Archetypes and Complexes in the Womb

Analyst Rainer Maria Kohler explores current neuroscientific findings that underscore the critical importance of prenatal development on psychological growth (using the German-language book The Mystery of the First Nine Months. Our Earliest Formative Influences by Gerald Hüther and Inge Krens) and describes the emergence of archetypal forces already in the womb.

Archetypes and Complexes in the Womb
by Rainer Maria Kohler

Psychotherapists, including Jungian analysts, are becoming more and more aware of the critical importance of the child’s prenatal development for the structure and functioning of the human brain and personality. A new book summarizes recent neurobiological research into the impact of the relationship of the embryo and fetus to the mother and her world on the development of the human brain and psyche: Gerald Hüther and Inge Krens, Das Geheimnis der ersten neun Monate. Unsere frühesten Prägungen. (The Mystery of the First Nine Months. Our Earliest Formative Influences).1

The authors never mention Jung, but I believe that their work and conclusions can be related to the constellation of the Jungian archetypes and the development of complexes already in the embryo and fetus. The mother archetype becomes active within hours of conception, and complexes, such as hyperactivity and depression, can constellate already in the womb. Learning commences in the womb and includes the evaluation as good or bad of experiences made since conception. The emotional lives of the mother and of the people in her world deeply influence the fetus both through direct physiological connection and through indirect sensory perception. At birth the child is already a combination of both “nature” and “nurture”, i.e. the result of a unique set of genes and the unique experiences made in the womb. Later nurture and therapy can undo or modify negative neuronal and synaptic patterns established in the womb and in early years and bring healing to the sufferer.   

In 1917 Jung described the archetypes, inter alia, as “deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity” which are “grounded in the peculiarities of the living organism itself and … therefore direct expressions of life whose nature cannot be further explained”.2  As a Jungian analyst I had always accepted this description of the archetypes, and after reading the book by Gerald Hüther and Inge Krens I understood more clearly how the “deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity” are transmitted from generation to generation. More importantly, I began to understand that the deposits are not immutable and that they can be positively affected by bringing about healing of even “generational or ancestral complexes”.

Hüther is a professor for neurobiology at the University of Göttingen in Germany3  and Krens is a Dutch psychotherapist with a primary focus on prenatal psychology.4  Although they never mention Jung (or Freud), my reading of their book suggested to me the possibility of integrating their neurobiological and emotional research with Jungian ideas. Then, towards the end of their book of 137 pages, on page 121, I came upon this statement:

A child needs all the accumulated knowledge, feelings, experiences, abilities and aptitudes from his mother, from his father, and from all the people in his culture in order to select and firm up certain [neuronal] switches and [synaptic] connections out of the [range of] neuronal switching possibilities and synaptic connection opportunities which are available in his brain, and in order to anchor and ground them in the form of inner representations [bold emphasis and italics mine].

It seemed to me that Hüther and Krens describe two stages of neuronal and psychic activity:

(1)    Opportunities for neuronal switches and synaptic connections which are available in the brain (bold language). These are the phylogenetic patterns available to every human being by virtue of being human.
(2)    Selecting and firming up of certain of the available switches and connections based on all the accumulated knowledge, feelings, experiences, abilities and aptitudes of the mother, father, and all the people in the child’s culture, followed by anchoring and grounding them in the form of inner representations (italicized language). These are the archetypal patterns which become active in each individual human being starting at conception.

The selection and firming up, or stabilizing, of the available neuronal switches and synaptic connections is not limited to the first nine months and does not end with the birth of the child. On the contrary, it continues vigorously during the first years of life into adolescence and probably beyond. It is Hüther’s and Krens’ contention, however, and I believe their merit, to have pointed out that this so-called plasticity of the brain, i.e. its ability to have available a range of neuronal switches and synaptic connections for selection and use by the individual human being, does not start and become effective only with birth but already with conception. Furthermore, they argue that the hoped-for normal and healthy selection and firming up by the embryo and fetus can, and often is, already negatively affected in the womb by the quality of the mother’s and father’s lives, and the lives of other people who relate to the mother and father. Emotional trauma can and does, therefore, occur in the womb.   

