In this essay, I am going to discuss the concept of collective memory as a background for understanding Jungís concept of the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious only makes sense in the context of some notion of collective memory.
This then takes
us into a very wide-ranging examination of the nature and principle
of memory-not just in human beings and not just in the animal
kingdom; not even just in the realm of life - but in the universe as a
whole. Such an encompassing perspective is part of a very profound
paradigm shift that is taking place in science: the shift from the
mechanistic to an evolutionary and holistic world view.
Ninety percent of biologists would be proud to tell you that they are mechanistic biologists. Although physics has moved beyond the mechanistic view, much of our thinking about physical reality is still shaped by it - even in those of us who would like to believe that we have moved beyond this frame of thought.
Therefore, I will
briefly examine some of the fundamental assumptions of the
mechanistic world view in order to show how it is still deeply
embedded in the way that most of us think.
Indeed, the mechanistic view was a synthesis of two traditions of thought, both of which were based on the mystical insight that reality is timeless and changeless. One of these traditions stems from Pythagoras and Plato, who were both fascinated by the eternal truths of mathematics.
In the 17th century, this evolved into a view that
nature was governed by timeless ideas, proportions, principles, or
laws that existed within the mind of God. This world view became
dominant and, through philosophers and scientists such as
Copernicus, Kepler, Descartes, Galileo and Newton, it was
incorporated into the foundations of modern physics.
This view is alien to the thinking of most of us, who the physical world as the "real" world and consider mathematical equations a man-made, and possibly inaccurate, description of that "real" world. Nevertheless, this mystical view has evolved into the currently predominant scientific viewpoint that nature is governed by eternal, changeless, immutable, omnipresent laws.
The laws of nature are
everywhere and always.
pre-Socratic philosopher, had the idea that only being is; not-being
is not. If something is, it canít change because, in order to
change, it would have to combine being and not-being, which was
impossible. Therefore, he concluded that reality is a homogenous,
changeless sphere. Unfortunately for Parmenides, the world we
experience is not homogenous, changeless, or spherical. In order to
preserve his theory, Parmenides claimed that the world we experience
is a delusion. This wasnít a very satisfactory solution, and
thinkers of the time tried to find a way to resolve this dilemma.
In fact, physicists have been very adverse to accepting the idea of evolution precisely because it fits so poorly with the notion of eternal matter and changeless laws.
In modern physics, matter is now
seen as a form of energy; eternal energy has replaced eternal
matter, but little else has changed.
In the 18th century, social, artistic, and scientific developments were generally viewed as a progressive and evolutionary process. The Industrial Revolution made this viewpoint an economic reality in parts of Europe and America.
By the early 19th century there were a number of evolutionary philosophies and, by the 1840ís, the evolutionary social theory of Marxism had been publicized. In this context of social and cultural evolutionary theory, Darwin proposed his biological theory of evolution which extended the evolutionary vision to the whole of life.
Yet this vision was not extended to the entire universe:
Everything changed in 1966 when physics finally accepted an evolutionary cosmology in which the universe was no longer eternal.
Instead, the universe originated in a Big Bang about 15 billion
years ago and has evolved ever since. So we now have an evolutionary
physics. But we have to remember that this evolutionary physics is
only just over 20 years old, and the implications and consequences
of the Big Bang discovery are not yet fully known.
As soon as we have an evolving universe, we are confronted with the question: what about the eternal laws of nature? Where were the laws of nature before the Big Bang? If the laws of nature existed before the Big Bang, then itís clear that they are nonphysical; in fact, they are metaphysical.
This forces out into the open the metaphysical assumption that underlay the idea of eternal laws all
The Big Bang recalls the mythic stories of the hatching of the cosmic egg: it grows, and as it grows it undergoes an internal differentiation that is more like a gigantic cosmic embryo than the huge eternal machine of mechanistic theory.
With this organic alternative, it might make
sense to think of the laws of nature as more like habits; perhaps
the laws of nature are habits of the universe, and perhaps the
universe has an in-built memory.
This idea was actually quite
common, especially in America; it was espoused by William James and
other American philosophers, and was quite widely discussed at the
end of the last century. In Germany, Nietzsche went so far as to
suggest that the laws of nature underwent natural selection: perhaps
there were many laws of nature at the beginning, but only the
successful laws survived; therefore, the universe we see has laws
which have evolved through natural selection.
Butler contended that the whole of life involved inherent unconscious memory; habits, the instincts of animals, the way in which embryos develop, all reflected a basic principle of inherent memory within life. He even proposed that there must be an inherent memory in atoms, molecules, and crystals. Thus, there was this period of time at the end of the last century when biology was viewed in evolutionary terms.
only since the 1920ís that mechanistic thinking has come to have a
stranglehold upon biological thought.
