Neuroscience and Jung’s Model of the Psyche: A Close Fit

Arthur Niesser
Gwynedd, Wales, UK
Association of Jungian Analysts, London

‘Jungians [have] made it quite clear that they are not simply uninterested in brain science, but consider it to be so hopelessly inadequate to their quest for holistic union, transcendental spirituality, precognition, and extrasensory perception as to be an obstacle to progress.’ (J. A. Hobson, Consciousness, p. 103.)

This quotation from J. Allan Hobson appears typical for the perception of Jungian concepts among scientists. Likewise, it is probably fair to say that a large section of Jungian Analysts are unfamiliar with neuroscientific research. This is true for psychoanalysts just as well. This creates fear of the unknown and demarcation. In this paper I would like to demonstrate that Jung’s central concepts are in line with findings of neuroscientists, thus opening up the potential for dialogue and mutual inspiration.

The concept of unconscious mental processes is now firmly routed in the scientific field. There is no doubt any longer that purposeful brain activity takes place without the conscious awareness of the individual. Publications by Gazzaniga, LeDoux, Damasio, Panksepp, Ramachandran and others are providing numerous examples.

Our brains resemble old museums that contain many of the archetypal markings of our evolutionary past. … Our brains are full of ancestral memories and processes that guide our actions and dreams but rarely emerge unadulterated by cortico-cultural influences during our everyday activities. (Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience, p. 75)

You might be tempted to think that this quotation comes from Jung or a Jungian analyst. However, it is to be found in Jaap Panksepp’s book ‘Affective Neuroscience’.

Compare it with Jung’s statement, ‘The collective unconscious contains the whole spiritual heritage of mankind’s evolution, born anew in the brain structure of every individual.’ (CW 8, §342)

Distributed Midbrain – Diencephalic – Basal Forebrain Chemoarchitectures for Prototype Emotions (Extracted from Panksepp, 1998)

Affective Behavior Structures/Neural Networks Neuromodulators
Non-Specific Motivational Arousal – Seeking & Exploratory Behavior Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) to more dorsolateral hypothalamic to PAG, with diffuse mesolimbic and mesocortical “extensions:” nucleus accumbens as basal ganglia processor for emotional “habit” systems DA (+), glutamate (+), many neuropeptides including opiods, neurotensin, CCK
Rage/Anger – (“Affective Attack”) medial amygdala to bed nucleus of stria terminalis (BNST) to anterior and ventromedial and perifornical hypothalamic to more dorsal PAG Substance P (+) (? ACh, glutamate (+) as nonspecific modulators?)
Fear Lateral & central amygdala to medial and anterior hypothalamic to more dorsal PAG to nucleus reticularis pontine caudalis Glutamate (+), neuropeptides including DBI, CRF, CCK, alpha MSH, NPY
Sexuality BNST and corticomedial amygdala to preoptic and ventromedial hypothalamus to ventral PAG Steroids (+), vasopressin and oxytocin
Nuturance / maternal care Anterior cingulate to bed nucleus of stria terminalis (BNST) to preoptic hypothalamic to VTA to ventral PAG Oxytocin (+), prolactin (+), dopamine, opiods,
Separation Distress/ Social Bonding anterior cingulate/anterior thalamus to BNST/ventral septum to midline & dorsomedial thalamus to dorsal preoptic hypothalamic to dorsal PAG (close to circuits for physical pain) Opiods (-/+) oxytocin (-/+), prolactin (-/+) CRF (+) for separation distress
Play/Joy/ Social Affection Parafascicular/centromedian thalamus, dorsomedial thalamus, posterior thalamus, to ventral PAG (septum inhibitory re: play) Opiods (+ in small amounts, – in larger amounts), muscarine (+), nicotine (+)
? Social Dominance Not clear if separate from activation of play systems and inhibition of fear systems?