The fertilized egg (zygote) with the DNA of the two parents does not contain a determinative program for the growth and development of the fetus, but only a range of options of how the development might proceed depending on the environment of the motherly womb, both physically and emotionally. The environment of the womb includes the actual physical container, the influences of the mother’s physical and emotional functioning and the outside influences which are constellated in the mother’s life, including the father and other people who interact with the mother.   

The nervous system of the fetus, including its developing central nervous system and brain, develop a plethora of possible neuronal switching options and of synaptic connection possibilities. In the adult brain there are about 100 billion neurons, of which about 30 billion are in the cerebral cortex, the recently evolved outer mantle of the human brain. The cortex contains about one million billion synaptic connections. The number of possible neuronal circuits considerably exceeds the number of particles in the known universe.5  No wonder that Emily Dickinson could exclaim in the first stanza of her 1862 poem:

The Brain--is wider than the Sky--
For--put them side by side--
The one the other will contain
With ease--and you–beside-- 6

But only those switching options and synaptic possibilities which are activated, again and again, will lead to established pathways and connections. Which options and possibilities are activated depends in large measure on the fetus’ interaction with its environment, both within itself, i.e. within its own body, and without, i.e. the womb, the mother and beyond.

Learning by the child does not begin only at birth, but begins immediately after conception. Quite possibly, a human being learns more in the first nine months (during pregnancy) than in the entire remainder of life. Furthermore, this learning does not occur in a vacuum but is embedded in the relationship within and without the embryo and fetus; within are the ever changing relationships of the various cells and cell aggregations including organs, and without are the relationships of the fetus to the mother and the people to whom she relates. This means, most importantly, that we, the adults – be we more or less “adult” – do and can have an influence on what and how the fetus learns.   

According to Hüther and Krens we never really learn anything “new”. Not “new” in this context means not “without a prior association.” Everything we learn is an addition to or a variation from something that we already know. Hence, when the child is born, he is born with a vast storehouse of already existing knowledge, plus the lust and joy of integrating new insights and information with his pre-existing knowledge base. This, of course, raises the serious question from where comes the first knowledge or information. The answer is that it exists in the DNA sequences or genes which the zygote acquires from his two parents, and that DNA is faithfully passed on by the zygote upon its first and all subsequent divisions into two and ever more cells. The information or knowledge contained in these genes becomes available when they are stimulated or activated by signals from the environment.   

A wonderful example is the activation which happens a few hours after conception. The zygote, which has already divided several times, “learns”, i.e. receives a chemical signal from the mother that tells it that it is situated in the fallopian tube. This signal activates a certain gene in the zygote to produce and release a hormone into the fallopian tube and the mother’s body saying, in substance: “Hey Mom, I am here, please get ready to receive me in your womb and prepare to support my growth for the next nine months.”  It is, so to speak, the first incarnation of the mother archetype, where the archetype is the genetically available pattern of communication between mother and child and child and mother, i.e. a very old typical pattern in the human race; and the incarnation is the two signals passing from the mother’s fallopian tube to the embryo and then the hormonal signal from the embryo to the mother.   

What has been learned by the embryo in this exchange?  Before the receipt of the mother’s message the embryo only “knew,” on a cellular level, that it was an embryo. Now it “knows,” again on a cellular level, that it is an “embryo in a fallopian tube.” The memory of being only an embryo has been widened or integrated with the experience of being an embryo in a fallopian tube. While this particular embryo never had that experience before, it came prepared with a general ability to receive the chemical message from the mother. This general ability would be the archetype and the actual integration of the experience would be its implementation leading to the new self representation of the “embryo in the fallopian tube.”

What has been learned by the mother?  It is well known that many mothers know, consciously, within a few hours of sexual intercourse that they are pregnant. But even if they do not know it consciously, they know on a hormonal, physical and cellular level that they have changed from being a woman to being a mother. If the particular woman has not been pregnant before, she has no individual memory of a change from woman to mother. But by virtue of being a woman, she has the general ability, or archetype, to receive the hormonal signal from the embryo and establish a relationship with it. The actualization of this typically available ability enables the integration of the self representation as woman with the experience of becoming pregnant to the new self representation of mother.