This is a problem for biologists; itís not really a problem for embryos and trees, which just do it! However, biologists rind it difficult to find a causal explanation for form. In physics, in some sense the cause equals the effect. The amount of energy, matter, and momentum before a given change equals the amount afterwards. The cause is contained in the effect and the effect in the cause.
However, when we are considering
the growth of an oak tree from an acorn, there seems to be no such
equivalence of cause and effect in any obvious way.
Neither Platonists nor Aristotelians had any problem with this question. The Platonists said that the form comes from the Platonic archetype: if there is an oak tree, then there is an archetypal form of an oak tree, and all actual oak trees are simply reflections of this archetype. Since this archetype is beyond space and time, there is no need to have it embedded in the physical form of the acorn.
The Aristotelians said that every species has its own kind of soul, and the soul is the form of the body. The body is in the soul, not the soul in the body.
The soul is the form of the body and is around the
body and contains the goal of development (which is formally called
entelechy). An oak tree soul contains the eventual oak tree.
At the end of the 19th century, German biologist August Weismannís theory of the germ-plasm revived the idea of
preformationism; Weissmanís theory placed "determinants," which
supposedly gave rise to the organism, inside the embryo. This is the
ancestor of the present idea of genetic programming, which
constitutes another resurgence of preformationism in a modern guise.
However, there is a big difference
between coding for the structure of a protein - a chemical constituent
of the organism - and programming the development of an entire
organism. It is the difference between making bricks and building a
house out of the bricks. You need the bricks to build the house. If
you have defective bricks, the house will be defective. But the plan
of the house is not contained in the bricks, or the wires, or the
beams, or cement.
To see this more clearly, think of your arms
and legs. The form of the arms and legs is different; itís obvious
that they have a different shape from each other. Yet the chemicals
in the arms and legs are identical. The muscles are the same, the
nerve cells are the same, the skin cells are the same, and the
is the same in all the cells of the arms and legs. In fact, the
is the same in all the cells of the body. DNA alone cannot explain
the difference inform; something else is necessary to explain form.
As such, it is not really an objective argument; it is merely a statement of faith.
An alternative to the mechanist/reductionist approach, which
has been around since the 1920s, is the idea of morphogenetic
(form-shaping) fields. In this model, growing organisms are shaped
by fields which are both within and around them, fields which
contain, as it were, the form of the organism. This is closer to the
Aristotelian tradition than to any of the other traditional
approaches. As an oak tree develops, the acorn is associated with an
oak tree field, an invisible organizing structure which organizes
the oak treeís development; it is like an oak tree mold, within
which the developing organism grows.
Chop a computer up into small pieces and all you get is a broken computer. It does not regenerate into lots of little computers. But if you chop a flatworm into small pieces, each piece can grow into a new flatworm. Another analogy is a magnet. If you chop a magnet into small pieces, you do have lots of small magnets, each with a complete magnetic field.
This is a holistic property that fields have that mechanical
systems do not have unless they are associated with fields. Still
another example is the hologram, any part of which contains the
whole. A hologram is based on interference patterns within the
electromagnetic field. Fields thus have a holistic property which
was very attractive to the biologists who developed this concept of
There is a whole series of fields within fields. The essence of the hypothesis I am proposing is that these fields, which are already accepted quite widely within biology, have a kind of in-built memory derived from previous forms of a similar kind. The liver field is shaped by the forms of previous livers and the oak tree field by the forms and organization of previous oak trees.
Through the fields, by a process called morphic resonance, the influence of like upon like, there is a connection among similar fields. That means that the fieldís structure has a cumulative memory, based on what has happened to the species in the past. This idea applies not only to living organisms but also to protein molecules, crystals, even to atoms. In the realm of crystals, for example, the theory would say that the form a crystal takes depends on its characteristic morphic field.
field is a broader term which includes the fields of both form and
behavior; hereafter, I shall use the word morphic field rather than
Therefore, it may be very difficult to crystallize; you have to wait for a morphic field to emerge. The second time, however, even if you do this somewhere else in the world, there will be an influence from the first crystallization, and it should crystallize a bit more easily. The third time there will be an influence from the first and second, and so on.
There will be a cumulative influence from previous crystals,
so it should get easier and easier to crystallize the more often you
crystallize it. And, in fact, this is exactly what does happen.
