Jung, Flying Saucers, and the Anxieties of Our Time

Jung, Flying Saucers, and the Anxieties of Our Time by Kelly BulkeleyHow archetypal dreams, visions, and art respond to a collective crisis.

One of the last books he ever wrote, C.G. Jung’s Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1957) shows how psychology can shed new light on social anxieties and cultural conflicts. This slender text offers Jung’s perspective on the controversial phenomenon of “unidentified flying objects” (UFOs). Writing at a time when UFO sightings were a public craze, Jung saw an opportunity for psychology to make a valuable contribution to collective understanding and self-reflection.  The resulting book remains an excellent model for the psychological interpretation of culture, with potentially helpful implications for our troubled times today.

Jung examined several kinds of texts with the UFO theme: dreams, art from both old and new sources, waking visions, and science fiction, along with media stories and governmental reports. This itself is interesting, as it shows how Jung treated all these different kinds of texts as arenas in which symbols from the collective unconscious (“archetypes”) can emerge. When treating an individual patient, Jung looked for the emergence of special symbols or archetypes that respond directly to the patient’s waking life problems. With the UFO phenomenon, he expanded this approach to the whole of Western society. Why are so many people dreaming, thinking, and envisioning UFOs at this particular moment? What is happening in society right now that elicits this kind of collective visionary experience?

Here as in many of his later writings, Jung highlighted the psychological strains of living during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The division of the world into two hostile, nuclear-armed camps, separated by an “Iron Curtain,” suggested that global humanity was in a gravely unhealthy condition. Jung also emphasized here as elsewhere how the modern world can threaten individuality with mass movements, both politically (communism) and economically (consumer capitalism). People everywhere were in danger of being subsumed into mindless, undifferentiated groups where true psychological development was impossible.

The sudden surge of UFO sightings at this specific moment in history made sense, Jung said, as a response to these acute social anxieties. With the conscious mind in such an embattled condition, the collective unconscious provided what Jung called a compensatory or balancing archetypal symbol: the mandala, an image of wholeness and integration. Mandala symbols are best known from Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Asian religions, but in their archetypal essence they appear in all cultures, usually as round figures with a variety of geometric, chromatic, and symbolic complexities. Jung said that UFOs, whatever their reality as visitors from alien planets, have the psychological meaning of mandalas, projected into the sky above us, giving us a vision of transcendent union and wholeness. The integration we have failed to achieve in this world is reflected back to us as a living potential arriving from the greater realm of the cosmos (itself a symbol of the collective unconscious). Because people of our time are struggling in this essential psychological task of becoming an integrated, fully actualized individual (the process of “individuation”), the archetype of wholeness cannot be directly recognized in its traditional forms. Thus, it

“is forced to manifest itself indirectly in the form of spontaneous projections. The projected image then appears as an ostensibly physical fact independent of the individual psyche and its nature. In other words, the rounded wholeness of the mandala becomes a space ship controlled by an intelligent being.”

Thinking of Jung’s book and its methods as applied to our world today, we can ask the following questions: What is the great anxiety of our age? What is the greatest threat to collective health and well-being? What are the compensating dreams and visions pointing us beyond our current problems?

Since Jung’s time, the Cold War has ended, and Westerners have little to fear from global communism. The threat of civilization-ending nuclear war remains, but it no longer worries people the way it did some decades ago. Instead, a multitude of other apocalyptic scenarios haunt people’s waking hours. These include environmental catastrophe, civil war, economic collapse, pharmacological mind-control, robotic takeover, and political tyranny under an evil dictatorship (e.g. by fascists, socialists, racists, theocrats, and/or neoliberals), not to mention a global pandemic. We have reached Boschian extremes in our capacity to conjure vividly variegated scenarios of doom and ruin.

Following the logic of Jung’s method, and given our present context, perhaps we should be on the lookout for dreams, visions, and works of art that provide a creative response from the unconscious depths to these overwhelming apocalyptic horrors

For instance, we might expect the compensatory emergence of archetypal symbols of renewal and rebirth, of growth and revitalization, of a future collective renaissance.

We might expect to see more dreams of empathetic reconnection with others, stimulating greater awareness of multiple perspectives on the world, breaking free from the solipsism of the digitized self to reconnect with other people, with nature, and with one’s own body.