Turning now to the subject of the equivalency of the neurobiological descriptions by Hüther and Krens and the Jungian archetype, it seems to me that the original  [neuronal] switches and [synaptic] connections out of the [range of] neuronal switching possibilities and synaptic connection opportunities which are available in [the child’s] brain are the inherited generic neuronal patterns which become the archetypes when some of these patterns are select[ed], firm[ed] up,… anchor[ed] and ground[ed]  in the form of inner representations when the child is influenced by and reacting to the accumulated knowledge, feelings, experiences, abilities and aptitudes from his mother, from his father, and from all the people in his culture.   

It might be helpful here briefly to restate the theory of Jungian archetypes based on the description of Robert H. Hopcke in his book A Guided Tour of the Collective Works of C. G. Jung.7  Archetypes are typical modes of apprehension, i.e. patterns of psychic perception and understanding common to all human beings. The archetype is neither an inherited idea nor a common image. Rather, it is the psychic form into which individual experiences are poured and where they take shape. It then produces the symbols and images which are apprehended by consciousness. Some archetypes are referred to by their symbolic or imaginal manifestations, such as the divine child, the great mother, the wise old man, the trickster, etc.; these are archetypes whose personalization brings the psychological power of the pattern into consciousness. The content of other archetypes is not as personalized, such as the archetype of wholeness or the archetype of rebirth; these are archetypes which symbolize the kind of transformation in question. The archetypes can be ambivalent, potentially positive and negative. Insofar as the archetypes themselves are, by definition, outside of conscious awareness, they function autonomously, almost as forces of nature, organizing human experience for the individual in particular ways without regard to the constructive or destructive consequences to the individual life. In Jung’s own words, already in 1917:

So this idea [of the conservation of energy] has been stamped on the human brain for aeons. That is why it lies ready to hand in the unconscious of every man. Only, certain conditions are needed to cause it to appear. … The greatest and best thoughts of man shape themselves upon these primordial images as upon a blueprint. I have often been asked where the archetypes or primordial images come from. It seems to me that their origin can only be explained by assuming them to be deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity. … The archetype is a kind of readiness to produce over and over again the same or similar mythical ideas. Hence it seems as though what is impressed upon the unconscious were exclusively the subjective fantasy-ideas aroused by the physical process. We may therefore assume that the archetypes are recurrent impressions made by subjective reactions. Naturally, this assumption only pushes the problem further back without solving it. There is nothing to prevent us from assuming that certain archetypes exist even in animals, that they are grounded in the peculiarities of the living organism itself and are therefore direct expressions of life whose nature cannot be further explained. Not only are the archetypes, apparently, impressions of ever-repeated typical experiences, but, at the same time, they behave empirically like agents that tend towards the repetition of these same experiences. For when an archetype appears in a dream, in a fantasy, or in life, it always brings with it a certain influence or power by virtue of which it either exercises a numinous or a fascinating effect, or impels to action.8

It seems to me that Jung intuited correctly – in 1917, nearly three quarters of a century before the recent findings of neurobiological research – that the basic and typical patterns of human perception, understanding and relating are inherited, and that they structure these human activities. Furthermore, he intuited correctly that while there may be a plethora if not unlimited supply of neuronal possibilities, only those possibilities “mature” into firm patterns available to the individual being which are actually used by the fetus, child and growing human being within a relationship with another human being, most importantly the mother or early caregiver and the people surrounding that mother and early caregiver. Margaret Wilkinson, in her book Coming Into Mind says something very similar:

Thus we may think of the individual as a mind-brain-body being that has emerged from the experience of the earliest and most fundamental experiences of relating. Both nature and nurture have had a part to play in the growth and development of the neuronal connections that go to make up the individual mind [emphasis mine].9

I have emphasized “earliest” and “fundamental” in this quote from Wilkinson because Hüther and Krens teach us that the intra-uterine experiences are as, if not more, important than the experiences after birth. As they articulate it in their book nearly ninety years after Jung:

All children are born with similar abilities and aptitudes, not only because their DNA is largely identical, i.e. typical for humans, but also because of a uterine experience which is typical for all humans. In this world [of the uterus] they all found similar conditions and had principally similar experiences, so that upon birth their brains [i.e. actual neuronal switches and synaptic connections] are similarly structured [emphasis mine].10

In other words, although the human DNA and the uterine conditions are similar, i.e. typical for all humans, they are not identical. Each zygote has a unique set of DNA randomly created from the mother’s and father’s genes, and each uterine experience is unique. Accordingly, the archetypal possibilities resulting from the combination of the DNA and the uterine experience are old (arch) and typical, i.e. long established and similar, and, therefore, result in similar processes of structuring and formulating the experiences of perception, understanding and relating.

