Archetypal Images and Genetics
January 19, 2014 7:32 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone know about any research that shows that the meaning of symbols is passed down genetically?

I'm a college instructor (sociology) and I have a student who has asked me about a topic I don't really know much about and I'm wondering if anyone has any resources about it. Specifically, he's interested in things being passed down genetically. (He sent me this link about mice passing down fear of a sound).

What he's specifically interested in is the meaning of symbols to human beings. I believe he's talking about archetypal images, in Jung parlance.

So, does anyone know about any research that shows that the meaning of symbols is passed down genetically?

Total shot in the dark here.
posted by orsonet to Science & Nature (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
OK, I'll step out on this limb with observations I wouldn't mind giving to an undergrad, though I don't know how well they'd hold up among actual experts.

I'm not aware of evidence that Jungian archetypes have a genetic/neurological basis, and I would tend to doubt it. There are many interpretive issues with looking for them in stories cross-culturally, e.g. a huge what-counts-as-what/that-can-mean-that-too/and-didn't-you-count-things-in-the-last-story-differently problem with consistency and confirmation bias in matching story elements to the patterns and a similarly huge what-about-all-this-stuff-you-ignore problem with culturally specific inflections of various motifs, undermining the sense that the motifs are really the same.

I'm struck by this every time I read a so-called hero's journey narrative (most recently, the hero Rostam in the Shahnameh stood out to me as an interesting example of not actually matching the pattern, even though it's easy to find people picking out bits and pieces from different stories about him to come up with an incomplete match). Among things that do show up repeatedly, the question is what's the alternative at a pragmatic level to re-using those story elements or why wouldn't such a general thing show up a lot.

That said, there are things like the bouba/kiki effect which has been theorized as showing some innate basis for sound symbolism. But the iconicity of it may just be something observable from the shape of the mouth, the typical contexts for bright/tinny sounds vs. dull/thrumming sounds, or whatever.

I understand there have been studies on the heritability of facial recognition ability, but I don't know whether the claim is that there's something like a template of features being passed down or rather just a suite of heuristics for building a template or whether you could even tell.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:54 AM on January 19

This article doesn't actually answer your question, but it does suggest that we shouldn't give too much credence to Carl Jung's theories:

Carl Jung: the Madame Blavatsky of psychotherapy, by Anthony Daniels
posted by alex1965 at 12:18 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]

Also, not an expert, but someone who has studied Jungian symbols in cross-cultural mythologies and is currently looking at epigenetics (which is what you would use to explain the thing with the mice). What he is talking about with mice passing down "memories" comes from research into traumatic experiences and anxiety. Our bodies are set up to pay attention to experiences that cause a lot of fear and have a mechanism to ensure that we don't encounter such things again. In this way, sights, sounds, smells and other physical stimuli can be interpreted as fearful and extra proteins that surround our genetic code can signal that the stimuli is something that's scary. (or something like that, I'm still learning this part)

By contrast, Jungian symbols are not directly physical. They are a meaning ascribed to something that is physical. So, let's use fear of spiders. Epigentic coding can tell a child's nervous system to be activated at the sight of a spider, but the symbolic meaning of that fear is cultural and has no direct relationship to the spider as a physical entity.

To put another way, any emotion is a physical sensation. And physical sensations in response to certain physical stimuli can be inherited, but the meaning that goes along with that sensation is dependent on a oral tradition of stories and narratives.

I would argue that it is a symbiotic relationship. As humans, we have a legitimate reason to be afraid of spiders, and so we have this very real physical response that our oral traditions draw on to convey villainous qualities. It is interesting to note that not all archetypes appear cross-culturally, but some do. One in particular I've studied is snakes. They are generally always feared to an extent, but also given varying degrees of reverence and power depending on the tradition.

In this way, meaning is more like language. Humans are born with the capacity to make many sounds, but ultimately learn the language(s) of their home. Similarly, humans are born with the capacity to feel a lot of emotions about the world around them and symbols use that emotion to build a narrative tradition. Things that cause strong emotional reactions show up often, but the precise meaning depends on the particularities of a tradition.
posted by ohisee at 3:03 PM on January 19

Well, I have recently been studying the patterns of people passing art motifs to the next generation and how we can maybe follow migration patterns by following art. An example would be how they (sorry I don't have links) have found art in south eastern US that looks exactly like Mayan art. And it is supporting genetic research that a group of Mayans migrated there a couple thousand years ago.

I've been trying to find who is studying this. Surely someone is putting this together. And I don't know. But thought I would add this here thinking your student may want to look into art history rather than psychology.
posted by cda at 10:37 PM on January 19

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