Quantum Mechanics And The Collective Unconscious


Nature v. Nurture

In this author's previously published book Agent Human; Consciousness At The Service Of The Group the term 'collective unconscious' was used extensively to describe a mechanism through which a body of presumed-to-be-standard cognitive content is available to all human brains, made up of a collection of archetypes and associated pre-linguistic concepts that are presented as being essential to human socialization, or, put differently, as being an unavoidable consequence and concomitant of the process by which human groups emerged as the bedrock of human culture and civilization.

That is a highly anthropomorphic formulation, and it must be stated immediately that there is no reason to deny a 'collective unconscious' to many other animals that preceded humans in evolutionary terms.

For those who have not read Agent Human in its entirety, Appendix One of the current volume presents some of the key concepts underlying that book's thesis in abbreviated form. Here it will be assumed that the reader has taken on board the content of Agent Human, or at least has read that Appendix.

Many people will want to deny the entire concept of a 'collective unconscious', preferring instead to believe that human cognitive growth results entirely from early socialization. It is possible, just, to take this view without postulating a 'tabula rasa', which was one of the preferred theories from say 1850 to 1950, but had to give way before an accumulating mountain of evidence for a genetic component to human infantile development. Nowadays, the onus is on the deniers to account for the similarity of human ontogeny between different cultures without admitting some common genetic thread underpinning that development.

Here it is going to be assumed that there is a large degree of commonality between the psyches of neo-natal human infants, whatever culture they are born into, and the unresolved question that remains is whether that commonality arises from shared patterns of organic development (a view which we will call nativist) or, at least partially, from universal access to an external body of cognitive content, which we (following e.g. Jung) have chosen to label the collective unconscious (a view which we will call collectivist). Neither hypothesis is easy to exemplify or accept.

Within both accounts, it is possible to distinguish between genetic and external mechanisms. That's to say, a 'nativist' account might include a considerable degree of evolved genetic pre-programming, together with some post-natal influence from life experience, while a 'collectivist' account might include some genetic pre-programming together with some pre- or post-natal input from the collective unconscious and some post-natal external influence from life experience.

It is horribly difficult to distinguish between these possibilities based on empirical evidence. No-one will pretend that the infants of 'higher' species, which for now we will characterize as mammals, reptiles and amphibians, are born without a considerable array of 'inherited' or 'instinctive' behaviours for use in survival, mating and (perhaps less obviously) socialization. There is ample evidence that these behaviours emerge regardless of the amount of parenting received by the infant. Absence of parenting may be lethal or highly damaging for an infant; but still many of the most important behaviours are built in genetically, and operate within the limbic system. In many of these instinctive behaviours, there is a strong endocrine causative component, in fact many of the behaviours emerge during the immediate post-natal period through a complex interaction of genetic, hormonal and endocrinal factors, although the limbic system itself is almost completely formed in the pre-natal period. There is therefore a possibility that post-natal behaviour formation may be influenced by external olfactory, tactile or even visual cues.

Such basic mechanisms as hunger and thirst, which are a crucial part of survival, are well understood, neurologically speaking, and operate in a similar way across a wide range of species (see e.g. Perry, Society for Neuroscience). Many of these instinctive behaviours have been allocated to particular regions of the brain (see e.g. Sokolowski and Corbin), at least in rats, including some social behaviours such as the display of dominance and reactions to it.

Although humans share many instinctive behaviours with less evolved animals, some more advanced social behaviours are unique to humans. Smiling, laughing and crying, all of which involve the use of complex facial expressions, are examples. Darwin believed them to be innate behaviours (Darwin, 1872), and extensive research into the behaviour of blind children has confirmed his suppositions (Ekman).

Moral Sentiments

So far, so good, but difficulties emerge when we move on to behaviours involving multiple individuals, which we may loosely term 'groupish', and many of which involve moral sentiments such as reciprocity, empathy, altruism, cooperation and intentionality ('theory of mind'). There is documented research demonstrating the existence of moral sentiments in a wide variety of non-human and non-primate animals, including dogs, elephants, rats and birds (see, e.g. Bekoff and Pierce).