The old question of “nature versus nurture” or of “born versus trained” is, therefore, the wrong question, because at the time of the child’s birth it is already a combination of inherited and acquired characteristics and abilities. Or, as Hüther and Krens put it, “What is ‘inherited’ need not always and automatically be programmed genetically.”11

If the selection, firming up and anchoring of the neuronal switches and synaptic connections do not proceed in a normal and healthy way, the resulting switches and connections will not establish themselves in such a way as to support the normal and healthy development of the child. This abnormal and unhealthy configuration of switches and connections may be described as trauma or traumata caused by the environment of the embryo in his attempted normal and healthy development and may be the equivalent of the beginning of a complex, i.e. a feeling-toned representation which is adverse and harmful to the life of the child and later adult.    

Such traumata in the uterine experience can be caused by problems in the mother’s life resulting from infections, toxins such as medications, nicotine, alcohol or other drugs, pesticides, hormonal imbalances, stress, malnourishment, etc. If these traumata cannot be repaired or compensated for by the embryo, it will be born with these problems, or in extreme cases, find itself miscarried.    

In a normal development of the fetus the information, which flows, again and again, to the developing brain about the conditions and development of all aspects of its growing body, including muscles, organs, circulatory systems and neuronal connectors, causes a true representation of the bodily processes and conditions in the brain, which in turn influences them. This representation becomes more complete and complex as the fetus becomes more complete and complex.    

It is very similar to the way Goethe already in 1810 described the evolution of the eye as a reflection or representation of sunlight: “The eye owes its existence to light. … Light called forth an organ which becomes its image; and thus through light the eye evolved for the light [translation mine].”12  Because of the existence of sunlight organisms developed suitable organs to process it and create neuronal representations in the brain of the outer phenomena. The development of the eye in the fetus occurs, of course, at a later stage of the pregnancy, although even the fetus already reacts to light.

The earliest selection and stabilization of switches and connections reflects the inner workings of the embryo, so that the first representation of the “world” in the brain is the world of the biological and neuronal functioning of the fetus. As the fetus develops further there follows a selection and stabilization of neuronal pathways reflecting the outer world of the embryo, which consists at first of the uterus and the mother. In the kingdom of the mammalian animals the development of the brain stops soon after birth, with the result of a fairly firmly wired brain for the rest of the animal’s life. When the animal is born, it is ready to function immediately or soon after birth. It is governed in its inner workings by its inner control mechanisms and in its outer relationships by its instincts. This is also true for the human animal, but it has in addition a large part of the brain (the cortex and neocortex) which continues to remain “plastic”, i.e. open to establishing new switches and connections, and in addition, to modify some of the already established pathways.    

How does the brain “learn” or know when a new pathway is helpful and useful, and when not, or when a new switching and connecting pattern should be kept and stabilized, and when not?  According to Hüther and Krens the circuitry in the limbic portion of the brain has the function to generate a feeling of “this is helpful” or “this is harmful” depending on whether the new experience, which resulted in the new pathways, was good for the person or not. It is like a message to ourselves: The “bad” feeling tells us that we do not want to repeat this particular experience and the “good” feeling tells us that it is okay to do so. The bad feeling can rise all the way to anxiety and fear and the good feeling can generate joy and enthusiasm, even happiness. These “emotional” reactions have the purpose of evaluating whether our experience was pleasant and positive or nasty and negative. It is the earliest evidence of Jung’s feeling function and is probably the second function to develop, after sensation. Because children are born with a well-developed limbic brain it is safe to assume that their feeling function developed during the first nine months, as, of course, did their sensation function. According to Hüther it is probable that the intuitive and thinking functions as well as intro- and extraversion also already develop in the fetus.13

The emotional life of the mother deeply influences the life of the fetus which is connected to the mother with the umbilical cord. Since feelings of the mother have a physiological basis and counterpart, any change of the mother’s feeling state is immediately and automatically transmitted to the fetus. Changes in feelings result, among other consequences, in changes of the hormonal levels in the mother’s blood, of the amount of the available oxygen, and of the frequency and strength of the heart beat. For example, if the mother experiences anxiety or fear, more stress hormones enter the bloodstream, the heart begins to beat faster and she may breathe more rapidly; all of these physiological manifestations of the mother are immediately experienced by the fetus. In this way the fetus has many emotional experiences which lead to corresponding structures in its brain. It “learns to feel” anxiety and fear, joy and happiness.    

