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The Symbolic Language of our Dreaming Mind

This paper is an adaptation from my 'Symbols Paper' submitted and accepted by the C.G Jung Institute Switzerland


The aim of this paper is to provide an explanation of symbolism and symbolic expression from three distinct and complementary perspectives.

1. Symbolism as defined in Analytical Psychology.

2. Neuroscientific Affective Expression and Representation, as observed in recent advances in neuroscience and brain stimulation technology and,

3. Symbolism in Dreams: Examples of Engaging Psychotherapeutically with Personal Symbolic Material in the form of dreams. Due to confidentiality part 3 has been redacted.

Part 1 provides a concise definition of symbolism through the lens of Analytical Psychology. Part 2 explores the rapidly advancing field of functional neuroscience providing evidence for C.G Jung’s theory that the brain stem reflects the archetype of the Self as well as other affective archetypal expressions.

Keywords: Affect, Archetypes, Emotional Systems, Hydranencephaly, Individuation, Subcortical Midline Structures (SCMSs), Symbolic Representation

Part 1: Jungian Perspective on Symbolism

A symbol may be a name, term or image that may or may not be familiar in daily life. What makes a symbol a symbol is that it contains a greater meaning and connotation beyond any obvious significance. A symbol implies something vague and currently unknown as opposed to a ‘sign’ which has obvious meaning. A word or image is symbolic when it implies or contains something more than its obvious meaning. A symbol possesses an unconscious element where its greater meaning lay beyond rational explanation. C.G. Jung (2014a) states that “A symbol is an indefinite expression with many meanings, pointing to something not easily defined and therefore not fully known. But the sign always has a fixed meaning”. As a symbol is explored with an attitude of open curiosity one may be led to ideas, affects or emotions that point beyond present individual ego consciousness and therefore lead to a greater sense of individual congruency and wholeness.

There are many things beyond human understanding and symbols are routinely employed (by science, art, society, religion, and psyche) to represent concepts, ideologies, intuitions, feelings, or possibilities that cannot be defined or fully comprehended. It is for this reason that all religions employ symbolic images, however they are of little use beyond dogma unless the individual can relate to the symbol on a personal level. In this regard it is important that we begin to pay attention to the symbols that can unconsciously and spontaneously appear in dreams. Jung states that dreams are the most frequent and universally accessible source for the investigation of the human unconscious and its symbolising faculty.

Dream Symbolism in Analytical Psychology.

Jung observed that dreams very often have a definite and purposeful structure which indicates an underlying idea or emotional complex structure (C.G Jung, 1968). It is on this basis that Jung (moving away from Freuds technique of ‘free association’) saw the importance of giving focused attention on the actual dream contents themselves, encouraging concentration on conscious associations, staying as close to the dream itself to arrive at a particular meaning the unconsciousness is conveying. In Man and His Symbols Jung states “I wanted to keep as close to the dream as possible”, therefore as a rule in Analytical Psychology only material that is clearly and visibly part of a dream should be used in its interpretation (C.G Jung, 1968). In Analytical Psychology dreams and their symbolic images have a very important role to play.

Part 2: Symbolic Representation: A Functional Neuroscientific Perspective.

Brain Stem: The Physiological Seat of Self.

How does symbolic material emerge from an empirical scientific standpoint? This question is being increasingly explored with brain imaging technology. Advances in neuroscience offer an objectively observable explanation to experiential concepts found in Analytical Psychology such as Archetypes, Complexes and Symbols. Discoveries in neuroscience have confirmed Jung’s hypothesis as to the physiological location of our ‘unqualified sense of Self’, the all-encompassing and unifying Self archetype. Organic damage to this brain area results in loss of all sense of self and individuality. Jung had long thought that the central organising archetype of the Self lie subcortically in the brain stem (C.G. Jung, 1958). The Self archetype is of central importance in Analytical Psychology and its foundationally uniting properties are experienced predominately as affective (Alcaro, Carta, & Panksepp, 2017). As the brain stem is located at the central base of the brain it is perhaps on this basis that Jung conjectured it is also the physiological location from which our core sense of Self is reflected. Jung went on to speculate that the same subcortical system might also somehow reflect characteristics of archetypal forms of the unconscious (C.G. Jung, 1958). Electric brain stimulation studies have confirmed Jung correct on both counts.

No Brain, No Problem! (As long as the Brain Stem is Intact).

Our ‘affective core sense of Self’ has been found to be physiologically seated in the Subcortical Midline Structures (SCMSs) located in the brain stem. Human and animal studies show that lesions in this region induce coma and total cessation of any observable form of psychic and intentional life. Mental activity collapses rendering the animal ‘zombie-like’, exhibiting a vegetative existence without intentionality (Panksepp, 1998). On the other hand, extensive damage to the cerebral cortex and higher limbic lobes does not destroy the field of consciousness. Animals that have been deliberately neo-decorticated early in life sustain a remarkable level of behavioural coherence, intentionality, and spontaneity. Not only do they show the ability to learn from positive or negative reinforced events, they are surprisingly more emotional than animals with intact brains (Huston & Borbely, 1973). Furthermore, similar evidence in human children and adults (in a condition called hydranencephaly) where the cerebral cortex and higher limbic areas are destroyed in utero leaving the SCMSs intact express many signs of positive and negative affective states (Merker, 2007). One famous example is the case of a mathematician with an IQ of 126 holding a first-class honours degree in mathematics from Sheffield university. This young man was found to have “virtually no brain” and then diagnosed with hydranencephaly. Scores of similar accounts are found throughout medical literature (Lewin, 1980).

