Dreams and Biology


Jungian therapy, biology, and dreams

Maxson J. McDowell

A version of this article was originally published in Quadrant: Journal of the C. G. Jung Foundation for Analytical Psychology, Vol. 29, 1. Copyright: C. G. Jung Foundation for Analytical Psychology, Inc., 1999. All rights reserved.

Maxson McDowell PhD, LMSW, LP is in private practice as a Jungian analyst in the Upper West Side, New York. He also works with couples and runs two on-going therapy groups. 

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What is therapy?

How can it help?

Why Jungian therapy?

How does it relate to biology?

I address all these questions in the article that follows.

(Matisse: Casbah Gate)

In a previous career I was an experimental scientist in molecular biology; now I am a Jungian analyst. As an analyst I sense that there are non-rational forces at work. I encounter numinous images and I find that the psyche has its own goals which are independent of mine. But as a biologist I seek rational explanations. My two points of view, that of a biologist and that of an analyst, are in conflict. The conflict has led to this paper. (Medieval, Catalan: “Nativity”)

I argue that relatedness is a central goal of individuation. In brief, to relate is to engage consciously with the other. The other is found both in the outer world and in the inner world of the psyche. To relate in depth we must be open to that part of the other which is mysterious.

Archetypes and Inheritance

A dream sometimes alludes to a story that is also told in mythology. When my patient “Ruth” dreamt that she was abducted to a basement by a dark man, her dream seemed to allude to the myth of Persephone:

Persephone was a young woman. While she was picking flowers in a field, she was seized by Hades and taken to the underworld. Her mother, Demeter, was grief-stricken and enraged. She made the land barren. A deal was struck amongst the gods. For six months of the year Persephone was Hades’ bride, Queen of the Underworld. For the other six months she was allowed to rejoin her mother. Whenever Persephone was with her, Demeter made the land fertile again. This is why we have summer and winter. (Gaugin: “Breton Landscape”)

Ruth’s dream only hinted at a story, while the myth elaborates the story and suggests a resolution.

Ruth’s dream and the myth are somehow related. Moreover similar myths have arisen independently in other cultures. For example there is a Polynesian myth that retells the story of Persephone:

On a coral island, a young woman, Hina-moe-atu (Hina-sleeping-with-a-god) was bathing in a fresh-water pool beneath a cliff. A huge eel came to her from beneath the rocks, went sliding under her vulva, and gave her pleasure with its tail. The same thing happened many times. Then, while Hina was gazing at it, the eel became a handsome young island man. Many times he came with her to her house and they made love. Then he told her he would have to leave her forever and instructed her what to do. There were torrential rains and the water rose to the threshold of her house. The eel came and laid its head in her doorway. She cut of its head with the sacred adze of her ancestor and buried it behind her house. Then she visited that place every day to see what would happen. In time a firm green shoot appeared, and from it grew two coconut palms. The coconut palm provides food and many raw materials for the economy of the island, and this is how it was created.

There is no summer and winter on a coral island.

The myths of Persephone and Hina-moe-atu seem to describe a process of maturation. A woman is drawn into her instinctual life by a phallic power. Then she sacrifices and thereby transforms some of her instinctuality. The result is new psychological growth. This is represented in the myths as the renewed fertility of the land.

Over the centuries the myth of Persephone has been worked out to completion and stripped of extraneous detail. The narrative has been tested and found “true” by many tellers and many listeners. But Ruth is an individual. An amplification or an interpretation may be “true” in general, but “wrong” for her. Perhaps the timing is wrong, or the emphasis, or perhaps she and I have misunderstood the dream altogether. We consider our interpretation of her dream “true” only if she feels the truth of it, or if it is confirmed by some spontaneous visceral reaction in her, like a flush, or tears, or a sudden release of tension.

It seems that Ruth’s dream and the two myths must each have arisen independently from the same source. Jung called that source an archetype, a psychological invariant common to each of us because it is inherited rather than learned. By analogy there are behavioral invariants, like blushing, or smiling, or crying, which are common to each of us because they are inherited rather than learned. (We modify them by learning.)