In addition to the umbilical communication the fetus also “learns” about feelings with its organs of perception, especially touch and hearing, but also seeing and tasting. The mother’s feelings will manifest in the way she moves and in the tone of her voice. If she is she excited, she will move more quickly and suddenly and speak more loudly. If she is peaceful, she will be more at rest and use a softer voice. These channels of communicating the mother’s feelings to the fetus are less direct and physiological than the umbilical cord; they are more indirect and require the fetus’ ability to sense with her organs of perception.    

A very special case of “learning” by taste and smell is the fetus’ ability to find and identify the mother’s breast and nipple. Research has shown that the mother’s nipple tastes and smells like her amniotic fluid, so that upon birth the child already “knows” who her mother is and where the source of nourishment can be found on her. The researchers determined this by feeding later stage pregnant mothers a fair amount of lemon juice which “flavored” the amniotic fluid. After birth the researchers placed some lemon fluid on the back of the mother and, lo and behold, the newborn crawled to the mother’s back and began to suck, totally ignoring her breast and the nipple.

Hüther and Krens conclude, correctly I believe, that

The manifold stimulants, which result from the relationship between the mother and the unborn child, provide a steady stream of learning opportunities which the child experiences and confronts by comparing the neuronal patterns already existing in his brain with the new pattern which is created in the brain by the stimulants, and by trying to integrate the new pattern with the old.14

Unfortunately, it can and does happen that the new neuronal pattern is so different or overwhelming that it cannot be integrated with an already existing pattern and that it cannot be turned off. In that case the brain tends to adapt itself to the continuing and repetitive different and overwhelming pattern with the result that this interfering and perhaps disturbing pattern becomes the normal one. For example, in the event of a continuous and repetitive overstimulation the brain will try to compensate by delaying neuronal messages and using fewer synaptic connections in order to diminish the impact of the overstimulation. While this may appear desirable, a problem develops as soon as the outer overstimulation stops – perhaps because the mother experiences less stress or, for example, stops smoking – because now the reduction of the stimulation is experienced as a new overwhelming experience for which the brain may try to compensate by initiating a search for stimulating events. If this pattern lasts long enough and becomes deeply established, the child may be born as a so-called “restless child.” Such a child may find it extremely difficult to dissolve this pre-birth pattern of a search for unrest and constant stimulation.    

Contrary to popular perception and perhaps the promotional representations of the makers of drugs like Ritalin the restless or hyperactive child with some attention difficulties is not a new or recent phenomenon. I was called a restless boy in the 1940s and my father, born in the 1890s, was a restless man. The story of Zappelphilipp, or Fidgety Phil, goes back to the middle of the 19th century. Fidgety Phil could not sit still at dinner. He fidgeted and wiggled, and as he overbalanced his chair on its hind legs, he grabbed the table cloth and crashed to the floor, pulling the family’s dinner on top of him.

The original story of Fidgety Phil was included in a book published by the German physician Heinrich Hoffmann in 1845.15  Some of the other stories in this book are “Slovenly Peter”, “Cruel Frederick”, “Little Suck-a-Thumb”, and other “misbehaving” children. Hüther and Krens do not mention Zappelphilipp or Fidgety Phil, perhaps because Hüther has a separate book16 about Fidgety Phil and attention deficit disorder as well as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. In any event, fidgety children have been with us for a long, long time. Perhaps the cause of the fidgeting is to be sought not so much in the genes but in the circumstances surrounding a pregnancy, and perhaps the cure is not medication for these children but research into, and a determination of, the nature of the circumstances of the pregnant mother which contribute to the making of fidgety children.    

