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Supplemental Essay: Weak Instincts as Brain Architecture




This supplemental essay contains quotes and expanded explanations as background for the material in the main essay. You can skip this supplemental essay if you're not interested in the details.

In the main essay I said: "Humans are born with a mental architecture already genetically programmed into their brains, much in the same way that animals are born with instincts genetically programmed into their brains. Even in early infancy, the four psychological functions are very likely present in human brains in instinctual or archetypal form, awaiting full development as the brain hits the appropriate size and complexity for each new stage."

Weak instincts

Animals operate by instinct. Jung and other psychologists argue that humans, as evolved animals, also have a weak instinctual foundation. Social programming tends to overwrite these "weak instincts" and drown them out, but the instincts are still there and they come out to play in things like dreams, fantasies, creative work, sexual urges, etc. For example: Instinctually we would prefer to be naked, but we learn that it's socially acceptable to wear clothes. So we wear clothes. But we also like to get naked at times and can even get a sexual charge out of surrendering to our instinctual urges in disobedience to social programming.

Jung said that our minds have a shared structure. We are all programmed to perceive and understand things a certain way; otherwise, if there were no rules for how the brain works and no pre-existing mental structure when we are born, we couldn't understand each other and communicate. In other words, environment and culture alone aren't enough to explain all the cognitive similarities shared by humans worldwide. Humans aren't a blank slate at birth.

Jung talked about our weak instinctual base mostly in the context of archetypes. That is, our instincts show up as archetypes and are stored in the collective unconscious. But Jung wasn't the only psychologist to believe in weak instincts as an architectural structure existing in the brain at birth.

Abraham Maslow, creator of the well-known "Hierarchy of needs" (Maslow's pyramid), also believed in the existence of weak instincts. And in fact he talked about personality as part of the make-up of our weak instincts. From his book "Motivation and Personality":

"[T]here are very weak instinct-remnants left in the human species, nothing that could be called full instincts in the animal sense. These instinct-remnants and instinctoid tendencies are so weak that culture and learning easily overwhelm them and must be considered to be far more powerful. [...] Ultimately this point of view will force us to take far more seriously than we do the fact of individual differences, as well as species membership. We will have to learn to think of them in this new way as being, 1) very plastic, superficial, easily changed, easily stamped out, but producing thereby all sorts of subtle pathologies. This leads to the delicate task, 2) of trying to uncover the temperament, the constitution, the hidden bent of each individual so that he can grow unhampered in his own individual style. This attitude will require far greater attention than has been given by the psychologists to the subtle psychological and physiological costs and sufferings of denying one's true bent, sufferings that are not necessarily conscious or easily seen from the outside." [1]


Jonathan Haidt, a prominent social psychologist and author, also supports the idea of weak instincts. He suggests that "moral foundations" are genetically imprinted on the human mind as weak instincts and are present at birth. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, he quotes the neuroscientist Gary Marcus as saying, "Nature bestows upon the newborn a considerably complex brain, but one that is best seen as prewired--flexible and subject to change--rather than hardwired, fixed, and immutable. [...] Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises. [...] 'Built-in' does not mean unmalleable; it means “organized in advance of experience." [2]


I should point out that neither Maslow nor Haidt specifically signed onto the idea of Jungian archetypes; but they did support the idea of a shared architecture for the human brain with perhaps wide-ranging potential. In fact, in later essays I'm going to try to relate Haidt's genetically-imprinted "moral foundations" to Jung's psychological functions and demonstrate an association there as well.


As I discussed in the Preface, Jung never said anything about how or where the four psychological functions originate. But the idea of "weak instincts" seem to be a good vehicle for that. "Weak instincts" would put all four functions in the brain at birth, available for development at the proper time, and also somewhat malleable and subject to revision and personalization as needed by each individual.

Link: Return to Preface: The Jungian Psychological Functions as Developmental "Function Levels"

~Posted October 19, 2023


[1] Abraham H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality, rev. Frager and Fadiman (Pearson Education, Inc., 1987), pp. 24-5.

[2] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage Books, 2012, First Vintage Books Edition, 2013), pp. 152-3. Haidt is quoting from Gary Marcus, The Birth of the Mind (New York: Basic Books), pp. 12, 34, and 40.

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