The pantheon of Gods in a religion represents, in psychological terms, a series of archetypes. Demeter, Persephone and Hades are examples. Jung said that archetypes make up a great part of the unconscious. This he called the collective unconscious, to distinguish it from the personal unconscious (Jung 1921). My personal unconscious is made up of contents which might well be conscious, but which I have forgotten or repressed in my individual life. Thus my repressed envy of my friend lies in my personal unconscious, while the archetype behind Persephone lies in the collective unconscious. Jung argued that each archetype gives rise to characteristic images and myths.

It seems difficult to account for the inheritance of archetypes in rational terms. To explain what I mean I must digress into biology. Although inheritance is based upon genes, the total number of different genes in my chromosomes is limited. Recent research has shown that a person has only about twenty times as many genes as a bacterium: I have less than 100,000 and a bacterium has between 3,000 and 5,000 (Alberts et. al., 1994). But my structure is astronomically more complex (Tresan, 1996b). The small number of my genes must mean that genetic information cannot function as a blueprint. While the structure of a building is specified in detail in its blueprint, I do not have enough genes to specify my structure in this manner. In fact most genes specify processes rather than structures; most genes code for enzymes that catalyze chemical reactions within the cell. It follows that these chemical reactions, which are relatively few in number, must absorb information in a controlled manner from their environment in order to create my final structure.

An analogy will help to explain what I mean. A recipe specifies how to bake bread. But the recipe itself contains only a few pieces of explicit information. The recipe may say nothing about the final three-dimensional reality of the loaf, its shape, texture, color, aroma, and taste. The success of the bread depends upon its ability to absorb information in a controlled manner from the environment. The baker’s actions, the oven, the pan, the humidity, the barometric pressure, and the chemical and physical properties of the ingredients all contribute information that helps to determine the final form of the loaf. In this analogy the recipe corresponds to the genetic information, while the baker’s actions and the oven contribute environmental information. The point is that while genes cannot function as a blueprint they do function as a recipe. In technical terms, we know that a gene functions as an alogorithm (Elman et. al. 1988). An alogorithm is a recipe.

My argument is supported by much experimental research. For example, rats were reared in an environment enriched with playthings and opportunities to explore, while a control group was reared in an impoverished environment. It was found that an “enriched” rat’s cerebral cortex was thicker, had a higher metabolic rate, and had more higher-order dendritic branches. (Greenough, 1976). Recent experiments have shown that in vertebrates, while the visual and somatosensory regions of the cerebral cortex are developing,

central neurons wait for information from the periphery [i.e. from the environment] in order for normal development to go forward. If the messages change, a different brain organization results (Gazzaniga, 1992).

From this digression it seems obvious that I could not inherit an archetypal image or story, as such, in my genes. In computers an image takes up a great deal of storage space. My storage system for genetic information is much too small. Jung himself argued that we do not inherit an image, but an archetypal tendency to form an image. He said that the tendency was activated by the environment and that the specific image was derived from the environment (Jung 1936a; 1938/54).

According to Jung:

The archetypes are the unconscious images of the instincts. … [An archetype] is not meant to denote an inherited idea, but rather an inherited mode of functioning, corresponding to the inborn way in which the chick emerges from the egg, the bird builds its nest, a certain kind of wasp stings the motor ganglion of the caterpillar, and eels find their way to the Bermudas. In other words it is a “pattern of [instinctual] behavior” (Jung, 1936b; 1933). (Rousseau: “Flamingoes”)

Animal studies have shown that instincts are inherited through the genes.Both in an animal and in a person, instinct is the source of drives such as sexuality, hunger, and aggression. In an animal, but to a much lesser degree in a person, instinct also specifies complicated behaviors like those described above by Jung. A person’s behavior differs from animal behavior in that it is more influenced by learning and less specified by instinct. (I use the term “instinct” in the broad sense to mean any inherited behavioral potential.)