Another example of adverse neuronal patterns can be observed in children of depressed mothers. Just like their mothers they show the physiological changes in their hormonal levels typical for depressed adults. Due to being the child of a depressed mother, their physiological functions at birth are already fixed in a “depressed” pattern. Although it may be possible to modify this pattern later in life through healing experiences – because the mother works through her depression or the child, now adult, seeks therapy – the fact remains that at birth such a child is, on a deep physiological level, already acquainted with, one might even say had to place his trust and faith in, depression.    

The extent and depth of the adaptive processes in the womb can be observed in a “cross fostering” experiment done with rats. During cross fostering embryos of one mother are removed and implanted in another mother, and vice versa. The embryos of rats which were especially competent and careful where cross fostered with embryos of rats which were rather incompetent and careless. The result was that the young rats born of competent mothers were quite competent and careful although their genetic ancestors were incompetent and careless, and vice versa. In other words, the existence by an embryo in the womb of a competent and careful mother was more important than the fact that its genetic inheritance might have predetermined it to be rather incompetent and careless.

The experience of cross fostering reminds me of similar experiences often encountered in therapy. In cross fostering the foster child does not fit with the chosen mother; for example, the careless child is saddled with a careful mother, and vice versa. In therapy we frequently meet clients who appear not to fit with their families or indeed in this world. I have read that introverted intuitive feeling types make up only about 5% of the US population and so frequently feel themselves at odds with the world. The notion of the “black sheep” in a family describes the syndrome of the child who does not seem to fit, and worse yet, on whom, maybe because of it, the family’s shadow is projected. Why does this happen, even when there is no cross fostering?  Presumably because the lottery of the parental genes does not and cannot assure the zygote, embryo, fetus and child that its personality traits will be a fit with the personalities of either or both parents. Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls this lottery of the genes the “mistaken zygote,” i.e. when “the Zygote Fairy was flying over … town one night, [the zygote] fell out of the basket over the wrong house … into a family that was not meant for [it].”17   The encouraging insight by Hüther and Krens is that even if the genetic potential of the zygote is not a good fit for its parents, the experience in the womb can begin to prepare it for the challenge of an unwelcoming environment. In this way nurture can indeed modify nature.    

The establishment of abnormal neuronal patterns, already in the fetus, is the equivalent of the development of complexes. At this point it may be useful to recall the Jungian articulation of the complex. As before (concerning the archetype) I am following Robert H. Hopcke’s description in his book A Guided Tour of the Collective Works of C. G. Jung.18  A feeling toned complex consists of a psychic representation and the distinctive feeling attached to it. Complexes are usually unconscious, either repressed because of the painfulness of the related affect or because of the unacceptability of the representation. A complex has elements of both the personal as well as the collective unconscious. An archetype can magnify, distort, or modify both the feeling tone and the representational aspect of the complex. Like the archetypes, complexes are potentially both positive and negative. In Jung’s own words:

What then, scientifically speaking, is a “feeling-toned complex”?  It is the image of a certain psychic situation which is strongly accentuated emotionally and is, moreover, incompatible with the habitual attitude of consciousness. This image has a powerful inner coherence, it has its own wholeness and, in addition, a relatively high degree of autonomy, so that it is subject to the control of the conscious mind to only a limited extent, and therefore behaves like an animated foreign body in the sphere of consciousness.19  Today we can take it as moderately certain that complexes are in fact “splinter psyches.” The aetiology of their origin is frequently a so-called trauma, an emotional shock or some such thing, that splits off a bit of the psyche. … As a rule there is a marked unconsciousness of any complexes, and this naturally guarantees them all the more freedom of action. In such cases their powers of assimilation become especially pronounced, since unconsciousness helps the complex to assimilate even the ego, the result being a momentary and unconscious alteration of personality known as identification with the complex. In the Middle Ages it went by another name: it was called possession. 20

In the Jungian perspective, therefore, the essence of the complex includes its autonomous psychic existence separate from consciousness and a feeling charge which exerts influence on consciousness. It seems to me that this description is indistinguishable from the abnormal neuronal pattern (for example hyperactivity, depression, etc.) described by Hüther and Krens, because that pattern also developed unconsciously, is autonomous and different from the hoped-for normal pattern, and exerts negative emotional influence in the life of the person and on his consciousness once that develops.    