At first sight, many of these advanced social behaviours are less obviously genetically driven than the basic instincts, but at least those most strongly associated with the group are clearly innate, for instance empathy and reciprocity. That is not to say that they cannot be deepened or weakened by life experience, but it is indisputable that they originated as unavoidable concomitants of group living, and as is clearly demonstrated in Agent Human (see in particular Chapters 2 and 3), groupish living originated far back in evolutionary history, as did therefore moral behaviours on the part of group members.

Cooperation, for example, (and its antithesis, deception) is a complex behaviour, involving a balancing act between the selfish interests of an individual and those of a group of individuals (conspecifics). Before we even come to primates, cooperation has been amply demonstrated between multiple members of numerous species. The nativist position requires that cooperation will result from ontogenetic neural development, presumably demanding an innate ability on the part of an individual to recognize one or more conspecifics (no training allowed, remember), and a predisposition on the part of the individual to cooperate with them. Until recently there has been little research in humans, let alone other animals, that addresses the issue of whether such a predisposition might arise ontogenetically, or whether it requires external influences to encourage its formation, which might, for instance, involve interaction with a parent or siblings (quite easy to believe in an ontogenetic mechanism to 'imprint' such interactions and transfer them to more generalized drives), or might require more specific training to be delivered by a parent.

Warneken et al (2007) demonstrated that altruism arises ontogenetically in chimpanzees as well as in human infants. Their results 'indicate that chimpanzees share crucial aspects of altruism with humans, suggesting that the roots of human altruism may go deeper than previous experimental evidence suggested.'

An fMRI study published in 2006 (Völlm et al) investigated the neural correlates of empathic and Theory of Mind (ToM) activity. Both types of activity were located in the medial pre-frontal cortex (MPFC), temporo-parietal Junction (TPJ), and the temporal poles. ToM activity was additionally located in the lateral orbito-frontal cortex (LOFC), the middle frontal gyrus (MFG), the cuneus and the superior temporal gyrus (STG). Empathic activity, on the other hand, was additionally located in various sections of the cingulate cortex and the amygdala. The authors conclude that while both types of activity employ regions of the brain associated with the making of judgments about others, empathy also recruits parts of the brain involved in emotional processing. They describe different schools of thought regarding the origins of ToM and empathic faculties: the 'theory-theory' school, so-called, would attribute such faculties in large measure to post-natal experience, while the 'simulationist' school would consider them to be predominantly innate. The authors suggest that recent research, and particularly the discovery of mirror neurons, together with their own results, lend more weight to the simulationist school.

Krueger (2009) confirmed the prominent role of the MPFC in assembling social event knowledge, based on its connections to the limbic system, noting that the MPFC is phylogenetically and ontogenetically more ancient than other cortical regions such as the lateral PFC which appear in higher primates and humans and which are the seat of more advanced cognitive capabilities such as social planning involving a self image interacting with others. Krueger admits that knowledge about pre-human social brain activity is scanty:

'Non-human primate research has not been particularly helpful in identifying higher-order social MPFC functions.'

Rameson et al (2011) tested whether the intensity of the neural correlates of empathy in humans (activity in a number of brain regions including particularly the medial pre-frontal cortex (MPFC), the dorsomedial pre-frontal cortex (DMPFC), and the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (subACC) varied according to the amount of cognitive load being imposed on an individual, finding that in the MPFC and the DMPFC, although not in the subACC, there was a reduction in activity intensity for some but not all individuals under the load condition, although the effect was not great. The researchers conclude that empathy is not an entirely automatic process, as it is frequently assumed to be in the literature. The equivalence between automaticity and a genetic origin is itself questionable, of course. Still, that is the conventional position. The test relied on self-reporting of felt empathy alongside fMRI scanning, so that equivalent tests in animals are of course close to impossible to mount or to interpret.

