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(CLICK ME) Observing Jungian Theory of the Collective Unconscious Through Epigenetics: Evidence from Neuroimaging and Genomic Research

The following pages were created by Antony Arango and edited by Anna Rock. This is a fragment of a manuscript. If you would like the full text please reach out via email: it’s free.


It has been hypothesized that inherited trauma/genetic memories have been potential components of the brain that influence behaviors in individuals and even communities.  Researchers in the field of epigenetics have found evidence supporting the idea that environmental changes are an underlying biological mechanism affecting genetic expression transgenerationally, widening how we see the functionality of genes in living organisms.  Over the course of one's life, significant experiences can change an individual’s perceptions, behaviors, thoughts, and some of these psychological shifts may be result from environmentally influenced alterations in gene expression. Considering this influence on our DNA, psychotherapy may not only provide emotional catharsis to the individual via epigenetic mechanisms, but similarly influence the psychological baseline of their offspring..  

Psychotheraputic practice, more specifically analytical psychology, focuses on understanding the brain in a more structured manner: taking into account phenomena such as repressed memories, unconscious mechanisms of the brain, and how they manifest within individuals.  As we develop, psychotherapy becomes an option for many, but in some countries psychological disorders are often treated with pharmacotherapy alone.  One problem may be the initial approach that consciousness/cognition is seen as a purely neuroanatomical phenomena. This may provide a deeper issue, considering that the current approved means of pharmacotherapy is efficacious for short-term changes, but many are not effective for significant long-term results.  In the meta-analysis cited, many individuals using psychotherapy alone as a treatment for their psychological disorders found greater long-term improvement in regards to symptom reduction.  Some cases of treatment focusing on psychotherapy found an overall but quality of life increase.  Those on medication alone had immediate efficacious (short-term) improvement of symptoms, but were less likely to maintain treatment gains, and were more likely to return to treatment in the future for reooccurring symptoms which is referred to as “relapse”.  A large problem regarding treatment is the potential occurrence of symptoms, and the relapse into further psychological treatment.  Relapse rates are significantly lower with those treated with psychotherapy, than that of pharmacotherapy.  

With our understanding of epigenetics, the idea of environmentally induced neurological changes being possible with (or consequential from) psychotherapy should be revisited with both an epigenetic (biological) and psychodynamic (analysis of unconscious mechanisms) lens.  Furthermore, with greater understanding of environmental influence on what traits are hereditary, Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious should also be revisited. “Archetypes,” he said “were patterns of instinctual behaviour” may very well be Jung’s interpretation of newfound research showing generational epigenetic changes in behavioral sensitivity, cognitive ability, and neuroanatomical structure.  

The development of the fMRI has allowed scientists to better observe both task-specific and longitudinal differences in brain activity through the recruitment of oxygen (blood flow) to that region of the cerebrum.  This method functions in conjunction that blood flow and neuronal activity are correlated.

We can not only observe changes that happen in neurological development/adaptation from trauma, but from psychotherapy itself6.  Psychoanalytic approaches are used to assess a patients awareness of behaviors/thoughts where its roots do not lie solely in learned behaviors, and this meta-analysis aims to quantify hereditary influence on behaviors from epigenetic factors outside of one's immediate awareness.  Although much of Jung’s research have been compiled as case studies on his psychotherapy patients, the Jungian approach (in regards to quantifying the unconscious brain into 2 categories: “personal” and “collective”) may prove useful in observing and interpreting future studies, and even addressing patients in a more productive manner.


In opposition to archaic theories of heritability, the budding field of epigenetics considers how external stimuli or events can modify gene expression (promotion and silencing) without altering the underlying genome.  Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has been the backbone of evolutionary research, and while Darwin's theory of evo is dogma, the formerly rejected lamarckian theory of inheritance can be reassessed seriously if guided by the lens of epigenetics.  This comes from the emergence of research that describes effects of short-term biological changes within organisms and their offspring.  

There are three main types of epigenetic mechanisms: DNA methylation, histone acetylation, and microRNA.  DNA methylation is the mechanism that occurs when methyl groups are added to DNA, changing the functioning of DNA so that its expression inhibits transcription.  Methyl groups act as signals across DNA, and keep transcription factors unable to reach the promoter gene, preventing expression.  As genes are methylated they are turned “off”, and cannot be expressed unless the methyl group is removed through demethylation.  

Histones are a type of basic protein that DNA wraps around to be able to make chromatin, which creates the building blocks of chromosomes: nucleotides.  Histone packages DNA into tightly wound coils, which determines whether or not the RNA polymerase (enzymes that assist with the translation of DNA, RNA, and the protien that comes from it) attaches and or controls the genes wrapped around.  When acetyl groups are added to histone proteins, the DNA coil loosens and the genes wrapped around the proteins start to be transcribed. Upon deacetylation, the coiled DNA tightens to prevent transcription. Histone acetyltransferase are enzymes that acetylate amino acids into the histone proteins by the process of histone acetylation.  Histone deacetylases (HDAC) are enzymes that do the opposite: they deacetylate amino acids by the process of deacetylation. This is different from methylation as histone acetylation/deacetylation is happening all the time, whereas as methylation is not happening with the same consistency, and demethylation is even less common.

If DNA is the blueprint of the body, then RNA is a copy of DNA that carries out the orders to synthesize proteins, sort of like an instructor of DNA.  Recent discoveries in biology have emphasized the existence and role of microRNA and how it affects the body. MicroRNA does not code for proteins like other types of RNA, instead it bond to messenger RNA (mRNA) and block the ribosomes from translating the code for proteins.  Essentially, MicroRNA functions as a post-transcription control unit that epigenetically keeps the genes from coding. Epigenome affects individuals in deciding what genetic information passes over to the next generation.