The following illustrates how an animal’s instinct is linked to an image. As soon as a gosling hatches, it is driven by instinct to follow its mother. But it lacks an internal image of its mother. If I honk like a goose and crouch low enough, then the newly-hatched gosling imprints an image of me in its brain to represent mother. Henceforward, if I crouch and honk, it will follow me. It will not follow a goose (Lorenz, 1970). The gosling has inherited the instinct to follow its mother, but it has taken the image of mother from its environment.

Similar mechanisms must operate in each of us (Stern, 1977), though at a higher level of complexity. This suggests how the myth of Persephone or of Hina-moe-atu is “inherited.” Every girl in every culture inherits a sexual instinct. Consequently she is attracted to and perhaps fearful of a man (if she is lesbian, a woman) who is usually a stranger. She in turn attracts him. With him she explores her feelings and is drawn away from her family. As she learns to discriminate these feelings she develops psychologically. Thus the girl’s instinctual predicament, which is universal, suggests the story of Persephone. She seems to inherit not the story per se but “the facts of life” which suggest the story.

She must also inherit her imaginative capacity or, more accurately, the potential to develop it. It seems that her imagination recreates the story of Persephone in response to both inherited and environmental directions. As I have already explained, her physical body is formed by an analogous process in response to both inherited and environmental directions.

It seems that any archetypal image could be created by the mechanism I have described. I inherit the potential to acquire knowledge and insight. I see my potential embodied in another man who is older than me. Hence I form the archetypal image of the wise old man. I inherit the potential to leave my parents, but also the potential to regress, to go back home. I repress my desire to go back and project it onto my mother: it is her desire to take me back. Hence I develop the archetypal image of the battle with a devouring monster. I inherit the potential to be related but project this potential onto a young woman. Hence I develop the archetypal image of the anima. I inherit the potential to unify my personality more in the second half of my life, the potential to develop a relationship between my conscious ego and the archetypes. Hence I form an archetypal image of the self. I will say more later about the anima and the self.

Tresan (1996c) also suggested that each of us may create anew our own archetypal image:

The enormous capacities of … each brain are capable of creating de nouveau any known archetypal pattern through self-organization and without the need for an invocation of the a priori [archetype].

But Tresan did not explain how this might be accomplished. I argue that the inherited instinct is the a priori from which an archetypal image organizes itself.

If it is simply the instinct which is inherited then there is no need to postulate an inherited “archetype as such”. This point seems to lie at the heart of Pietikainen’s (1998b) recent criticism of Jungian theory:

[The]’principle of parsimony’ supports simplicity in the construction of theories: … entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. … I do not doubt that some of the most basic conditions of our historical existence are defined a priori by our biological constitution. … What I do question is the totally speculative notion of the inheritance of archetypal structure.

Ruth’s dream of being taken to a basement may help her to resolve an objective, i.e. outer-life, problem. If she is young and struggling to separate from her mother, or if she is an adult whose passionate feelings are repressed, then the dream may guide her towards a deeper relationship with a man.

But the dream might also refer to a subjective, inner-life problem. Ruth may be blocked in her own creative work. Perhaps she feels sterile, or perhaps she lacks the necessary discrimination and assertion. Discrimination can be represented by a sword or a knife and assertion by a club. Since these are phallic symbols, discrimination and assertion are phallic powers. Hades would then represent her own inner phallic potential. Then the dream might help her to relate more consciously to that potential, so that her creative work could flourish. Such inner developments are intangible and difficult to understand. The dream solves this problem by using a familiar outer-life story (a girl’s deepening connection to a man) as a metaphor. Often, in a dream, the outer and inner levels of meaning both apply. (Picasso: “Jaqueline”)

Why are Archetypal Images Numinous?

Demeter, Persephone, and Hades were gods. To the ancient Greeks who worshiped them they were numinous, which means they evoked awe, or fear and wonder (Otto, 1936). Like the Greeks, my patients sometimes dream of a figure which is highly charged and mysterious. For example “George” dreamt:

A bizarre animal, a hawk with a big wolf’s head, flew towards me, landed on my hand, and looked at me. It was full of power. It was like a freight train rushing towards me.