I do not want to dwell on this table, but I am quite sure that Jung would have been fascinated that we may now be in a position to actually locate brain structures, which contain the collective unconscious. They are found in subcortical areas of the brain, implying they are older in an evolutionary sense. Panksepp called them basic emotional systems. They include behaviour linked to SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, PANIC, LUST, CARE and PLAY. Electrical stimulation of these associated brain structures in animal studies leads to display of the targeted behaviour. Inhibition or destruction switches it off. These basic emotional systems link up effortlessly with Jung’s description of archetypes.

I have played with the idea of allocating Greek gods to the above basic systems. SEEKING would then relate to Apllo, RAGE to Ares, LUST to Aphrodite, CARE to Demeter and PLAY to Dionysios.

Basic emotional systems as described by Panksepp are part of the collective unconscious psyche. They have evolved over the course of human history. They are emotional centres, which guide our behaviour in a way that Jung described as typical ‘patterns of behaviour’. They allow fast responses in standard situations.

Joseph LeDoux states, ‘The concept of basic emotions accounts for the similarity of basic emotional expression across individuals and cultures and display rules take care of many differences. … Many emotions are products of evolutionary wisdom, which probably has more intelligence than all human minds together’. (LeDoux, The Emotional Brain, p. 36 & 118)

Likewise Antonio Damasio writes, ‘The brain does not begin its day as a tabula rasa. The brain is imbued by the sort of life with knowledge regarding how the organism should be managed, namely how the life process should be run and how a variety of events in the external environment should be handled. … In brief, the brain brings along innate knowledge and automated know how. … ’ (Damasio, Looking for Spinoza, p. 205)

In this context I would suggest a slight variation of Jung’s understanding as to the origin of archetypes. Jung states that ‘their origin can only be explained by assuming them to be deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity’ (CW 7, §109). He goes on to say that ‘archetypes are, apparently, impressions of ever-repeated typical experiences’ (ibid.). I think this can be misleading. I would propose to look at archetypes as results of an evolutionary process of selection in a Darwinian sense. This understanding would bring their basis in line with present-day scientific thinking without altering their nature.

Some of you might object to liken Jung’s archetypes to Panksepp’s basic emotional systems. You may ask about the numinosity, which is associated with the archetype. As we have seen, in neuroscientific terms archetypes coincide with emotional centres. If an experience comes into contact with the centre of an emotional system, it may well be experienced as numinous. I am thinking, for example, of the birth of a baby, which would affect the CARE system, or a new exciting discovery, which is linked to the SEEKING system.

Where does consciousness come into this? Consciousness can be understood as the awareness of our emotions. Damasio expressed this in the title of his book, The Feeling of What Happens. It becomes increasingly evident that many stimuli are processed below the threshold of our consciousness. This has been studied widely in so called split-brain patients, in people with blind sight and in patients with memory loss due to the destruction of both their hippocampus.

The hippocampus is a structure, which is part of the limbic system. It is needed for laying down new conscious episodic memory. Damage to the hippocampus on both sides results in the inability to create new conscious memory. This is called anterograde amnesia. It is important to emphasize that I am talking about conscious memory. The brain is still able to register so called implicit memory, which is unconscious. You may have heard about the famous case of Claparède. He concealed a pin in his hand when he greeted a patient who was suffering from anterograde amnesia. He thus pricked her hand, as he shook it. When he next attempted to greet her with a handshake, she withdrew her hand, even though she had no conscious recollection of ever having met Claparède before.

In many cases, stimuli are processed entirely below the threshold of consciousness or the conscious mind is informed after the event only. However, over our lifetime we build up what Damasio calls the Extended Consciousness. This includes conscious memory of previous experience and perception and the ability to think about it. The anatomical area where unconscious emotional processes and conscious appraisal meet, appears to be the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

LeDoux has studied the relationship between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala in great detail. The amygdala is a structure that is involved in the assessment of the emotional significance of a stimulus. As such, it is processing predominantly fear and anger reactions. LeDoux found that when an unconscious emotional reaction was triggered by the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex could inhibit this fear reaction. He writes, ‘The medial prefrontal cortex may thus serve as an interface between cognitive and emotional systems, allowing cognitive information processing in the prefrontal cortex to regulate emotional processing by the amygdala.’ (LeDoux, Synaptic Self, p. 218)

