Classroom Lecture Notes: Jung on Dreaming

by G. William Domhoff

These are my own notes that I use when teaching classes about dream research. They may be of use to those looking for some general information about Carl Jung's ideas on dreams.

Also see my notes on the similarities and differences between Freud and Jung.

Jung's Theory of Dreaming

Carl Jung lived from 1875-1961. He saw dreams as having the structure of a story or play. He saw many parallels between dreams and myths, and said they sometimes used the same symbols to express their themes. Different kinds of dreams came from different levels of the "psyche," which is Jung's term for the whole personality.

The psyche has the following structure:

Ego Levelmeaning the "I" or our sense of a self identity.
Personal Unconsciousexperiences once conscious now either forgotten or repressed; we could call this the "Freudian level." It contains "complexes," our hang-ups. They are especially powerful and difficult when they attach to the Archetypes in the collective unconscious, discussed below. "Little" dreams come from this level if we don't have too many pressing complexes; these little dreams are then continuous with waking thoughts;
Collective UnconsciousThis is the deepest level of the psyche; it consists of hundreds of archetypes, in-born predispositions to think or act in certain ways. Archetypes are image patterns with energy charges built into them; archetypes need to be expressed and integrated with each other; archetypes are expressed in dreams, myths, mystical practices, beliefs about aliens and flying saucers. The collective unconscious is the product of the repeated experiences of the human species.

The dreams about our complexes and our archetypes have a compensatory function; they are telling us which parts of the psyche are out of balance; they are an expression of our need to fully develop ("individuate"/"differentiate") all aspects of the psyche and also to "integrate" (harmonize, synthesize; called the "transcendent function") all aspects of the psyche.

The many parts of the personality can work in opposition to each other, or some can compensate for others, or they can become part of a synthesis, which is more usual in the second half of adult life. Dreams help sort all this out, but the specifics of the personality dynamics are not necessary for this course.

Among the hundreds of archetypes, five are usually emphasized:

  1. The persona: the archetype that allows us to take on different roles in life (the "mask")
  2. Anima: the feminist aspect in men (I think it just means passive and accepting)
  3. Animus: the masculine aspect in men (I think it means assertive)
  4. Shadow: the instinctive aspect...the "animal spirits"
  5. Self: the integrative function within us...that which tries to bring wholeness and harmony

Dreams that come from the collective unconscious and express archetypes are "big dreams." In addition to "big" and "little" dreams, Jung also thought there were other kinds of dreams:

  1. Traumatic dreams, now called PTSD dreams;
  2. "Prospective" dreams, meaning dreams that are "anticipatory" of needed changes (this category is difficult to distinguish from compensatory dreams);
  3. Extrasensory dreams, based on telepathy;
  4. Prophetic dreams, based on pre-cognition (Jung said these were very rare).

How do we recognize big dreams?

  1. Mythical parallels in the content (see below for examples). Put another way, they are expressed through symbolism that is widely shared historically and cross-culturally.
  2. More emotional
  3. Less rational (i.e., irrational, bizarre things happen)
  4. Less like everyday life (not in the sense of bizarre, but more like far from the usual routines)

Examples of how some of the archetypes appear in big dreams:

  1. The anima and animus often appear as strangers of the gender opposite of the dreamer or as people mysteriously dressed, or as unusual groups of males or females.
  2. The shadow, which is not inherently "bad" or "dangerous," but becomes so when denied expression, can appear as one or another animal, including dangerous animals if it is denied.
  3. The self archetype appears as a "mandala," a symbol of wholeness, a magic circle, often with an intricate and interesting internal design.

Methods Jung gave us that any theorist can use:

  1. Active imagination: focus on an image in your mind and see how it evolves (used in hypnosis).
  2. Ampflication: after each "free association" return to the original element being considered.
  3. Dream series: study many dreams from a person for patterns and changes.

Problems with the theory

  1. No systematic evidence for the compensatory function; continuity with waking life is the usual finding in a wide range of studies.
  2. Dream content is more consistent over the life span than the theory suggests it should be.
  3. The archetypes of the collective unconscious, which are meant to explain our individual experiences, are said to come from past experiences of human beings. This means in effect that developmental experiences in the standard human context of a family and group could be a sufficient explanation in conjunction with our gradual acquisition of the cultural "inheritance" of a vast system of conceptual metaphors.
  4. There is no systematic evidence that the metaphors of waking life are being used in dreams. That point is simply assumed by Jung, Freud, and all other theorists.

Go back to the Dream Library index.

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