George was shocked by the wolf-hawk. He reacted with fear and wonder, just as the Greeks reacted to visitations by their gods. When I call George’s image numinous, I am not making an irrational statement of faith. Rather I am using a psychological term for an empirical observation which has a long history.The Greeks made sacrifices in part to distinguish their gods from themselves. This helped them to avoid hubris. Hubris meant taking upon themselves god-like powers, like flying too close to the sun, which would swamp their personal identity. In modern terms, when I face an archetype I am in danger of assigning to myself archetypal powers, of feeling larger than life. In order to avoid this inflation, or hubris, I must distinguish between my own personal qualities and those of the archetype. I must relate to an archetype rather than fuse with it (Jung 1928/35). I will come back to this problem when I discuss relatedness.

What does it mean that a dream figure is numinous? Why, in most dreams, are the figures not numinous? Dreams seem to be messages from the unconscious. Usually a figure in a dream brings me information from the personal unconscious, that is, knowledge that my conscious mind can readily encompass. In that case the figure seems mundane. Often it is someone I know, or reminds me of someone I know. Then the quality which I associate with that person is the message. If I dream of my uncle Bill and I associate Bill with penny-pinching, then my dream suggests that I am penny-pinching somewhere in my present life. A numinous figure, however, does not remind me of anyone I know personally. Often I cannot make out its features because its face is obscured or strangely illuminated. (This is the psychological basis for the halo.) When I analyze such a figure I find that I cannot fully grasp it. Although George came to understand some of the meaning of his wolf-hawk, it remained mysterious. By its very design, a chimera (two animals in one) is an image of that which is incomprehensible. (Rousseau: “Sleeping Gypsy”)

Why is an archetypal image numinous? Can there be a rational explanation? I argue that the collective unconscious is made up of inherited instincts and the images derived from them. As such it is archaic and enduring. It must always have been present in humans and in their hominid ancestors. In fact, since all animals have instincts it is as old, in some form, as the nervous system itself (Jung 1956). It is not changed by my individual history; in each of us it is the same. My conscious personality, however, my sense of “I”, is transitory. It is born in my early childhood and dies when I die. It is unique, being the sum of my own individual experience. Thus my consciousness is only a temporary epiphenomenon of the timeless unconscious. It is like a mushroom which appears only briefly aboveground. A mushroom is born out of the mycelium, the main mass of the fungus, which persists indefinitely underground.

It seems to follow that my conscious mind cannot encompass the unconscious, any more than a hailstone can encompass the weather. I can speculate about it, or sketch it in intellectually, but I cannot know it. In terms of subjective experience, an intellectual sketch is not the same as knowing. I may describe the universe and its galaxies mathematically, but it remains an awe-inspiring mystery to me. Thus when a figure in my dream represents an archetype it represents something from another realm, like the realm of the fairies in Celtic myth. Its numinosity may be my subjective experience of the incomprehensibility of the archetype, my way of representing that incomprehensibility within consciousness1.

Certainly a young child, to whom his or her parents are incomprehensible, experiences them as numinous (Whitmont, 1991b). I sometimes say of an extraordinary person that he or she “seems larger than life,” or “seems to glow in the dark.” Jung (1956) himself suggested that an archetypal image seems numinous to us because of the overwhelming importance of the instinct that it represents.

Behind the mystery I have described there is perhaps an ultimate mystery. But psychology does not deal with the ultimate:

Psychology can only approach the subject from the phenomenological angle, for the realities of faith lie outside the realm of psychology (Jung 1940/54).

If I were to use religious language, I would say that an archetype is a force of nature and that nature, which is God’s creation, is itself a numinous mystery.

The Purposeful Psyche

When I work with dreams the unconscious seems to have a goal in mind. Current dreams address current problems. Dreams are forever correcting a one-sided view and suggesting how the dreamer might proceed. Ruth’s dream, for example, hinted that she was living too intellectually and trying to suppress instinctual needs; perhaps she needed to go deeper. Throughout Ruth’s analysis she and I assumed that her dreams had purpose and that it was our task to decipher it.