Animal and human data demonstrate a primal and affective sense of self emerges within the SCMSs and that damage to the SCMSs results in collapse of observable consciousness and intentionality. Such research however does not prove (as secular materialists would assert) that the brain produces consciousness and at this point in time such research is not able to explain how SCMSs neurodynamic activity is related to the emergence of our core affective sense of Self (Alcaro et al., 2017). The research however does confirm Jung’s theory that the psyche’s central organising system, the Self, physiologically operates (or transmits) through the brain stem. Perhaps the Self transmits in a way similar to how digital signals are transmitted to our mobile devices and converted into audio or video calls.

From Self Emerges the Seven (known) Emotional Systems.

Furthermore evidence of C.G. Jung (1958) additional hypothesis, that the “subcortical system may somehow reflect characteristics of archetypal forms of the unconscious” has emerged from localised studies within SCMSs revealing that this location is also responsible for at least seven universal Emotional Systems.

Namely the:

1. Seeking/Expectancy

2. Rage/Anger

3. Fear/Anxiety

4. Lust/Sexuality

5. Care/Nurturance

6. Panic/Separation, and the

7. Play/Joy Emotional Systems (Panksepp & Biven, 2012).

These last 3 Emotional Systems might be classified as the Mother Archetype, Father Archetype (separation= discrimination and boundaries) and the Child Archetype respectively. It would be a worthwhile endeavour to attempt to name suitable archetypes for the first four systems also.

Animal and human data strongly supports the idea that the activation of each Emotional System modifies subjective experience leading to characteristic emotions which are perceived at a conscious or preconscious level. Human subjects report intense emotional feelings during the electric stimulation of the SCMS (Alcaro et al., 2017).

Activated Emotional Systems Move Up and Down.

These seven Emotional Systems act as orientating vectors that direct an ensemble of behavioural and mental activities toward specific directions and orbits of meaning depending on which Emotional System is activated. When transmitted (down into the body) toward the spinal cord (the activated Emotional System) splits off into either the ‘sympathetic: fight or flight’ or ‘parasympathetic: rest and digest’ channels of the autonomic nervous system. At this point ‘largely unconscious’ ensembles of behavioural and physiological responses are initiated impacting heart and respiration rate, digestion, urination, and sexual arousal (Alcaro et al., 2017).

At the same time (whether awake or dreaming) activated Emotional Systems diffuse (Up) toward higher brain areas (this is where we come back to symbolism), here they take the form of variously combined ensembles of mental representations (archetypal images, emotional complexes, symbols, memories, feelings, associations or thoughts) orbiting around a characteristic affective core (Alcaro et al., 2017). Jung long contended that the unconscious psyche is just as active during waking hours as in dreaming. C.G. Jung (2014c) asserted “in waking life, too, we continue to dream beneath the threshold of consciousness, especially when under the influence of repressed or other unconscious complexes”.

Illustration of the ascending and descending paths that activated Emotional Systems originating within the SCMs follow (Alcaro et al., 2017).

The core sense of Self as well as these seven known Emotional Systems function universally in flexible and individually unique ways according to individual history, psychology, and environment. Llinás (2002) conceptualizes emotions as “flexible action patterns”, which respond to environmental and internal psychic stimuli, to anticipate future events and cope with uncertain situations. Furthermore, if the individual is equipped with sufficient ‘higher functioning’ (including the capacity for symbolic thought) he or she becomes increasingly better orientated and adapted toward specific and consciously intentional courses of action. In Analytical Psychology better navigating these processes could be defined as the Individuation process. Given that this emerging field of ‘affective neuroscientific’ research demonstrates both structurally and functionally exactly how and where in the brain our core sense of Self emerges followed by the seven Emotional Systems (like Light illuminating a stained-glass window) provides clear scientific evidence for the practice of Analytical Psychology.


It is obvious that psyche and brain are related and there is an undeniable correlation between brain states and subjective experience. However, correlation does not equal causation and neuroscientific research does not confirm the dominant secular materialist dogma that ‘the mind is the brain’. This stubbornly entrenched collective attitude distorts science as it contradicts the scientific methods ‘unbiased open-ended search for truth’. The possibility that the brain functions more like a ‘filter’ of Consciousness which pre-exists the brain is another possibility and perhaps a metaphysical position more congruent with Jung’s (and many Jungians) conclusion and experience. Many logical possibilities remain open and perhaps this question might be more fully explored in another paper.


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