Lifestyle, experiences, and environmental factors define how the epigenome decides what to express, and so affecs individuals in choosing which genetic information is passed down to future generations.  With the emergence of  new methods of DNA sequencing, scientists have been able to track changes in gene expression in mammals1.  Studies have shown that neuroanatomical changes can be seen in mice after short-term exposure to stress stimuli, and that similar changes can affect their offspring.  It is thought that epigenetic changes in the parents’ DNA can also causes changes to the microRNA in their sperm, replicating the prior generation’s biological functionality.  

Similar studies conducted on humans find that trauma can change the neuroanatomical structure and functionality of an individual, and these changes can be passed down to one's children.  Research shows that parental trauma exposure is associated with a greater risk of acquiring PTSD, mood, and other stress/anxiety disorders in offspring.  Benefits of spatial cognitive training can also be passed down transgenerationally, showing that behavior/cognition can be directly influenced by epigenetics.  Further research into transgenerational behavior/cognition has also opened new doors into psychosociology.  The idea of inherited trauma has been found to potentially have biological underpinnings as Holocaust victims have been found to show common epigenetic differences in gene expression.  Research has also shown that intergenerational cognitive and non-cognitive skills were shown to increase with parental education regardless of the school type.  Intelligence and socioeconomic status were unrelated to skill transference, and that intelligence minimally when taking most environmental conditions into consideration.  This particular German study noted that skill gradient was shown to have increased with the age of the child, and that there was a small but consistent intergenerational transmission of skills.  In regards to memory formation, research has suggested that molecular biology is the key to understanding how information is coded, as well as that DNA, RNA, and proteins each work with one another to handle the formation, maintenance, and the retrieval of memory.

Research has found two main components in memory development: one that is protein-synthesis independent, and the other is a time dependent phase that relies on activity induced gene transcription and protein synthesis.  Memory, in neuroscientific terms, can be better observed when both behavior and the gene expression are tied to it. If proteins are directly tied to cognitive abilities such as memory retention, spatial recognition,  then they could possibly be inherited transgenerationally along with those proteins. The actual DNA of neurons has been found to change throughout life.  Long interspersed nuclear elements-1 (LINE-1 or L1s) are abundant retrotransposons that comprise approximately 20% of mammalian genomes.  Active L1 retrotransposons can impact the genome in a variety of ways, creating insertions, deletions, new splice sites or gene expression fine-tuning.  Changes in the brain such as L1 retrotransposition has been found to occur in response to a range of environmental stimuli, including voluntary exercise and chronic cocaine consumption.

This contributes to the idea that even parts of an individual’s personality/intellectual capacity could be tied to epigenetic expression resulting from a parent’s actions and lifestyle, as well as one's own choices.  With this understanding of immediately heritable tendencies, traits, and abilities it provides an empirical background to prove older psychodynamic schools of thought.

Carl Jung’s model of the psyche is made up of what Jung calls the “Ego”, the “personal” unconscious”,  and the the “collective” unconscious. Jung believed that they were not separate, but intertwined: continuously interacting in a compensatory way.  The psychological awareness of one’s mind and their surroundings is what we know as “Consciousness”, but what Jung calls the “Ego”. The ego, in Jungian terms, is the subject of every decision, action, and thought that is made for the self, and it is the center of our identity and individual existence.  Jung refers to the ego as the “gatekeeper” of the psyche, being the door to which the rest of the psyche funnels through and comes out from. The ego itself is both made up of and is separate from the personal unconscious. The personal unconscious is composed of subliminal events, motives, and instincts which people have not dictated nor perceived.  It is the center of repressed memories/feelings, and interacts with the ego as a part of the mind. The personal unconscious is influenced by complexes: sub-personalities composed of themed organizations in the unconscious mind based upon memories, perceptions, fantasies, and desires. The personal unconscious in particular formed these organizations through experience, growth, and interaction during developmental phases of life and affects individuals not only in behaviors, but even as as parts of one’s personality.  Carl Jung studied complexes by examining his patients in a qualitative manner; using talk therapy and activities he created as his methods of observation. This allowed him to notice discrete similarities between each other, while his study of societies/cultures led him to find common symbols and themes throughout human history. This led Jung to conclude that there was a historical/evolutionary/genetic component to the unconscious mind, one not composed solely of individual life experiences but inherited impulses, feelings, and tendencies.  Jung saw these cognitive phenomena as psychological predispositions that people were born with to think, feel, perceive, and will. He called the part of psyche that held these predispositions as the “collective unconscious” and its tendencies as “archetypes”. Jung referred to archetypes as “the form which the instincts presume,” and noted them as similar patterns of behaviors, thoughts, images, and feelings unaffected by environment. Jung believed because the physical body evolved (by mutation and natural selection) over generations, so did the psyche.  Jung’s approach though, found human decision making instrumental in defining how people develop/evolve, and recent epigenetics research finds that human actions can cause environmentally induced changes to genetic expression in animals.

In regards to trans-generational trauma, there have been mass psychological phenomena recorded in academic journals that show population experiencing symptoms of serious psychological disorders.  A famous example would be “Aids-Survivor Syndrome”, a term used to describe the collection of physical, psychological and emotional symptoms that a person may experience after living through intense grief and trauma during the peak years of the AIDS epidemic.  There is a long list of the symptoms that ASS may bring, but most fall under the umbrella of depression, anxiety disorders, and stress disorders outlined in the DSM V.  Researchers have also found that having parent diagnosed with PTSD can increase the chance of any of their children developing stress disorders.  With our knowledge of how an individual’s environment can affect their psychological state, this meta analysis wishes to further understand how an environment has affected populations both socially and biologically…


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Antony Arango