From a rational point of view this poses a problem. Whose purpose? If my dreams are messages to me, then who or what is sending them? Must there be an agent within the unconscious that has its own point of view, its own plans which are different from mine (Grotstein, 1998)?

Since my conscious personality is born during my childhood, it must grow during my lifetime; it must assimilate new experiences in order to expand its range. In this regard my conscious personality is like a biological system. In biology, the principle of self-assembly orself-organization was clarified by research on the structure of hemoglobin and the assembly of viruses that began in the 1940’s (Watson et. al., 1987; Wood and Crowther, 1983).

It is now understood that in any biological system growth tends to be self-organized. Growth is self-organized, for example, in a beavers’ dam, or a living cell, or a fetus. On a different time scale Darwinian evolution itself is self-organized. At the psychological level, a therapy group matures and becomes productive by a spontaneous process of self-organization (Yalom, 1975). In each case self-organization leads spontaneously to an emergent level of order, a level of order distinct from, and more complex than, the level that preceded it (Holland, 1998). Thus sticks become a dam, molecules become a cell, reptiles become mammals, and individuals become a group.

A self-organized system takes resources from its environment and integrates them into its own structure. Growth manifests innate potential rather than a plan. It is like a new stream finding its way downhill: the stream has a goal but there is no plan.

It has been shown that beavers do not plan their dam. Young beavers were reared in isolation from adults, and were never exposed to a beavers’ dam. Nevertheless they built dams. In one experiment, the young beavers were exposed to the recorded sound of running water. With this stimulus they built dams even in a still tank of water (Wilson, 1968, 1971). These experiments show that dam building is the result not of purposeful action but of instinctive behavior. (The fact that a beaver can perfect a behavior by observing a more experienced beaver does not contradict the argument.) A beaver cuts down trees, digs channels to float the logs towards the dam, and then places them in a mass, together with small branches, mud, and whatever other materials it can find (Ryden, 1989). The dam assembles itself out of these materials. As it grows, it is guided by its inherent (a priori) formal or mathematical possibilities. This concept sounds abstruse but is actually familiar: for example, how many different ways can you arrange three match-sticks so that they are contiguous? The dam is also guided by the constraints of its environment, such as gravity, water pressure, and the shape of the stream’s bank. Thus it becomes an individual unit that is sensitively adapted to its environment.

Perhaps it seems eccentric to compare the human personality to a beaver’s dam! But the human personality is an aggregate of ill-matched parts, a grab-bag, patchwork, shifting kind of thing. Its construction bears witness to past injuries and repairs. It is unlike most biological structures, in that, within a single species, its form varies extravagantly from one individual to the next. It is structured, however, according to some invariant principles. For example, it must function as a unit and it must accommodate its immediate environment. All of the above is also true for a beaver’s dam. Thus the dam is a model for the personality.

As my future unfolds, if I am fortunate, things “click into place,” I “find my way.” These words suggest that the way was ahead of me, waiting to be found. It was innate. In part it was inherited as a recipe in my genes. In part it was inherent or implicit in the situation (how many ways can you arrange three sticks so that they are contiguous?).

I think of the following examples from my practice. A painter discovered in middle age that she loved to write fiction. A woman who had been a pleaser discovered that she had a talent for wielding power; she enjoyed her power in her corporation. An engineer whose education had been mostly technical discovered that he loved to paint. A man from an alienated and unhappy family discovered that he loved children and liked to be with his own family. In each of these examples the person grew, not according to any plan, but by stumbling upon his or her own potential.

As I grow I assimilate resources from my environment. This may be external, the outside world, but it is also internal. The collective unconscious is the internal environment from which my consciousness develops. The stages in the evolution of consciousness out of the collective unconscious have been described, for example by Whitmont (1991c). When I am in midlife (somewhere around the age of 40), my conscious personality may be shaken by an encounter with an archetypal force. If this happens I may, with hard work, develop a more conscious relationship to the archetype.