These and other similar studies that locate 'moral sentiments' quite precisely in the human brain obviously raise the question of whether they can be found in similar locations in the brains of 'lower' animals that have similar sentiments. Few researchers approach this question due to the experimental difficulties, but those that do tend to assert that there is a degree of similarity between humans and other mammals. Thus, Decetya and Svetlova (2012):

'While empathic understanding, which encompasses self/other awareness, is probably specific to humans, empathic arousal and empathic concern are shared in common with other primates and mammals. Thus human empathy depends on ancient systems for intersubjectivity, rooted in attachment to kin and care for their well-being. However, layered on top of this, the cognitive abilities that are unique to our species – language, meta-representation and executive function – interact with more ancient systems and expand the range of behaviors that can be driven by empathy.

'While one needs to be cautious regarding the forms of behaviors in the animal kingdom that have been interpreted as evidence of empathy and concern, basic affective states – and the neural mechanisms to support them – are homologous in all mammals (Panksepp, 1998). The study of comparative neuroanatomy makes clear that behaviors motivated by emotion arousal evolved earlier than those driven by complex cognitive capacities. The highly interconnected regions of the brainstem, basal ganglia, and limbic system antedated expansion of the neocortex.

'Basic affective circuits emerged much earlier in brain evolution than higher cognitive capacities. This enables mammalian species to care for offspring sufficiently long so that the offspring, too, can reproduce.

'Non-human animals clearly possess at least one of the essential underlying components of empathy: the ability to be affected by, and share, the emotional state of another.

'Whether the emergence of an integrated self–other representational system has occurred relatively recently (during the course of the last 2 million years of human evolution) and only exists in a handful of species such as chimpanzees, elephants and bottlenose dolphins, or has evolved along a continuum so it can be found in different forms in other species is still a matter of debate (see Gallup, 1985, Lauwereyns et al., 2010 and Povinelli et al., 2000).'

Anatomically speaking, the divisions of the modern mammalian brain already existed 300 million years ago when amphibians evolved into sauropsids (reptiles and birds) and the integrated limbic system dates back another 100 million years or more to the time of the condricthians (e.g. sharks).

It used to be thought that there were major structural differences between the mammalian and sauropsid brains in terms of the cortex. It is fairly well accepted by now, however, that the mammalian neocortex and the equivalent sauropsid (reptile) dorsal cortex and dorsal ventricular ridge (DVR) developed from a common antecedent, being the pallium, in the ancestor reptile that evolved from amphibians (eg Reiner, 2000; Husband and Shimizu, 2001). Research has show that functionally and biochemically there is a lot of similarity between mammalian and sauropsid cortices. See Sanides (1969) and Deacon (1990).


Previous paragraphs have made out the case for an ontogenetic origin for the moral sentiments across a range of species, with a degree of experimental basis, and not needing to distinguish between a 'nativist' or a 'collective' explanation. But moral sentiments on their own do not account for the commonality of mythic beliefs and images between human cultures and their universal role in underpinning aspects of groupish behaviour. A prominent role is played in this assembly of mythic beliefs and images by archetypes. Archetypes were described in some depth in Agent Human, particularly in Appendix Three, and a brief summary of that material is included in Appendix Three of the current volume.

The archetype, a word used in this context initially by Jung (1958) and very much elaborated by his follower Ernest Neumann (1954) is a numinous (potent, powerful) unconscious psychic content. In itself it is not to be thought of as having a specific form – it exists in a very deep layer of the brain – but it gives rise to images in the visual cortex which partially represent it.

Jung described the collective unconscious (itself being that part of the unconscious which is common to all members of a group) as consisting of mythological motives or primordial images to which he gave the name 'archetypes'. Archetypes are not inborn ideas, but are:

'typical forms of behaviour, which, once they become conscious, naturally present themselves as ideas and images, like everything else that becomes a content of consciousness . . . When an archetype appears in a dream, in a fantasy or in life, it always brings with it a certain influence or power by virtue of which it either exercises a numinous or a fascinating effect, or impels to action.'

While it's possible to imagine and even to measure an inbuilt neural mechanism to support the development of cooperation, empathy, and even ToM, it is more difficult to do the same for such human archetypal images as the set of familial relationships including The Mother, The Fathers and The Hero, to pick just a few from the overall collection of very many human archetypes, together with the mythic structures that accompany them. However, it won't do to propose that such psychic content is 'learned' from mothers, fathers, uncles or witch-doctors; it may be reinforced in such ways, but only some more fundamental mechanism can explain its appearance in every child regardless of its circumstances and the culture into which it is born.