It seems quite apparent that there is a psychic development of the child already in utero. This casts the question of the beginning of human life in a new light: Is there psychic (and spiritual) life only when there is consciousness? Does it depend on a functioning nervous system? When is there a functioning nervous system in the fetus?  Is there psychic (and spiritual) life already in the zygote or the embryo? This leads to the broader question whether body and soul (or spirit) are two separate entities or two manifestations of one underlying reality, two sides of the same coin so to speak. Personally, I tend to lean to the second view in that soma and psyche are inextricably combined in one being. According to Hüther and Krens, and I agree, the human being does not come about by first some cells forming a physical body, to which at a later time a soul (or psyche or spirit) is somehow added. As the zygote begins to differentiate, both physical and psychic components begin to unfold. As we saw before, already hours after fertilization the zygote sends a message, albeit in hormonal (chemical) form, to the mother. But then all intra-psychic messages rely on chemical, electrochemical and electromagnetic transmissions. The mother, we know, frequently knows right away, consciously or psychically, that she is now pregnant. Can we say any less about the zygote when it changes from a zygote to a “zygote in a fallopian tube,” even if such a change is not consciously experienced?    

The fact that soul and body, spirit and matter are inextricably intertwined was already recognized by Jung when he said in 1917 that “[t]here is nothing to prevent us from assuming that certain archetypes exist even in animals, that they are grounded in the peculiarities of the living organism itself and are therefore direct expressions of life.”21  Or again in 1940, when he observed that “the human body, too, is built of the stuff of the world, the very stuff wherein fantasies become visible; indeed, without it they could not be experienced at all.22 The symbols of the self arise in the depth of the body and they express its materiality every bit as much as the structure of the perceiving consciousness.”23  What we are observing here, I believe, at the time of the very earliest development of the human person, when both physical and psychic components (or two sides of the same coin) begin to unfold, is what Ken Wilber calls Spirit-in-action, “where Spirit unfolds itself at every stage of development, …an infinite process that is completely present at every finite stage, but becomes more available to itself [i.e. consciousness] with every evolutionary opening [insertion mine].”24 Or, in Emily Dickinson’s poetic language of the third and final stanza of her already quoted 1862 poem:

The Brain is just the weight of God--
For--Heft them--Pound for Pound--
And they will differ--if they do--
As Syllable from Sound-- 25    

This view of the physical and psychic or spiritual nature of the zygote obviously raises serious questions for “pro-choicers” who, it seems to me, cannot argue for abortion on the basis of the embryo not being a human being. The discussion has to shift to the different perhaps more slippery ground of the value of one life against another. Value may include, for example, the balancing of the pain experienced by the mother and family of an unwanted child and indeed by the unwanted child himself against the pain of being aborted. On that question, i.e. the ability of the embryo and fetus to feel pain, the new prenatal research is also helpful.    

Hüther and Krens tell us, for example, that an eight week old fetus, barely one inch long, reacts when touched on its lips. At fourteen weeks the fetus will register touch all over its body. Between eight and fourteen weeks the sensibility to touch will first develop in those areas which later in life are also most sensitive to touch: the lips, the face and the genital area.

The skin is the first organ of perception to develop. Through its sensation function the fetus builds a neuronal picture of the surface and boundaries of its own body. This enables a sense or feeling of physical integrity and continuity, which in turn is a condition for the development of a personal identity which as an “I” distinguishes itself from others, including on this basic uterine level from the mother and her womb and, when present, a twin. In a way this experience can be described as a rudimentary form of self-perception, a precursor to self-consciousness.