Synthetic chemists find that new compounds are generally very
difficult to crystallize. As time goes on, they generally get easier
to crystallize all over the world. The conventional explanation is
that this occurs because fragments of previous crystals are carried
from laboratory to laboratory on beards of migrant chemists. When
there have not been any migrant chemists, it is assumed that the
fragments wafted through the atmosphere as microscopic dust
related experiment involving chemical reaction rates of new
synthetic processes is at present being considered by a major
chemical company in Britain because, if these things happen, they
have quite important implications for the chemical industry.
Consider the hypothesis that if
you train rats to learn a new trick in Santa Barbara, then rats all
over the world should be able to learn to do the same trick more
quickly, just because the rats in Santa Barbara have learned it.
This new pattern of learning will be, as it were, in the rat
collective memory - in the morphic fields of rats, to which other rats
can tune in, just because they are rats and just because they are in
similar circumstances, by morphic resonance. This may seem a bit
improbable, but either this sort of thing happens or it doesnít.
Begun at Harvard and then carried on in Scotland and
Australia, the experiment demonstrated that rats increased their
rate of learning more than tenfold. This was a huge effect - not some
marginal statistically significant result. This improved rate of
learning in identical learning situations occurred in these three
separate locations and in all rats of the breed, not just in rats
descended from trained parents.
In 1921 in Southampton, a strange
phenomenon was observed. When people came out in the morning to get
their milk bottles, they found little shreds of cardboard all around
the bottom of the bottle, and the cream from the top of the bottle
had disappeared. Close observation revealed that this was being done
by bluetits, who sat on top of the bottle, pulled off the cardboard
with their beaks, and then drank the cream. Several tragic cases
were found in which bluetits were discovered drowned head first in
The bluetit habit was mapped throughout Britain until 1947, by which time it had become more or less universal. The people who did the study came to the conclusion that it must have been "invented" independently at least 50 times. Moreover, the rate of spread of the habit accelerated as time went on.
In other parts of Europe where milk
bottles are delivered to doorsteps, such as Scandinavia and
the habit also cropped up during the 1930s and spread in a similar
manner. Here is an example of a pattern of behavior which was spread
in a way which seemed to speed up with time, and which might provide
an example of morphic resonance.
Yet when milk deliveries resumed in 1948, the opening of
milk bottles by bluetits sprang up rapidly in quite separate places
in Holland and spread extremely rapidly until, within a year or two,
it was once again universal. The behavior spread much more rapidly
and cropped up independently much more frequently the second time
round than the first time. This example demonstrates the
evolutionary spread of a new habit which is probably not genetic but
rather depends on a kind of collective memory due to morphic
This latter form of heredity deals with the
organization of form and behavior.
If you didnít know how the form arose, the most
obvious explanation would be that there were little people inside
the set whose shadows you were seeing on the screen. Children
sometimes think in this manner. If you take the back off the set,
however, and look inside, you find that there are no little people.
Then you might get more subtle and speculate that the little people
are microscopic and are actually inside the wires of the TV set. But
if you look at the wires through a microscope, you canít find any
little people there either.
As I am
suggesting, the forms and patterns of behavior are actually being
tuned into by invisible connections arising outside the organism.
The development of form is a result of both the internal
organization of the organism and the interaction of the morphic
fields to which it is tuned.
Thus tuning dials are measured in hertz, which is a measure of frequency. Imagine a mutation in the tuning system such that you tune to one channel and a different channel actually appears. You might trace this back to a single condenser or a single resistor which had undergone a mutation. But it would not be valid to conclude that the new programs you are seeing, the different people, the different films and advertisements, are programmed inside the component that has changed.
Nor does it prove that form and behavior are programmed in the DNA when genetic mutations lead to changes in form and behavior. The usual assumption is that if you can show something alters as a result of a mutation, then that must be programmed by, or controlled by, or determined by, the gene.
hope this TV analogy makes it clear that that is not the only
conclusion. It could be that it is simply affecting the tuning
A whole range of these mutations have been found which produce various monstrosities. One kind, called antennapedia, leads to the antennae being transformed into legs. The unfortunate flies, which contain just one altered gene, produce legs instead of antennae growing out of their heads. There is another mutation which leads to the second of the three pairs of legs in the Drosophila being transformed into antennae.
Normally flies have one
pair of wings and, on the segment behind the wings, are small
balancing organs called halteres. Still another mutation leads to
the transformation of the segment normally bearing the halteres into
a duplicate of the first segment, so that these flies have four
wings instead of two. These are called bithorax mutants.
Behaviors which organisms learn, or forms which
they develop, can be inherited by others even if they are not
descended from the original organisms - by morphic resonance.