The Anima

The following vignettes illustrate such an encounter. (These vignettes are chosen for contrast; I do not mean to imply that they exhaust the possibilities. The predicament I describe can have many outcomes.) In middle age “Henry” was struggling to write creatively. He became fascinated with a younger woman. Since he loved his wife and children, he was caught between two opposing desires. He was thrown into conflict. He could not bear the tension and felt compelled to end it. Perhaps he repressed his fascination, or perhaps he abandoned his family. Either way he may have sacrificed too much and thereby injured himself. He may have understood his longing for the younger woman in too literal terms.

Or, in the same predicament, Henry did not sacrifice either side. He continued to suffer both his fascination for the young woman and his love for his wife and children. He sensed that his conflict had meaning. He tried to understand it, but failed. His talents, his past experience, his ego skills, were not effective. He was at an impasse. Only then, when consciousness had been defeated, did he listen to the unconscious. (It seemed to have created the whole predicament for just that purpose. If there were a viable course of action he would have ignored the unconscious.)

A vital and mysterious woman appeared in Henry’s dreams. She took many forms. For example:

I was a man like Picasso. I was with a Spanish woman and there was physical tension between us. We drank water together at an old stone fountain. We poured the water from a jug to a cup. It was a ritual with deep meaning.

Picasso was a highly creative man who was inspired by a series of mistresses. Water symbolizes the flow of feeling or creativity. The woman made the water accessible (the cup) from its impersonal source (the fountain). Thus the Spanish woman represented the anima. It was she who made the young woman in Henry’s outer life seem so compelling. Eventually Henry recognized that he had been projecting an archetype onto a person.

In our culture a girl is conditioned more than a boy to interact personally. She talks more to other girls. As a boy Henry tended more towards impersonal activities, like sports and cars. Consequently, when he was older, the image of a young woman represented his archetypal potential for relatedness. She was young because the potential was new to him.

What do I mean by “relatedness”? If I am to relate to you then I must be with you and not just adjacent to you. I must not only talk and not only listen, but both. Depending on what is called for in the moment, I may feel joy in your company, or I may oppose you without flinching. My standpoint must be distinct from yours. I must be conscious, both of your circumstances and of mine, both of your feelings and of mine.

Buber (1958) used the term “I-Thou” to describe a relationship in depth, one which encompasses the mysterious in self and other. I can relate to you in depth only if I relate to my own depth, to that part of myself which is incomprehensible. To relate consciously to the incomprehensible, I argue, I need a standpoint in the rational. Otherwise I am fascinated and absorbed by the incomprehensible, which is not the same as relating to it. Odysseus had to face Circe with a drawn sword lest he be turned into a pig. Circe was the incomprehensible anima. Odysseus’s sword represented the discriminating power of rationality and consciousness.

In the second vignette, as Henry related more to the inner woman, he began to relate more to others: he became more engaged with people close to him, and also more engaged in his creative work. In order to write successfully he had to relate not only to his own inner reality but also to his audience’s reality. Both personally and creatively, he incorporated some of his archetypal potential for relatedness. His conscious personality was thereby enlarged.


If I am to relate to an archetypal image, I must be willing to analyze it not only prospectively, for where it is leading me, but also reductively, for how it relates to my past. I may have been injured in childhood around that archetype. I may have repressed grief and longing, or fear and shame, or perhaps, if the injury was early, archaic rage. If I fail to analyze the image reductively, then it becomes an intellectual defense against painful memories and feelings, a “head trip.” Such a defense weakens my sense of reality and my ability to integrate power and eros (Whitmont 1991d). The following shows how reductive and prospective analyses work together.

“Jack” was fearful in his adult relationships. We had analyzed this. He understood that he had been physically abused in his childhood, but he was still fearful. Jack’s father had not only been abusive; he had also been weak and absent. Therefore Jack lacked an internal image of masculine strength. Then he made a painting of a huge man with a hammer. The image was numinous. He “held it” in consciousness and analyzed it. It evoked for him not only his childhood abuse, but also the Norse god Thor who embodied masculine strength and courage. As he began to relate to the archetype behind the image he became more courageous. He became more conscious of his own masculine potential.