Despite the absence of experimental demonstration of the existence of archetypes, which runs counter to the current obsession with observation and measurement of any phenomenon which seeks scientific respectability, you will not find it easy to turn up out-and-out denials of the existence of archetypes. On the contrary, you will find many researchers and commentators who readily accept the reality of the idea of archetypes, and mostly agree that they are a fundamental feature of human ontology, without however venturing any guesses at what neural mechanisms may express them.

As one example out of many, here is Laughlin (1996):

The archetypes as structures mediating intuitive and symbolic knowledge are undoubtedly located in the areas of the nervous system that appear to have evolved most dramatically during the course of hominid encephalization and that produce the distinctly human quality of mentation, learning, communication, and social action characteristic of our species today.

I am not just attempting to reduce the archetypes to structures in the brain. However, if I left the analysis at this point, then I would surely be guilty of doing something that Jung consistently refused to do, for you will remember that he was also of the opinion that the archetypes are to be considered as the confluence of spirit and matter.

. . . . .

While I do agree with Penrose's (1989) arguments against narrow AI-type computational models of consciousness, it does seem possible on the strength of parapsychological and ethnographic evidence that information exchange of a broader kind may be occurring between the conscious brain and the quantum sea.

My hunch is that we may find that there are a number of mechanisms operating at the sub-cellular level by which the structure of the sea is transduced into patterned neural activity, and visa versa. So in a sense, we may speak of neurognosis as mediator of the structure of the quantum universe and the structure of the individual consciousness.

We will not be agreeing that archetypes are that recent – wolves baying at the moon are presumably obeying an archetypal imperative – but the extract illustrates a common feature of many contemporary accounts of archetypal activity, being the existence of some external field which interacts with or provides the individual's internal psychic archetypal content. In the case of Laughlin, Jung's 'spirit' is dubbed the 'quantum sea', and is an example of a popular tendency to treat consciousness as a quantum phenomenon. This attitude tends towards a dualist position, although Laughlin himself strongly denies any dualist persuasion.

It is unclear to what extent archetypes exist in non-hominid brains. If it is the case that archetypal cognitive content, including images, is necessary to the development of groupish feelings and behaviour, then it might follow that archetypes exist to some degree in all species that display groupish behaviour. That is an extreme and highly speculative position, of course.

The Collective Unconscious

Accepting, for the moment, that archetypes and their associated psychic content do exist in the neo-natal human brain, and that they arise ontogenetically, we still have to explain the mechanism by which they arise. It is easy to imagine (and demonstrate) a genetic basis for instincts, and relatively easy to imagine the same for the moral sentiments, but it is much more of a mental stretch to imagine that archetypes arise in the developing brain without any kind of external influence. One might say that every baby has a mother, and that such cognitive content is transmitted in some way from the mother to the baby. But that begs the question: there still has to be a mechanism for the transmission. Nativist explanations seem improbable; there needs to be at least a partly collectivist explanation.

When the term 'collective unconscious' is used to encapsulate archetypes and their associated psychic content, the language is moving closer to admitting the existence of an external body of content.

Neither Jung himself, nor his follower and in respect of archetypes, successor, Ernest Neumann, ever took a clear position on whether the collective unconscious had any existence independently of the individuals in which it operates. Jung often lamented the absence of relevant research; he died in 1961.

Jung came closest to a statement that archetypes and the collective unconscious have independent existence through his theory of 'synchronicity', which was most fully expounded in 'Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle', originally published in 1954:

'...it is impossible, with our present resources, to explain ESP, or the fact of meaningful coincidence, as a phenomenon of energy. This makes an end of the causal explanation as well, for "effect" cannot be understood as anything except a phenomenon of energy. Therefore it cannot be a question of cause and effect, but of a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity. Because of this quality of simultaneity, I have picked on the term "synchronicity" to designate a hypothetical factor equal in rank to causality as a principle of explanation.'