The amount of influence depends on the degree of similarity. Most organisms are more similar to themselves in the past than they are to any other organism. I am more like me five minutes ago than I am like any of you; all of us are more like ourselves in the past than like anyone else. The same is true of any organism. This self-resonance with past states of the same organism in the realm of form helps to stabilize the morphogenetic fields, to stabilize the form of the organism, even though the chemical constituents in the cells are turning over and changing.
patterns of behavior are also tuned into by the self-resonance
process. If I start riding a bicycle, for example, the pattern of
activity of my nervous system and my muscles, in response to
balancing on the bicycle, immediately tunes me in by similarity to
all the previous occasions on which I have ridden a bicycle. The
experience of bicycle riding is given by cumulative morphic
resonance to all those past occasions. It is not a verbal or
intellectual memory; it is a body memory of riding a bicycle.
If this hypothesis is correct, it is not necessary
to assume that memories are stored inside the brain.
One of the main arguments for the
localization of memory in the brain is the fact that certain kinds
of brain damage can lead to loss of memory. If the brain is damaged
in a car accident and someone loses memory, then the obvious
assumption is that memory tissue must have been destroyed.
is not necessarily so.
It would merely show that I had affected
the tuning system so you could not pick up the correct signal any
longer. No more does memory loss due to brain damage prove that
memory is stored inside the brain. In fact, most memory loss is
temporary: amnesia following concussion, for example, is often
temporary. This recovery of memory is very difficult to explain in
terms of conventional theories: if the memories have been destroyed
because the memory tissue has been destroyed, they ought not to come
back again; yet they often do.
Again returning to the TV analogy, if I
stimulated the tuning circuit of your TV set and it jumped onto
another channel, this wouldnít prove the information was stored
inside the tuning circuit. It is interesting that, in his last book,
The Mystery of the Mind, Penfield himself abandoned the idea that
the experiments proved that memory was inside the brain. He came to
the conclusion that memory was not stored inside the cortex at all.
To his amazement, he found that he could remove
over fifty percent of the brain - any 50% - and there would be virtually
no effect on the retention of this learning. When he removed all the
brain, the rats could no longer perform the tricks, so he concluded
that the brain was necessary in some way to the performance of the
task - which is hardly a very surprising conclusion. What was
surprising was how much of the brain he could remove without
affecting the memory.
Lashley himself concluded that memories are stored in a distributed
manner throughout the brain, since he could not find the memory
traces which classical theory required. His student, Karl Pribram,
extended this idea with the holographic theory of memory storage:
memory is like a holographic image, stored as an interference
pattern throughout the brain.
The idea that they are not stored inside the brain is more consistent with the available data than either the conventional theories or the holographic theory. Many difficulties have arisen in trying to localize memory storage in the brain, in part because the brain is much more dynamic than previously thought. If the brain is to serve as a memory storehouse, then the storage system would have to remain stable; yet it is now known that nerve cells turn over much more rapidly than was previously thought.
All the chemicals in synapses and nerve
structures and molecules are turning over and changing all the time.
With a very dynamic brain, it is difficult to see how memories are
This is called the coding, storage, and retrieval model. However, for a retrieval system to retrieve anything, it has to know what it wants to retrieve; a memory retrieval system has to know what memory it is looking for. It thus must be able to recognize the memory that it is trying to retrieve. In order to recognize it, the retrieval system itself must have some kind of memory.
Therefore, the retrieval system must have
a sub-retrieval system to retrieve its memories from its store. This
leads to an infinite regress. Several philosophers argue that this
is a fatal, logical flaw in any conventional theory of memory
storage. However, on the whole, memory theoreticians are not very
interested in what philosophers say, so they do not bother to reply
to this argument. But it does seem to me quite a powerful one.
concept is very similar to the notion of the collective unconscious.
It would not be a memory from particular persons in the past so much
as an average of the basic forms of memory structures; these are
archetypes. Jungís notion of the collective unconscious makes
extremely good sense in the context of the general approach that I
am putting forward. Morphic resonance theory would lead to a radical
reaffirmation of Jungís concept of the collective unconscious.
Under the premises of conventional biology, there would be no way that the experiences and myths of, for example, African tribes, would have any influence on the dreams of someone in Switzerland of non-African descent, which is the sort of thing Jung thought did happen.
That is quite
impossible from the conventional point of view, which is why most
biologists and others within mainstream science do not take the idea
of the collective unconscious seriously. It is considered a flaky,
fringe idea that may have some poetic value as a kind of metaphor,
but has no relevance to proper science because it is a completely
untenable concept from the point of view of normal biology.
If the kind of radical paradigm shift I am talking about goes on
within biology - if the hypothesis of morphic resonance is even
approximately correct - then Jungís idea of the collective unconscious
would become a mainstream idea: Morphogenic fields and the concept
of the collective unconscious would completely change the context of