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Jung’s Theory of Complexes

The idea of complexes is so well established today, it’s a common figure of speech. Alfred Adler long ago introduced the idea of an inferiority complex, and most of us know what is meant by it. It works together with its opposite, and an over-compensating facade of superiority conceals it.

An unconscious complex describes one of those curious blind-spots in our personalities that only others may see. Those who know us may have to tip-toe around them, because we’re unconsciously sensitive to them. They evoke defensive reactions when triggered and often result in the anger that masks our fear of them — the surest sign of a weak spot, that we’re not in control.

Along with many of Jung’s concepts, his theory of complexes seems only half-acknowledged as a fundamental building block in understanding how our minds work. Psychology fancies having gone beyond those basics, even as it never really understood their implications. His ideas seem to have been dismissed by an attitude peculiarly suggestive of misunderstanding and denial.

Jung’s discovery that we connect with our deepest natures through religious and philosophical ideas is more and more obscured by a science focused on the material world. Psychology moves only further away from the psyche through a technological faddism blinded by the glare of disparate tid-bits of statistical and technical knowledge. The science charged to make sense of an immaterial mind is unable to see through the concreteness of data, measurement, precision instruments, and all the rest of the bandwagon of rational thought.

Part of the problem is the lack of an empirical concept of the unconscious. That there could even be psychologies today which don’t acknowledge it is itself a study in complexes. We can’t see it directly as one would view molecules under microscopes or brains through electronic scans; but there are objective ways to infer its heavy influence on how we think and feel.

Jung’s study of complexes began with his association tests.  A subject’s one-word response to a stimulus word was timed and recorded. Delays in responses to certain words, lack of memory of them, and other disturbances of what would normally be a simple exercise in word-association prompted him to look closer. Inappropriate responses (those against instruction), facial expressions, body movements, stammering, habitual repetition of the same words — all these reactions were beyond control of the will.

The emotional roots of the disturbances could gradually be identified by honing in on the stimulus words and their patterns. The ones causing the disturbances revolved around certain general ideas that hung together in a meaningful way. Over the course of a hundred words or so, a picture emerged to a skilled observer. The more knowledge of the subject and the more targeted the trigger words, the more information was revealed.

All pointed toward concealed, semi-conscious, repressed, and/or completely unconscious contents which revolved around decisive issues in the subject’s life. Jung wrote in The Symbolic Life:

A complex is an agglomeration of associations — a sort of picture of… a psychological nature — sometimes of traumatic character, sometimes simply of a painful and highly toned character. Everything that is highly toned is rather difficult to handle… It is simply an important affair, and whatever has an intense feeling-tone is difficult to handle because such contents are associated with physiological reactions, with the processes of the heart, the tonus of the blood vessels, the condition of the intestines, the breathing, and the innervation of the skin… it is just as if that particular complex had a body of its own, as if it were localized in my body to a certain extent…

The implications of these processes go far beyond mere Freudian slips. Who would need a clearer picture of the mutual effects of mind and body? That the psyche would send forth signals through the body, symbols, of its own life through its own ideas in an unconscious effort to translate to consciousness what it was feeling, what had been repressed? Jung:

… a complex with its given tension or energy has the tendency to form a little personality of itself. It has a sort of body, a certain amount of its own physiology. It can upset the stomach. It upsets the breathing, it disturbs the heart — in short, it behaves like a partial personality. For instance, when you want to say or do something and… a complex interferes with this intention… your best intention gets upset by the complex, exactly as if you had been interfered with by a human being or by circumstances outside.

Regardless of how consciousness interprets itself, its “own” ideas, or its will, there are psychic facts which appear as outer circumstances and events  — but which are not. It would seem that psychology today is interested more in how it can relieve the symptoms of being human — of hiding from the mystery of life rather than trying to understand it:

All this is explained by the fact that the so-called unity of consciousness is an illusion. It is really a wish-dream.  We like to think that we are one; but we are not, most decidedly not. We are not really masters in our house. We like to believe in our will-power and in our energy and in what we can do; but when it comes to a real show-down we find that we can do it only to a certain extent…

The real show-down is now. What will we do?


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The Psychology of C.G. Jung: It’s All In How You Look At It

Confusion and misunderstanding are almost similes for Jung’s psychology. Is it a science? If so, what kind is it? To understand his ideas, an overview of the unconscious psyche and natural law is helpful. Because they’re synonymous and function in a counter-intuitive way, Jung’s approach was not causal or rational from the common perspective. I would like to share some of my understanding of his method.