The Self

Standing behind each of the archetypes (wise man, hero, anima, etc) there seems to be a single all-encompassing archetype. Jung called it the self:

the sum total of conscious and unconscious contents … the wholeness of the personality which, if all goes well, is harmonious but which cannot tolerate self-deception (Jung 1938/40; 1961a).

Thus (I argue) the self is the potential for an emergent, more unified organization of the personality, one in which the ego and the unconscious are more related to each other. Because every other archetype leads towards this central potential, every other archetype is an aspect of it. In time this potential pushes itself forward, demanding that it too be integrated.

I may experience the self as an autonomous agent which confronts me with great authority. The encounter between the ego and the self is represented in the image of Abraham and “a smoking brazier and a flaming torch” (The Revised English Bible, Gen. 15:17). Abraham was faced with an overwhelming central authority. It made demands on him. While its power made him feel small, it also gave him a sense of purpose and value.

My conscious personality is most secure when it feels in control. But if it encounters the self it finds that it is only a small part of a larger whole. It is as though I had discovered that the island on which I lived were not made of rock, but were the back of a whale.

The whale is the Leviathan. The story of Job symbolized the struggle between the ego and the self. At first Job was secure in his righteousness and prosperity. Then, with God’s permission, Satan attacked him. First he destroyed his family and his property. Then, when Job was unbowed,

… he afflicted Job with running sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head, and Job took a piece of broken pot to scratch himself as he sat among the ashes (Job 2:7,8).

Job argued bitterly and persistently, protesting God’s injustice. He rejected his comforters’ conventional wisdom:

No doubt you are intelligent people,
and when you die, wisdom will perish! (12:2)

Eventually God responded. He reacted defensively to Job’s accusations, describing Himself as a force of nature. He warned Job that He had the brute force of the crocodile. These verses support my argument that an archetype is a force of nature and that nature itself is a numinous mystery:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Tell me, if you know and understand.
Who fixed its dimensions? … (38:4,5)
Does the rain have a father?
Who sired the drops of dew? (38:28)
Does your skill teach the hawk to use its pinions
and spread its wings towards the south? (39:26)
But consider the chief of beasts, the crocodile,
who devours cattle as if they were grass (40:15):
His nostrils gush forth steam
like a cauldron on a fire fanned to full heat (41:20).
Iron he counts as straw,
And bronze as rotted wood (41:27).
He looks down on all, even the highest;
over all proud beasts he is king (41:34).

Job realized that God had no concern for justice, so he yielded, keeping his reservations to himself:

… But I have spoken of things
which I have not understood,
things too wonderful for me to know (42:3).
Therefore I yield,
repenting in dust and ashes (42:6).

Then God restored his good fortune.

Thus God and Job responded to each other. There was a back-and-forth quality which was the beginning of relatedness. Job stood on justice and rationality in the face of the incomprehensible. Then he recognized God’s limitation. Jung argued that God in turn was transformed by the encounter: His moral defeat at the hands of Job led eventually to the birth of Christ, through which God became more responsive to mankind (Jung, 1952b). All of this supports my argument that relatedness is a goal of individuation. I do not refer to Job as a statement of faith, but to illustrate a psychological phenomenon that has a long history.

The story of Job suggests that, when the self approaches, it may injure me until I learn to relate to it. The following example makes this clear. My patient “Paul” suffered at times from eczema (like Job), arthritis, and shortness of breath. When we analyzed them, these proved to be expressions of narcissistic rage. Beneath his rage was healthy grandiosity, that is, his need to show and assert himself (Kohut, 1978), which had been frustrated since infancy. It seemed that his parents had always withheld recognition of his accomplishments. In adult life his symptoms recurred whenever his frustration became acute. When he became more conscious of his rage, and of his need to assert himself, his symptoms were relieved. Thus his somatic symptoms represented his potential to be whole, the self, struggling to incarnate (Kradin, 1997, Hubback, 1998).

Purpose and Dreams

I have described encounters with the anima, with Thor, and with the self. My point is that my personality has an innate tendency to integrate new resources from the unconscious. This is the goal towards which my individuation is directed. My direction, however, is not always onwards and upwards. Defeat, loss, decay, and death are also archetypal. If I am to mature, I have to relate to them.

