Kinstler: Questions about Carl Jung

Ethan Kinstler, Staff Columnist

This column is in response to an “Ask a Psych Major” submission:

Good morning! I’m a nursing major at [University of Arkansas at Little Rock] and have never studied psychology. It’s an interesting topic and certainly one that seems very important for a lot of lives. I recently found Carl Jung. His theory seems rather interesting but as someone like myself, never formally studying it and having no evidence based context, I wonder how tenable his theory is. In your experience, how much of it can we trust? Do you have a favorite approach to psychology? Another question, more specifically, I’ve been reading Nietzsche. He and Jung seem to have very similar ideas, if my sources are right, it may easily be because Jung deeply studied him. It was interesting putting those authors against Dr. Iain McGilchrist and his analysis of the hemispheres. What do you think about the idea of the waking state resting on the dream state? I could come up with questions all day. But I’d be both grateful and satisfied (for a while) if I could get these straightened out in my mind. 

Hi! Thank you for all the questions! Carl Jung is one of Sigmund Freud’s most famous students, and as such, many of his theories on personality and development were heavily influenced by Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis. However, whereas Freud’s theories like that of the unconscious mind, id, ego and superego were based on some semblance of scientific research, Jung’s theories of personality were considered “pseudo-psychological.”

In order to understand the inherent “validity” of Jung’s theories, it is important to understand the state of psychology as a science when Jung was studying. In the early 1900s, when Jung was producing what would become his most enduring theories, there was a major push for psychology to mirror other hard sciences both in its theories and its research methods. Specifically, there was a push for psychologists to mirror physicists, as physics had concrete theories based on physical properties which could be easily observed. Conversely, psychology did not—after all, you can’t really measure the unconscious because you can’t see it. This push for observation would later lead to the creation of behaviorism, the study of observable behavior. This would later give us cognitive-behavioral theory, which is one of the most widely accepted forms of therapy today.

Therefore, Jung’s theories, which are extremely metaphysical and heavily based in the spiritual realm, did not fit into this new definition of psychology as the study of observable behavior. To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at one of Jung’s most famous theories—that of the collective unconscious.

According to Jung, certain symbols are universal across the entire human race and connect all people. Jung used this theory of the collective unconscious to explain why many people fear things like the dark, snakes or spiders—because we all share common ancestors. This theory, though still remembered as one of Jung’s most famous theories, was highly criticized for its inability to be tested. That is, you can’t ask dead people why they are afraid of certain things, and therefore, his theory was not given much weight in the academic sphere.

Today, we have a greater understanding of brain processes like amygdala activation, stress systems like the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis and the hippocampus’ role in learning and memory. These processes explain why people are afraid of certain things; from a young age, people are told what they should fear, and then when people come into contact with a stressful stimulus like a spider, it activates their HPA axis, leading to a greater stress response reinforcing their fear of that object. Note, that reinforcement is a hallmark idea in behaviorism.

Though current research seems to undermine Jung’s theories, I do not believe we should disregard everything Jung said. Again, like astrology, if something in Jung’s works can help you look at your own struggles in a more self-aware way, then it is valid for your therapeutic journey.

In regards to my “favorite” approach to psychology, I would have to say it is the cognitive-behavioral approach, as many of its theories and therapeutic techniques resonate with me and I find them to be the easiest to use. 

The cognitive-behavioral therapeutic approach gives us techniques like the use of grounding to help us refocus our thoughts and attention during a panic attack, or cognitive restructuring to help us have a more healthy inner dialogue. 

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, so it will be interesting to see what psychologists of the future say about our current widely held beliefs. 

I can say this, though, in current literature there is a major push for theories and research that are based in neuroscience as the use of technology like brain scans, fMRI’s, EMG and EEG machines is becoming more widely accessible.

You would be correct to say that Jung’s theories mirror many of Friedrich Nietzsche’s theories, though you must remember that Nietzsche was a philosopher while Jung was a psychologist. However, Nietzsche was a professor at the University of Basel, and though he suffered a significant decline in health in 1879 which forced him to resign, Jung attended the same university in 1895 which is likely where he would have first heard about Nietzsche’s theories in-depth. 

Like Nietzsche, Jung was very interested in Eastern philosophy, astrology and spiritualism, and let these philosophies guide his theories. However, most famously, Jung was influenced by Freud, with whom he collaborated heavily. 

If you are further interested in Jung, I suggest looking into Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs, Freud’s psychoanalysis and Carl Rogers’ humanistic psychology. Keep in mind that Freud, like Jung, has been heavily criticized for the lack of empirical research to back up his theories.

As for your question about waking and dream states, both of these are hallmarks of psychoanalytic theory. Freud believed that our dreams held implicit meaning often relating to unresolved childhood trauma and experiences. I cannot comment on the validity of these interpretations, as this is a fairly impossible theory to test. However, I go back to my previous point regarding new research using the brain. Though the idea of what constitutes consciousness is still heavily debated among cognitive psychologists today, the use of new techniques which measure brain activity has allowed us to see activation in key brain areas when a person is in the different stages of sleep (non-REM and REM sleep) and when they are awake. This research has afforded us a greater ability to understand—at least at a neurological level—how states of consciousness are similar, and more importantly, why they are different. 

Like all sciences, psychology is dynamic. For example, in the 1960s, the widely-held belief was that genetics had no place in psychology, but now there is a major push for understanding how our genetics and environment work together in things like resilience, maternal care, epigenetics and substance abuse. As such, it’s important to remember that psychology and psychological theories are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary and will continue to adapt with research. 

Stay curious, my friend!