Because consciousness is under the influence of unseen forces, their effects can only be inferred. Just as physicists infer the existence of unseen bodies in space by their effects on visible ones, when considering unconscious effects Jung employed an indirect method called the phenomenological approach. The products of the mind comprise its study and consist of observable phenomena which are the result of unconscious effects on our thinking.

Since the basic qualities of consciousness are focus and direction, it excludes information not relevant to its attention at a given time. Jung compared it to a searchlight in a forest and the illumination of a small area in the darkness. What is beyond it still exists, though not until the light moves can it be seen. When it moves, what was formerly lit fades back into darkness. Just as in a forest, what is outside its beam works according to natural processes.

Biology has proven that all natural processes are purposeful. Despite what ego tells us, the human animal is no less the product of purposive nature than any other observable phenomenon. Jung’s method began with natural science, and he worked honestly to make it consistent with its discoveries.

His model differs from the causal approach, because psychology is the study of the psyche observing itself. It doesn’t have the luxury of an objective standpoint outside itself as natural science does. Since the unconscious organizes ideas differently than consciousness, its language is not directly accessible.

To work round the problem, to achieve a perspective beyond a subjective one, Jung used a comparative approach. As comparative anatomy studies differences and similarities in the structures of animals to arrive at common heritage and form a concept of evolution, Jung used the vantage-point of history to lend an “outside” perspective to psychic development.

To bridge the difficulty of direct measurement in natural science, he adapted its laws by formulating them in a way particular to the individual. By viewing it as a “relatively closed system” he showed the general laws of energy to apply to the psyche also.

Psychic energy could be measured in terms of value. A value represents a sum of psychic energy, and estimates of its relative importance in the individual could be determined by the frequency and intensity with which certain unconscious complexes of ideas intruded into the conscious “field.” These ideas are “feeling-toned”, emotionally charged, and their intensity and frequency measures their value.

His association tests validated the phenomena, and he found that the complexes revolved around instinctive functions. Like comparative anatomy discovered, they conform to the general laws of nature. The estimates of value provided an objective assessment, though relative to the individual.

In the course of Jung’s broad analytic experience he observed patterns in the ideas and dreams of his patients. They conformed in a remarkable way to those in religion, myth, philosophy, and literature which comprised his comparative material. They emerged as forms of thought which could be reduced to a fundamental few in comparison with the swarming, chaotic buzz (think statistics) of qualitative description. These forms are perceptible through recurring themes which reflect instinctive, pre-determined modes of perception and experience and their unconscious organization — the mind’s structure.

Jung compared his patients’ dreams with his historical studies of ideas. These included direct observations of primitive African cultures as well as American Indians in the western United States. Something emerged which was completely outside the bounds of what science regarded as material for research: the psyche had a religious function; he found that the value (the intensity and frequency of the intrusion of that complex of ideas) was one of such significance in the constitution of the mind, it required investigation.

His experience with his patients confirmed his research. This historical aspect of the psyche, developed through religious and philosophical ideas, conditions consciousness as powerfully as the objective outer world; indeed, it was the objective inner world.

Owing to his intellectual integrity, Jung allowed the material he compared and collated to “shape itself” according to the conformities reflected in it. He didn’t begin with a theory and adapt his own ideas to it. He may have begun with certain intuitive ones, but he strove to make them compatible with the material. This is the way of natural science. He wrote that a “mode of observation” had “reality-significance” if it produced results.

His method differs from statistical evaluation for reasons I hope are evident. Recent developments in neuroscience, which relies on instruments to record the data of brain processes, are just now beginning to discover “facts” which Jung observed over a century ago. Is his method too complicated for them? I doubt that. It’s more likely attributable to their focus. Is it working? Their own statistics suggest otherwise.

How many “scientific” studies only reinforce what intuition and common sense tell us? We’re so focused on the material value of  the “scientific method,” so in awe of our intellects for having conceived it, we can’t see around it. These unseen influences are psychic phenomenon: material for the psychological empiricist.

The comparative method enabled Jung to see around the facade of modern ego, peer into the history of the mind, and allow consciousness to observe its own development. It lent an important perspective to subjective value and historical conditioning — as well as the important role of religious and philosophical ideas in our development.


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