In time I realize that my maturation is being directed, but not by me. I cannot choose the goal. Hence I feel that an independent agent has its own plan for me and that my dream is composed by that agent to further its plan.

In view of what I have said so far, however, it seems more likely that my dream is simply a representation of an unconscious content which has always had the potential to be integrated. My dream, then, is an unconscious content moving towards consciousness as a log floats towards a beaver dam. My emergent “greater personality, the self” (Jung, 1961b), imposes its agenda, both upon my conscious personality and upon my dream, as a growing beaver dam imposes its agenda upon its component parts.

What about the timing of my dream? Why does it appear just when it is needed? An image may be pushed forward from the unconscious by an instinctual timetable. Puberty is an example of such a timetable. Or an image may be evoked from the collective unconscious by one of the day’s events, perhaps an outside-world event or perhaps a new piece of self-awareness. That particular image is evoked by association: it may resemble the event in form or in meaning, or perhaps the image and the event were associated in my past experience.

How could my explanation account for the structure of a dream? A dream is precise and conveys subtle messages. It may use dramatic structure (Whitmont and Perera, 1989a), humor, and irony. These qualities, however, are characteristic of consciousness. It is clear that my dream must, in its construction, employ the knowledge and language skills of my ego. After all it may include words in English! This suggests that a dream is akin to a creative product like a poem or a painting. Like these, it seems to be created by a collaboration between my educated mind, working unconsciously, and the unconscious itself.

Before Darwin the “miraculous” design of a species seemed to be proof that it was created directly by God. But Darwin showed that evolution is self-organized. The design of a species is infinitely more complex than the design of a dream. I suggest that a dream organizes itself as follows: Many images are circulating in my sleeping mind, some pressing forward from the collective unconscious, some left over from the day (Freud, 1900). They adhere to each other by associations of form or meaning, making and breaking associations as they meet with other images. Sometimes they cohere into a nucleus which is compelling because it suggests a new insight into my present condition. That nucleus gathers more images as it crosses the stimulus barrier and wakes me. Thus it becomes a dream. (Large molecules and viruses assemble themselves in a living cell in just this way.)

I interpret a dream by means of a creative process which must also be self-organized. I collect my patient’s associations to the dream’s images. As I do so I endure the anxiety of not knowing what the dream means (Whitmont and Perera, 1989b). When I have all the associations, I allow the meaning to emerge, to cohere spontaneously in my imagination. If, out of anxiety, I had imposed a preconceived meaning, then I would have missed some of the associations and thus falsified my interpretation. As meanings cohere spontaneously, my intellect eliminates those that are not viable just as, in evolution, natural selection eliminates non-viable variations.

Earlier I discussed Ruth’s dream of being abducted to the underworld. I suggested then that she formed this archetypal image (and all other archetypal images) in her imagination, by a creative process which drew upon both inherited and environmental suggestions. In view of what I have said in the last few paragraphs, it seems clear that Ruth’s archetypal image was self-organized.


The principle of self-organization rules everywhere in biology, from the assembly of molecules to all higher levels of order. The same principle may also apply in psychology. I have explained how an archetypal image may self-organize. I have also explained how my dream and its interpretation may self-organize. Finally, the overall process by which I individuate may self-organize. I have given some clinical illustrations.

I have not proven that these three explanations are correct. But the component parts from which they are constructed, for example the inheritance of instincts, the dependence of development on information from the environment, self-assembly, emergence (as I have defined it), association, and selective awareness during sleep (some noises wake me and some do not), have all been proven elsewhere. The three explanations satisfy the law of parsimony: they are simple and highly economical. Perhaps they should serve as working hypotheses until they are proven incorrect.


1I explain when I discuss the self (in this paper) that an archetype also implies the possibility of an emergent level of order in the personality. Like an instinct, such a possibility is a priori, or “immortal”, and may therefore seem numinous. I develop the idea of a priori possibility inThe three gorillas

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Whitmont, E. C. 1991b. Ibid., 125.

Whitmont, E. C. 1991c. Ibid., 265-290.

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