Modern psychology and psychiatry are very well grounded in scientific principles. Both, however, have a history in various analytical philosophies. Jung had the notion of an archetype, a universally known symbol. While these are perhaps fanciful concepts, I think that it can be interesting to try to reconcile them in terms of current knowledge.

A modern author (Knox 2001) makes the following assessment:

I suggest that although, like Freud, Jung contradicted himself at times, there is a lot of evidence that he viewed archetypes as innate predispositions with an organizing function. I think it is one of the possible models for archetypes that we need to research extensively by investigating the ways in which an understanding of 'frames' and image schemas may advance our concept. We need to gain a clearer understanding of the extent to which archetypes are 'hard-wired', genetically inherited structures or, on the other hand, self-organizing patterns that emerge as a central part of the development of meaning by the human brain as...recently proposed.

I think the arguments about genetically driven versus self-organizing patterns are fascinating, but in this question, I'd like to presuppose the latter.

If these patterns were to exist, what sensory modalities would be stored in combination? Are they exclusively visual, or is there a tight binding between the visual and auditory components of these memories? Could different memories be combinations of modular archetypal "bases" or would each be unique?

Knox, J.M. (2001). Memories, fantasies, archetypes: an exploration of some connections between cognitive science and analytical psychology. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 46:613-635.

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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps I'm missing something, but it strikes me as very odd to presuppose that archetypes have a direct sensory representation. Jung's archetypes were very abstract, high level concepts, so I'd venture to guess that they'd be stored in brain regions associated with semantic cognition. Just a guess though, as I haven't heard anything in the recent literature on any Jungian constructs. $\endgroup$
    – zergylord
    Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 2:14
  • $\begingroup$ @zergylord If you wanted to write something about the cortical representations of information in the semantic cognition areas, I think it would be an informative answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 5:57
  • $\begingroup$ The Jungian part is more for curiosity's sake and to perhaps establish whether there might be an interesting continuity with something that was never meant to be a neurobiological construct. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 5:59

2 Answers 2


As you mentioned in your question, Jung was less than perfectly consistent in his definition of archetype throughout his career. This ambiguity reflects the continuing debate about semantic representation in the brain.

His early work stressed the emergence of archetypes as fundamental dichotomies of self experience- whose Enantiodromaic character was the origin of their emergence in the psyche. Thoughts are either expressed or not expressed, whence the self is divided into Persona and Anima; thoughts (at least if one takes Jung at his word in his characterisation of thought as Libido) provide desire or fear, whence Ego and Shadow. This presents a potential picture of Jungian archetypes in the brain as primarily distributed phenomena-a set of pairwise partitions of the conscious brain.

His later writings, however, while still shewing their enantiodromia in their dialectical function, are more liberal concerning their origin. Concerning the Senex archetype for example; is a thought either that of a young or old man? -I would doubt it. The archetypes of these later writings are much more amenable to so-called 'sparse' representation.

Sparse representation is the (to borrow a term!) enatiodromaic opposite of distributed, in which small populations of neurons, or even single neurons can code for a given semantic character. Under assumptions of sparse representation, hypothetical 'Grandmother cells' could code for whole semantic classes, and so archetypes themselves.

Evidence for sparse representation has been found implicating the Medial Temporal Lobe in representing semantic classes across sensory modalities in single neurons (Quiroga et al., 2005). This is however hotly contested, and experimental limitations abound (there's a nice microcosm of the debate at the wiki page for Grandmother Cell, which also features a potted summary of the linked experiment).


Quiroga RQ, Reddy L, Kreiman G, Koch C, Fried I. (2005) Invariant visual representation by single neurons in the human brain. Nature 435, 1102-1107. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v435/n7045/full/nature03687.html

  • $\begingroup$ I will certainly have a look at the Nature paper. I don't think sparse coding has much in the way of widespread experimental support, though. I would definitely say that I'm convinced that there is no "Grandmother" neuron. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2012 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ You and the bulk of the neuroscience communhity @ChuckSherrington ...! The populaqr press went nuts for 'Jennifer Aniston Neurons' though. I suppose the alternative is to publish stories about a series of question marks and abstruse analytic techniques. If you are interested in the less pithy, but ultimately more likely, distributed picture, the best I can do is point you toward the first half of this excellent book: books.google.co.uk/books?id=hrZYAAAACAAJ&dq=dayan+and+abbott&hl=en&sa=X&ei=TdzcT5zzNMi-0QWDy9SECw&ved=0CDQQ6AEwAA !! $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16, 2012 at 19:20
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    $\begingroup$ Interesting answer; sounds very well informed on Jung. However, I think the term "sparse representation" is being misused here. "Grandmother cells" are synonymous with local representations. Sparse representations are still distributed; they just tend have most of their units inactive at any given instant. $\endgroup$
    – zergylord
    Commented Jun 20, 2012 at 4:28

"Jung had the notion of an archetype, a universally known symbol."

Archetypes and symbols are two different things. Jacobi explains it in her excellent book, Complex Archetype Symbol in the Psychology of C. G. Jung.

"there is a lot of evidence that he viewed archetypes as innate predispositions with an organizing function"

I'd like to see that "evidence". You can see Jung's idea develop over the years in his many publications, but he was consistent in that it affected the person, though it is never described as a predisposition.

It is hard to see an archetype because we only see its affects or the results of its projection. A psychologist, after dealing with many patients, may see the patterns emerge. Jung, an experienced psychologist, explains the ideas and Jacobi elucidates some of the more confusing areas.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for lending your expertise to the question. My original intention was merely to tie his work into neuroanatomical substrates, but you are correct that my interpretation of them was at least a bit incorrect. I don't remember where I read the information that led me to the second statement, as this was asked a long time ago already. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 12, 2014 at 23:41
  • $\begingroup$ Heh. I just found the site and am reading through Jung's works. Don't mind me and my comments. :) $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 13, 2014 at 2:52

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