I am intrigued by this inverse relationship between the unconscious primary reaction and the secondary cognitive control. I think that this broadly corresponds to what is described in Jungian terms as the ‘ego-self’ axis. It is this interplay between conscious and unconscious, between directed thinking and intuition. Damasio has given examples how the unconscious helps the conscious mind to make advantageous decisions in gambling and in choosing our friends. On the other side, cortical conscious processes prevent us from being overwhelmed by stereotyped emotional responses. Thus, present day neuroscientific thinking supports the compensatory relationship between conscious and unconscious mind, which is at the heart of Jung’s model of the psyche.

In January this year the journal Nature published research carried out by a team of German scientists in Lübeck. Subjects received a mathematical task, for which they were given training. However, unknown to the subjects, there was a hidden solution, which made the completion of the task much faster. Interestingly, the hidden solution was found by only 20% of participants after a period of wakefulness, but by 60% after an eight-hour period of sleep. This is interpreted as a case of memory processing, in which reorganisation of primitive representations leads to new conscious knowledge.

I suggest that in the light of Jungian concepts this phenomenon can be seen as an example of the prospective function of the unconscious. Rather than attributing a merely reactive and defensive role to the unconscious mind, Jung pointed towards the ability of the unconscious to find creative solutions. Unlikely as it may seem to cognitive scientists, it seems to me that Jung’s observation is supported by this experiment.

According to Jung, the prospective function manifests itself predominantly in dreams. Going back to Allan Hobson, he writes, ‘Dreaming may be our most creative conscious state, one in which the chaotic spontaneous recombination of cognitive elements produces novel configurations of information.’ (J. A. Hobson, Consciousness, p. 45) He describes dreaming as self-organisation. He speculates that ‘one function of dreaming may be to activate the world model in consciousness so as to reinforce or alter its own assumptions’. (p. 164) I do not think that Jung would have argued with this concept. He called it the compensatory function of dreams.

Probably all of us have had the experience where in the very moment you had a sudden thought during an analytic session the patient started talking about exactly this content. Jung describes this relationship between the unconscious of two individuals in his essay ‘The Psychology of the Transference’. This has always been a bit of a mystery and scientists were inclined to dismiss such incidents as sheer coincidence. However, the discovery of so called ‘mirror neurons’ by Vittorio Gallese and Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma in the early 1990s sheds new light on this phenomenon. The researchers studied the so-called premoter cortex of monkeys, which is linked to planning and executing movements. As could be predicted some of the neurons in this area were active, when the subject performed a certain task. The stunning finding was that the same neurons fired when the subject just watched someone else performing the same task. There is now good evidence that mirror neurons exist in humans. They are active during sensations and emotions. Fascinatingly, they are active as well, when sensations and emotions are observed in others. Gallese talks about a ‘resonance mechanism’. Mirror neurons have been discussed in the context of mind reading and language development. The research into the significance of mirror neurons is just in its infancy. I feel cautious about drawing too far-reaching conclusions. And yet, I think that the existence of these neurons opens up the possibility of exciting insights into unconscious communication between individuals.

‘Neurotheology’ has recently come into focus. This is a field of science, which studies the neurobiology of religion and spirituality. It is based on the observation that people suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy frequently reported visions and spiritual experiences. Furthermore, experiments with stimulating the temporal lobes of participants with concentrated magnetic fields evoked a religious experience in about 80% of participants. In a reductionist fashion we could argue that religious experience is nothing else but a quirk of the brain, an epiphenomenon. However, the universality of spiritual experience over the history of humankind indicates that religious experience is a basic human need, which has found its biological substrate in the human brain. In this context we are justified in using the term spirituality in a wider sense as transcendence, as a bond and a connectedness with a force outside our individuality. This idea links up with an experience of meaning for our existence and is congruent with Jung’s observation that symbols of unity and wholeness cannot be distinguished from the imago dei.