The roots of Jung's theory are to be found in his lifelong fascination with the paranormal and in his relationships with Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli, leading him to conflate quantum mechanics, then at a very early stage of development, with the paranormal and his work on the unconscious. The result was synchronicity, and what Jung and Pauli called the 'unus mundus', the interconnectedness of all things.

Although Erich Neumann vastly elaborated Jung's ideas in a series of books between 1950 and 1980, beginning with The Origins and History of Consciousness, and later particularly in relation to the feminine psyche, he does not appear to have written on synchronicity, and did not make any clear statement regarding the independence or otherwise of the collective unconscious. He died in 2004,

If ontogeny, expressing itself during individual development, does not provide satisfactory explanations for the emergence of archetypes, then we have to look elsewhere, and that is how the 'collectivist' hypothesis arises. There is little point in appealing to a reader's evidence-based world-view for an acceptance of the collective unconscious as an existential reality: there is no evidence; there is just a set of improbabilities which point one in that direction, supported by the increasingly mainstream discipline of quantum mechanics and the almost respectable study of psi (paranormal phenomena). The purpose of this book is to present the evidence for the involvement of quantum and psi phenomena in the workings of the human brain, conscious and unconscious, and to try to work towards a synthesis of current science in that area.

Why though look to quantum mechanics and psi to account for human psychical development rather than other possible branches of science, pseudo or otherwise? In the case of quantum mechanics, it is because there is already a substantial body of evidence that quantum mechanisms are involved in neural operations; indeed, many writers, and that is not putting the case too strongly, propose that consciousness itself is a quantum phenomenon. The present writer thinks that to be piffle, except in the most trivial sense; but it is piffle that exists and must be dealt with. In the case of psi, it is because there is no known physical mechanism that can account for demonstrated psychic phenomena, including the ability of humans and animals to communicate with each other at a distance, and it seems impossible to rule out the possible involvement of such a mechanism in the collective unconscious, if that exists.

After decades, or even, some would say, centuries during which psi (telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis et al) has been treated as a 'pseudo-science', unworthy of serious consideration by scientists and researchers steeped in the mechanistic traditions established by Descartes, the body of rigorously conducted research into psi phenomena has reached a tipping point, and with the utmost reluctance on the part of academia the discipline has been accepted into the pantheon of respectable sciences. Just! There are still plenty of sceptics who are unwilling or unable to see or accept the plain truth that psi exists.

The sudden respectability of psi has taken place in parallel with the growing realization on the part of scientists that quantum mechanics has completely upended the classical model of physical dynamics. That model had been seen as severely compromised by Heisenberg, Planck and Einstein, with the coup de grace being administered by Scots/Irish physicist John Stewart Bell in the 1960s. Bell's Theorem, which holds that 'entangled' particles are instantaneously interconnected however far apart they may be, and that it is impossible to measure both the momentum and the spin of such a particle, has been experimentally verified time and again.

Quantum mechanics has profound consequences for the science of biology and evolution. It is a startling but undisputed fact that when a cell divides, it gives off a photon, and that the two resulting cells are quantum entangled. The consequence would seem to be that all cells and therefore all assemblies of cells (we may call them animals, or brains, for instance) are quantum entangled, and always were, because it seems unlikely that quantum mechanics or quantum entanglement somehow came into existence after life emerged on earth.

Given then that all organic particles, cells we may call them, are interconnected, it is but a short step to asserting that quantum phenomena are likely to be implicated in the processes of evolution, and beyond that in the techniques of communication between organisms of the same or different species, including by all means the existence of a collective unconscious.

Recent work on quantum theory has sketched out the possibility that quantum interconnectness, far from being just a phenomenon that exists in an uneasy relationship with classical mechanics, is integral to the construction of space-time and the concepts of Einsteinian relativity, see Raamsdonk (2010).

This supplement to Agent Human will explore the territory sketched out above, and will attempt to put forward a account of how quantum interconnectedness has impacted the process of evolution, and not incidentally has enabled the formation of the collective unconscious and the techniques of psi.


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