Neurobiology, symbolic imagery & Jung — and a book that brings them together


The Neurobiology of the Gods (2012) first gained accolades for grounding CG Jung’s ideas in modern neuroscience. Yet Erik D. Goodwyn’s explanation for why we create symbolic imagery makes this an important book not only for analytical psychologists, but also for evolutionary psychologists, traumatologists, and anyone interested in the central role of symbolic imagery for human experience.

Goodwyn writes “the primary focus of this work is in symbolic imagery — how the brain constructs it, interacts with it, and imbues it with numinous significance (in the case of gods).” Goodwyn’s subject matter is actually more far-reaching than this. He also sheds light on why we evolved to have symbolic imagery in the first place.

Jung’s ideas on topics such as the collective unconscious, archetypes, and dreams inform Goodwyn’s exploration of the neurobiological and evolutionary aspects of symbolic imagery, along with the work of neuroscientists such as Jaak Panksepp, Antonio Damasio, and Joseph Le Doux. One of Goodwyn’s strengths is his ability to leverage a variety of theories and evidence to create a nuanced and non-reductionistic understanding of human nature. Rather than reducing neuroscience to Jung’s ideas, or showing Jung’s analytical psychology can be replaced by modern neuroscience, Goodwyn brings these disciplines together for a more integrative perspective.

According to Goodwyn, symbolic imagery is a basic organizing principle of the brain that guides the selection and creation of environments and relationships. Something needs to drive us to create conditions that throughout human history led to survival and reproductive success. However, far too often the forces driving human evolution have been attributed to poorly understood biological drives. Such ideas as the selfish gene seem too simplistic to explain symbolic-rich practices like religion, art, fantasy, and play, which not only are ends in themselves, but also can inhibit other activities that might lead to replication of the species. By using Jung’s ideas as scaffolding, Goodwyn frames his insights and copious evidence so successfully that I was left thinking symbolic imagery is as central to human evolution and niche construction as the genetic code.

Goodwyn believes symbolic imagery is our primary method for making sense of experiences that are poorly understood. He claims symbolic imagery, which includes any “internally derived sensory impression” as well as images, are mental guides for creating lives that are both meaningful and adaptive. Goodwyn also provides evidence for universal, as well as archetypal, symbolic imagery. For example,

“… the dream scientists Hall and Nordby, in analyzing some 50,000 dreams from subjects all over the world, found repetitive universal themes that included conspecific aggression and status striving, predatory animals, flying, falling, being pursued, landscapes, sex, misfortune, marriage and children, being socially scrutinized, traveling, swimming, watching fires and being confined underground. These elements they called ‘universal constants of the human psyche’ …; this data has held up remarkably well over time … . Furthermore, when viewed cross-culturally, dreams ‘are more similar than they are different around the world’ … suggesting a common source of stock concerns that are resistant to cultural variation.”

The following research is also compelling:

“… subjects born blind could sketch their dreams, which presumably consisted of touch, sound, and smell but not sight, onto a two-dimensional medium with such skill as to be indistinguishable from drawings by blindfolded subjects with a lifetime of visual experience. … the congenitally blind also learn color relations with equal competence to the sighted, and both were able to reproduce indistinguishable color wheels. The blind moreover show ability at mental rotation equal to the sighted ….”

Goodwyn claims that our dependency on symbolic imagery, and in particular metaphors, is related to our need to understand our emotional experiences, which according to neuroscientists like Damasio and Panksepp consciousness has in part evolved to serve. Goodwyn quotes Le Doux:

“[unconscious] emotional mind seems to be particularly susceptible to stimuli that its conscious counterpart does not have access to,” — to which Goodwyn adds, “but are recoverable in dreams, fantasy and free-association.” Like Jung, Goodwyn stresses the distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness and the role of symbolic imagery for communicating between these two aspects of psyche and the brain.

Goodwyn shares the following quote from Panksepp to show that symbolic imagery, rather than a highly evolved, conscious process, likely originates in embodied responses to situations that also pull for an emotional response:

“When we are lost, we feel cold – not only physically but also as a neurosymbolic response to social separation … the roots of the social motivational system may be strongly linked to thermoregulatory systems of the brain … Thus, when we hear the sound of someone who is lost, especially if it is our child, we also feel cold. This may be nature’s way of promoting reunion. In other words, the experience of separation establishes an internal feeling of thermoregulatory discomfort that can be alleviated by the warmth of reunion ….”

Goodwyn associates such “neurosymbolic” responses with metaphors we use to describe relationships, such as experiencing a person as “cold” when specific emotional responses are expected. He writes, “Certain emotions conjure images of people with certain facial expressions, and disrupted attachments or social isolation will conjure ‘cold’ imagery (with a distant warm hearth perhaps on the horizon) in a highly variation-resistant manner.”

Goodwyn devotes much of the book to discussing different types of symbolic imagery. He has chapters on symbols of human and animal spirits; anima/feminine symbols; animus/masculine symbols; the mother; the father; the child; the shadow; the dreamscape; deep archetypes, such as time, number, and causation; and complex recurrent symbols and self symbols.

The Neurobiology of the Gods also touches on issues relevant to the developmental impact of maladaptive attachments and other adverse childhood experiences — just those circumstances for which symbolic imagery can be crucial for making sense of unarticulated affects and disturbing sensations. Goodwyn writes:

“When proper development is disrupted, conflicted, or traumatized, our minds will try to understand the situation, and try to rectify it to serve our emotional needs; these situations will become symbolized with particular furor by our symbolizing brains. Disrupted attachments or emotional traumas will become depicted in this fashion, and the deeper layers of the brain/mind – which is foundational and nearly identical in everyone – will try to find a solution, sometimes in vain, to rectify the archetypal needs of attachment, purpose, self-worth, connection, meaning, power, transcendence, security, love, and many other things yet to discover.”

One of Goodwyn’s central points is that we need symbolic imagery because of the biological limits of our brains. These limits impact our ability to communicate emotional experiences and abstract ideas like time, the mind, and the universe to a consciousness that evolved for reacting to concrete experiences like environment preference, mate selection, and sensorimotor experience.  Yet as the above quote makes clear, we also need symbolic imagery because of the limits of our environments, especially those that fail to meet what Anthony Stevens calls archetypal intent, thus failing to provide conditions that support critical stages of development.

So much of human experience is devoted to unconscious processing — about 95% according to current neuroscience. At our core we are mysterious and ineffable, but through symbolic imagery we become known both to others and ourselves. In Neurobiology of the Gods, Goodwyn reveals much about the neurobiological aspects of the unconscious without erasing any of the mystery. I imagine Jung would be quite pleased.


Goodwyn, Erik D. 2012. The Neurobiology of the Gods. New York: Routledge.

Stevens, Anthony. 1993. The Two Million-Year-Old Self. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.

© 2014 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.

  • Sounds like a fascinating book – thank you for this review!

    • Hi Lisa, I had been trying to connect current neurobiological research to research on myth and dreams, so I was especially excited to find Goodwyn’s book. Goodwyn’s also a psychiatrist who works with veterans, and he shares some great insights into the neurobiology of PTSD, especially nightmares.