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Dragons in our Genes: An Examination of the Collective Unconscious

eglaser's picture

The brain is an evolved organ, we often forget this in our mad rush to apply Darwinism to species and societies, each part of the human anatomy has become adept at ensuring the survival of the individual. The human brain, after millennia hiding at the bottom of the food chain has retained some remarkable attributes once used to aid in our survival. One of these traits is the ability for the brain to create an output without an input; it retains instinctual responses to input we have never directly experienced. Why is it that we should be so responsive to certain symbols, that we should irrationally fear certain situations without ever having a cause for that fear? It may be that over time, an advantageous response may become imprinted into the genetic code, reappearing, in a different form, along that lineage even after the need for that response has disappeared. This phenomenon, of retaining stored ancestral information common among other members of our species, is often referred to as the ‘collective unconscious’ or ‘genetic memory.’

Carl Gustav Jung was the psychiatrist that first proposed the idea of the collective unconscious in the early 1900’s as an alternative to Freud’s theories about the unconscious mind. Jung wrote that, “The collective unconscious contains the whole spiritual heritage of mankind's evolution, born anew in the brain structure of every individual (Daly).” He believed that evolution had shaped the human brain in such a way that every individual would be born with certain inherent instincts and ideas. If we see something that is similar to a predator from our past, even if it is one we have never encountered ourselves, we are predetermined to react a certain way. This theory may in fact explain the commonality of certain myths and archetypal figures in human history. Why the idea of something like a dragon has arisen in almost every culture around the world.

There is no evidence to prove the existence of any creature they may have coexisted with a human population that bears any similarity to that of a classical dragon, yet it is a common motif in most civilizations around the world. If a dragon, or even a dragon-like, predator never existed with humans, why is it so commonly recognized and feared? According to Jung’s principles there must be something about this symbol that arose from a genetically stored memory in our brains. At some point in our evolutionary past something imprinted our response to a dragon symbol so that, with no foreknowledge of this predator and without having ever seen it ourselves, we can all still recognize a dragon and label it as dangerous. According to anthropologist David E Jones, the dragon is what remains of our instinctive reaction to the three most deadly predators for our primate ancestors; the snake, the eagle and the large cat.

I personally, have never been hunted or attacked by any of these three creatures, and it was not until I was older that I first saw any of these in the flesh. Despite this I was still able to recognize the dragon from my picture books as being an enemy. How could my brain generate a fear response to a situation that I had never encountered? Jones writes that, “Primates had to evolve… innate and therefore automatic responses to alarm calls or to predator signature behavior- the writhing of snakes, the rush of the leopard attack, and the fluttering of bird wings- to assure that a significant number survived to maintain a steady population (Jones, 37).” In order to survive, our ancestors had to become capable of recognizing these creatures in a split second and react to them, either they learned this knowledge and lived to pass it on through their genes or, they didn’t.  It became a feature of our basic instincts that these features were dangerous, even without having experienced them ourselves, our brains can still react to these distinctive predators. With no thought, we automatically respond to the flapping of a bird flying overhead or to a rustle in the underbrush.

One indication that this points to a general genetic knowledge rather then a learned response is the prevalence of the dragon myth. Everywhere that primates have flourished and evolved into humans there is a version of the dragon myth. In the introduction to his book Jones cites 26 different cultures as having almost identical versions of the dragon. Even in cultures as vastly different as Icelandic, Dutch, and the Cherokee Indians of North America there are stories of dragons (Jones, 1). If the dragon was a learned response to an immediate threat it would reflect the geographic enemies more clearly, although all of these cultures may have snakes, cats and birds of prey, they are all different species; however, their dragons are all too similar to reflect this. Dragons are not picked out of a landscape but are inherently recognized and feared.

It is possible that the idea of genetic memory can also explain irrational fears and phobias. “…Animal phobias can manifest in children with no apparent traumatic origin. Even though snakes are rare in the British Isles, for example, one-third of British six-year-olds have been found to be afraid of them (Jones, 63).” Even though the children studied had never encountered a snake in a traumatic situation (most likely, they had never seen a snake in real life) their minds still generated an anxious response. This once again points to a predatory response in our ancestry but what about other, less rational phobias? One of my roommates has always had an unusual and unexplainable fear of stickers. She cannot tolerate them on her skin and she cannot look at another person if they have a sticker on their skin. There is no explanation for this phobia and there was no event that initiated the phobia, it has just always been something that disturbs her. As a rational human being she has recognized that there is absolutely no reason that this should bother her and she understands that there is no danger or logical reason for her fear. If she is shown a sheet of stickers she is completely fine but the second they are placed on a persons skin she becomes extremely upset and will have to leave the room unless the sticker is removed.

Why would a person be afraid of stickers? Could it result from some distant, ancestral memory? It is possible that this fear was an adaptation retained through the generations of her lineage. She has expressed her phobia as a feeling of being unclean and she will have to wash her hands if someone puts a sticker on them. Equating dirtiness with a sticky feeling could have arisen from a situation where cleanliness was vital to survival. It could be an evolutionary remnant, breed into her genetic code and stored in her brain. Something about the situation of her ancestors could have triggered that specific neural pattern in her mind in response to stickers even though there is no input she is taking in that would suggest to her that stickers are dirty or frightening.

Whether it is a strange phobia or a commonality among myths there is a bond between generations that runs deeper then learned knowledge. From our most civilized intellectuals to our most distant primate cousins there are, locked in our genes, the same responses to the same situations. Although there is no direct input to stimulate such a response in us the brain is still capable of accessing this information and translating it as an output that can influence our lives today. Far away from the predatory eagles and snakes of our past, the genetic knowledge is still there and we still dream of dragons.

Works Cited

Clark, William R. "Is our Tendency to Experience Fear and Anxiety Genetic?"
Scientific American (2000). 6 Mar. 2000. <>.

Daly, Martin. "Natural History of the Self." Rev. of Archetypes: A Natural History of the
Self by Anthony Stevens. BioScience Oct. 1984: 587.

Jones, David E. An Instinct for Dragons. New York: Routledge, 2000.


Serendip Visitor's picture

Think about dinosaurs

I think this genetic heritage is even more ancient. A memory from tens of millions years ago; most likely shared by all primates. When our rat-alike common ancestors lived among dinosaurs, some flying scaly raptors hunted them.

Paul Grobstein's picture

genes and the collective unconscious

"Far away from the predatory eagles and snakes of our past, the genetic knowledge is still there and we still dream of dragons."

Nice way of making sense of Jung's "collective unconscious."   And certainly relevant to individual phobias (mine re snakes, for example).  And reminds me that one of the problems of Freudian orthodoxy is its relative blindness re genetic influences.  Freud himself broke with Jung, perhaps in part because of this issue?