We might expect to see more expressions of the archetype of the trickster, the playful agent of chaos and disorder who disrupts established traditions and yet also inspires new creativity and cultural dynamism.

We might see more forceful and perhaps even threatening appearances of the anima archetype, challenging narrowly androcentric thinking and stubbornly enduring patriarchal biases in all aspects of personal and collective life.

It seems a near-certainty that the apocalyptic anxieties of the present age are already calling forth unconscious responses of archetypal energy and symbolism in all of our lives. The big question is whether our conscious minds can recognize these archetypal expressions when they do occur, and integrate them into a broader, more balanced sense of self—a stronger self that can act more effectively in the world, fueled by the energy of psychological wholeness.

Note: This post first appeared in Psychology Today, 12/7/20.

Dreams about Recent Protests Against Racial Injustice

Dreams about Recent Protests Against Racial Injustice by Kelly BulkeleyIn recent weeks, many Americans have been dreaming about police, protestors, and frightening acts of violence and destruction. But the dreams differ dramatically in the focus of their anxiety and distress.

A new online survey from YouGov asked nearly 5,000 American adults about their dream recall, insomnia, attitudes toward the Black Lives Matter movement, and dreams of the recent protests against racial injustice. A detailed analysis of the survey is forthcoming, but the initial findings reveal a number of recurrent themes in people’s dreams about the ongoing protests across the country.

Police aggression. One of the most vivid themes involved people being hassled, assaulted, or shot by the police:

“Bad interaction with a cop”

“Bad dreams about being stopped by police. None of the dreams end well”

“I have a 25 year son I sometimes dream I get the call he was shot by the police.”

“I was in a peaceful protest and the police attacked us. I was shot in the leg.”

“I dreamt I was shot by the police”

“I was at a protest like the one i really attended but when the cops threw the gas i wasn’t prepared like i was in real life and it hurt so bad and i fell and they arrested me. i was crying and asking them what i did but they wouldn’t listen”

Images of George Floyd. His horrific death on May 25th echoes through many people’s dreams:

“I dream about how that poor man was killed it hurts me to have seen that video that poor father”

“I keep replaying the guy dying and saying ‘I can’t breathe, Momma.’”

“it could have just have as easily been me”

“I keep having the death of George Floyd.”

Threats to home. For several people, their greatest concern is an attack on their family residence by looters and rioters:

“protesters coming to burn our home down”

“I’ve had dreams my home is broken into and myself and my family were hurt by others. I woke up and was in a funk for the rest of the week. I refuse to watch the news now a days.”

“It involved me beating up rioters and looters to protect my family”

“I dreamed rioters were shooting at my home.”

“Defending my home and family”

Merging the protests and the pandemic. Some people had nightmares about the convergence of the public protests with the COVID-19 outbreak:

“I was missing a mask and terrified of being near people. But people kept getting close and everyone was marching and everyone was happy and I was trying to act happy too and not let on how scared I was.”

“Was attending a protest with friends in the dream and no one was wearing face masks, and it was a stressful dream because no one was listening to me about the importance of our face masks during the protest!”

If you, or anyone you know, have dreams like these, here are a couple of suggestions.

Be careful about your media consumption. It doesn’t help anyone if you become overwhelmed and paralyzed by mental distress.

Be careful, too, about hasty interpretations. Every dream has multiple meanings, some of which take time and reflection to recognize. It’s always worth considering the possibility of both literal and symbolic meanings. For instance, dreaming of an attack on your home might reflect an actual physical danger to your house, and/or it might reflect a different kind of challenge to the comfort and familiarity of your life, symbolized by your home. Dreams don’t solve our problems, but they do give us emotionally honest portraits of what those problems are and where we need to direct more conscious attention and effort towards change.

The reports above included no further comments or associations, so we cannot be sure what exactly the dreams mean to the dreamer. But we do know, thanks to Charlotte Beradt’s 1966 book The Third Reich of Dreams, along with the research of other historians and anthropologists, that whatever else they might mean for the individual, dreams can provide powerful, accurate, and critically insightful visions of social reality. Especially in times of community crisis, conflict, and trauma, dreams offer a valuable source of collective awareness.

 

Note: The responses and dream reports from this survey will be available soon in the Sleep and Dream Database, an open-access digital archive for empirical dream research.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 4,947 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 15th – 19th June 2020.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all US adults (aged 18+).

This post first appeared in Psychology Today on June 25, 2020.