed and experienced life’s unfolding amidst my fellow beings. And it came up in an unsuspected moment in time but with a different twist.

The second anecdote happened while I was still with that same company and in the early 80s, I happened to pick up a book with an intriguing title “Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be” by Walter Truet Anderson. I believe it was about that time that I became interested in “socially constructed” reality. It is fair to say that the book became a seminal articulation for understanding my unfolding life experience and the reality I had constructed and was still constructing.

Now an argument could be made that I already believed and knew, that for me, my reality was unique as is reality as it changes for all of us. We are both changed by its changes and effect its change. This book merely finished a part of the construction already in place. It put in cohesive and sensible but alluring colors; a novel perspective I could embrace, visualize and share cogently, and a reasonable explanation at that moment in time. Some would say that I was, and am, drawn to that as evidence of “confirmation bias”.

Confirmation bias takes me to an area of cognitive psychology and neuroscience worthy of considerable examination as we look at collective unconsciousness. It is put into a category referred to as a “heuristic” (commonly called the Familiarity Heuristic). It is an example of mental short cuts that kick in automatically to guide or dictate our behavior at any moment in time. It gets tapped because of our emotions that then fires neurons that seek stored information that validates the opinions, beliefs, ideas, and values that we have been prompted to defend. We align past experience, memories, information and, yes, knowledge that supports what we want them to. Our conclusions aren’t baseless. They just may be indefensible if closer examination of contrary or different information, knowledge, and evidence or fact were allowed to enter.

Imagine what might happen if for many of the triggers to your emotions or reception of a stimulus, be it avoiding a pedestrian while driving or a challenging statement by someone you disrespect, you stopped to reason “how do I handle this?” Without a heuristic to guide you to action (swerve) or a decision (shall I argue?), you would have to move into that noisy committee room known as the “executive function” to deliberate and assess the situation before deciding and acting. Without knowing, in the sense of reasoning, you intuitively know you have more to lose than gain by arguing; a heuristic probably got you there.   Swerving may avoid an accident that might bring harm to you or the pedestrian.

While these are situational events, research on the mind, body, and heart connection are revealing that more of our decisions and actions are determined in this manner. Increasingly, because of this and other evidence, our species is differentiated from others as “the emotional animal” on our planet.

Depending on who you read about heuristics, there are around twenty plus of these shortcuts that, individually or in some combination, can lead us to decisions and action. They serve us well, often, because they reflect our culture and norms that generally help us cope collectively with complexity and immediacy of need that, otherwise, may leave us stuck in indecision and confusion. However, those short cuts also lead us astray both individually and collectively making incorrect analysis based on wrong assumptions, or believing errant data, or succumbing to the expedient but incorrect, often pre-conditioned, response.

That happens quickly and unknowingly at an individual level. And, today we have come to learn and understand that it happens quickly at the collective level. We align ourselves socially, politically, and even geographically in tribes that are likely to join us and affirm many of our biases. We find comfort there. We find strength and support in numbers there.

When a heuristic, or short cut, begins to govern the behavior of larger and larger numbers of a collective of humans, or our species, it has risen to the level of a “meme”. In that category it helps define culture in that moment. Over a long swath of time (centuries, millennia) it is, supposedly, now deeply embedded, or hardwired into our species.

A meme that has emerged over the last two centuries has become essential to understanding the brain. So this meme is associated with the science and mapping of the brain. It is, among other brain parts, a function called the “executive function” (EF). Evidently, as far as we know today, in the frontal area of the brain it holds residence. That is where reasoning and many decisions theoretically take place. So the mention of executive function usually takes our understanding of it and its location to that visual area.

While I was out walking one day, my mind and imagination wandered into visualizing the brain. I started to think of where the fear response to a stimulus originated. That was easy. Then I asked, “where does memory reside and how is it accessed?” A bit more complicated and less known to me and neuroscientists even. Am I more “right brained” (creativity impulses) or “left brained” (linear, fact driven)? And what stimulus predicts the path of decision-making and action (behavior) will move along? All of this being done with the great liability of bits and pieces of knowledge about the brain, its architecture, and its functioning.

But finally I conjured my way to the EF. My fantasy said I was about to open a door and get my imagined issue resolved through reason, evidence, and analysis. What a surprise I was in store for. As I opened the door it was a noisy room filled with much debate, opinion, reasoned assertions, evidence and all the things – and more – than I had imagined. Frankly, it seemed I was in a committee meeting of peers that looked like me and were reminiscent of mentors, writers, friends and a few respected antagonists.

How to sort through all that? It was engaging to be sitting for a time in the committee but as with many such meetings, it became tiring and frustrating. I recall that I began to look at “rules of thumb” to guide my thinking as I listened and openly participated. I relied on past learning. Similar situations where I’d had success or failure. Prior advice I’d received that had worked. There were a couple of voices masked as authorities that I noticed I heeded more closely. So as far as I could tell, my EF, was acting “executively”.

Relatively soon – after all I was just on a walk – a decision popped out that I anointed with a “that’s it!” Now to finish the walk and act accordingly.

After implementing the decision from that walk, I reflected on “how did that result turn out?” “What did I think of the process?” What would I do differently next time?” “What might I hold onto and repeat under similar conditions in a similar situation?”

What I didn’t know then but am clearer about today is that the process is really quite different when one enters the EF room. It is noisy, can be messy, and often doesn’t lead to the outcome you “rationally” were supposed to achieve in that room. Also, the outcome may be a pleasant surprise for which you construct some rules of thumb for next time.

The assumption too many of us make about the EF is that it is a room dominated by our rational selves and we leave emotion at the door. I strongly believe that is not so – even if the EF room really exists. I have come to accept the notion, that as a species, we are the “emotional animal” in our known universe on earth. And that in the domain of the emotional (some would say we reside there most of the time), we are barely aware of the heuristics and memes that mostly govern our choices and behavior.

Are there overrides to this potentially, and often, chaotic process? Yes. But it too is messy and unpredictable. The evidence of more good outcomes than devastating outcomes is simple: we seem to muddle through by following our better angels than the forces of darkness. (Yes, rejoice! “The Force is With You! [us] ).

The interplay between our collective consciousness and our collective unconscious seems to work in relative harmony over the aeons to further our learning and success as a collective species to continue our adaptation, progress and survival. Is that history a guarantee that this journey will keep us on a transcending path toward greater success into our infinite future. Or is “infinite” a meme that we created to give us motivation, optimism and hope that our history is mere prologue to the future?

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