In his book Looking for Spinoza the neuroscientist Damasio seems to follow similar thoughts in that he writes, ‘The sublimity of the spiritual is embodied in the sublimity of biology.’ (Damasio, Looking for Spinoza, p. 286)

This leads me to Jung’s concept of individuation. The term describes the process of differentiation which has as its goal the development of the individual personality. In reading about genetics, I found that geneticists have discovered how individuals gradually express their own innate intelligence and personality. The geneticist Matt Ridley writes, ‘As you grow up, you gradually express your own innate intelligence and leave behind influences stamped on you by others.’ (Matt Ridley, Genome, p. 84) The title of Ridley’s latest book, Nature via Nurture, further emphasizes this development. The process includes in various ways familiarisation with one’s own abilities as well as awareness of one’s limitations. In Jungian terms this can be described as integra tion of the shadow. Analysis starts with a realistic assessment of an individual’s limitations in order to release the true potentials and free the individual from unconscious collective attributions. Likewise, the sense of relief and deep fulfilment that on occasion is so gratifying in analysis is often linked to the discovery of the innate predisposition.

I would like to return briefly to the significance of dreams. Most analysts would agree that dreams have their origin in the biology of the brain. Jung described dreams as a ‘Naturereignis’, an occurrence of nature (CW 8, §560). Their drama includes so-called hard-wired, genetically determined personality traits as well as conscious and unconscious past experience. Jean Knox calls it the Internal Working Model, following the concept of Attachment Theory. Dreams can be seen as products of the metabolism of the psyche. As such they can be analysed and interpreted in a similar way as physicians analyse other results of physical activities in the human body in order to gain information as to the functioning of the individual. Next to transference analysis dreams seem to me extremely important in exploring a person’s psychological makeup and functioning.

It is a short step from this to Jung’s understanding of the Self as the centre of the personality, comprising conscious and unconscious contents. Jung understood the psyche as a self-regulatory system. In his theory of opposites he saw the Self in the centre, sending out compensatory signals when one-sidedness was threatening the wellbeing of the individual. Interestingly, the same idea appears in Damasio’s writings. He talks about the homeostasis of feelings, which governs our behaviour, including our ethical, social and spiritual lives. It is important to recognise in this context that according to Damasio, feelings are often unconscious. Jung’s concept of the self is certainly wider, but the common idea of a self-regulatory psyche bears enough resemblance to start a dialogue.

I am very concerned that analytical psychology should be perceived as being alienated from modern science. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that there are indeed points of contact. Jungian ideas are in many ways closer to the findings of modern science than are psychoanalytic models and yet, our Freudian colleagues appear to be leading the field in trying to update psychoanalytic views in the light of neuroscience. In particular, I am thinking of the Society of Neuro- Psychoanalysis, whose annual conference starts in Rome today. I think we Jungians must make an effort not to be left behind. Perhaps we should study equally on chemistry as we do on alchemy. Maybe neuroanatomy and neurophysiology should be given a place in the training curricula. It could be that the focus of attention should shift from Jung as the person to a re-evaluation of his concepts. It appears to me that Sonu Shamdasani’s book Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology has prepared the ground for this process.

I think it would be detrimental to the standing of Analytical Psychology if it was to detach itself too far from a scientific understanding of our world. It is at risk of being sidelined and seen as relevant to a small group of believers only. I find it disheartening to discover that many neuroscientists discuss Freudian theories in their books, but leave Jung out completely or mention him, if at all, in a derogatory way. On the other hand, of course, Jung’s emphasis on the shadow teaches us to be at the same time a challenge to the scientific narrative of our time. Findings of modern science may not describe the full truth. Analytical Psychology may have a task in reminding the scientific community that things could be quite different from what they seem. However, Analytical Psychology can fulfil this task only, if it is in touch with scientists and seen as a serious partner. Why should we not, for example, invite Antonio Damasio or Jaap Panksepp to the next IAAP conference?

As a medical doctor and general practitioner I am working in accordance with a scientific paradigm, which aims at practicing evidence based medicine. As an analyst I am very aware of the unconscious process and of the irrational in our existence. I wonder if this tension within me is expression of a universal paradox, which describes the reality of human nature and deserves further research.


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