When does the fetus begin to register pain?  We have already seen that it registers touch at eight weeks. If pain includes unpleasant touch, then pain might be registered already at eight weeks. This is an assertion quite contrary to the belief until only a few decades ago when newborns were subjected to surgery without anesthesia because, so it was argued, newborns cannot experience pain due to the immaturity of their brains. While it is extremely difficult to know just when a fetus begins to experience pain because we cannot talk to it and have only its external reactions, it is possible to observe physical reactions of the fetus to painful interventions, such as amniocentesis, intra-uterine surgery, etc, at nineteen weeks because the fetus reacts with an increased stress hormone level in its blood. It has also been reported that it is possible to hear a fetus cry when it is aborted between the 21st and 23rd week of the pregnancy. Because of the possibility that the fetus experiences pain during an abortion, some British scientists are now demanding anesthesia for a fetus aborted after the 16th week of pregnancy. In this context it is important to realize that the physiological damping filter of the fetus which inhibits pain becomes effective only towards the end of a pregnancy, so that it is realistic to assume that a fetus in its thirteenth week and later will experience more pain than the newborn whose pain inhibiting filter is more developed.    

By now it should be relatively obvious that our brain and psyche are a social construct which begins very early in our uterine existence. Its formation, i.e. the number and nature of neuronal switches and synaptic connections, will depend in the first place on the experiences in the womb, and then after birth on its outside relationships. And the quality of the experiences is in turn a function of the kind of family and culture into which we are born. But equally important as the nature and quality of these experiences are the order in which they occur. Before we can write a paper, we have to learn to read, and before we can walk we have to learn to be upright. Most importantly, before we can communicate about ourselves, we need to know what is going on in and with us and we need to have had the experience that there is somebody who can and will listen to us and react appropriately. The experience of this kind of communication starts within a few hours of conception, when zygote and Mom communicate about their relationship. That is the first of many interactions within the pattern of the mother archetype.    

What have I learned from The Mystery of the First Nine Months? The first thing I learned is that according to Hüther and Krens I never learned anything “new,” that everything I learned is a variation from or an addition to something I already “knew,” not necessarily and only in the cognitive sense, but in the broad spectrum of my being, starting on the molecular level and proceeding all the way “up” via the level of the cells, the organs, the nervous system and brain, the mind and the psyche to the whole organism which is me. And most importantly, I started this learning, and every human starts this learning, within hours of conception.    

Secondly, although I always “knew,” or perhaps more accurately “believed,” that the archetypes were “grounded in the peculiarities of the living organism itself and … therefore direct expressions of life,”26 I now have learned and understand that from the enormous but not infinite number of neuronal switches and synaptic connections made available to the human being, only certain patterns are established in the brain-mind because of the relationship of the zygote, embryo, fetus and child with the mother and primary care givers, resulting in the typical patterns of apprehension which we call the archetypes. The finite number of neuronal switches and synaptic connections are the archetypal patterns which have been phylogenetically selected over the eons of human evolution and the further selection and activation in each individual human being are their incarnation. Because of this relationship of the incarnated archetypes to their phylogenetic ancestors the former present themselves to us with such numinous power.    

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, my therapeutic work has been affected. I had read before that in some cultures the age of a person is not counted from birth but from conception. In other words, the first nine months count. I now pay more conscious attention to the family relationships and their dynamic during the nine months before birth. And I am encouraged that since nurture can effect and modify nature – in the broad sense of the entirety of the human being as it exists at any given time – or put differently, since the quality of later relationships can affect and modify the results of earlier experiences, therapy, being a form of intentional nurture, can help clients change. During the analytic encounter new emotional experiences can modify existing neuronal connections and thus help the client heal.


1. Düsseldorf, Walter Verlag (2005). Translations of the title and of all quotes from the book were made by me. Also, I would like to acknowledge the very helpful research assistance of George C. Brown, Assistant Director of the Public Library in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

2. C. G. Jung, On the Psychology of the Unconscious, CW 7, 109.

3. Hüther is the author or co-author of several other books in the field of neurobiology, among them Neues vom Zappelphilipp (News from Fidgety Phil), to which I will refer later in this essay, and, perhaps of particular interest to Jungians and others working with symbolic material, Die Macht der inneren Bilder (The Power of the Inner Images), Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004.

4. Krens is the author of two other books in the field of prenatal psychology. Her book Risikofaktor Mutterleib (The Mother’s Womb as a Risk Factor), Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006, examines the importance of prenatal psychology for therapeutic approaches.

5. Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi, A Universe of Consciousness, Basic Books, a Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2000, 38.

6. Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (ed. Thomas H. Johnson), Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1960, No. 632, 312. 

7. Boston and Shaftesbury, Shambhala, 1989, 13-16. 

8. C. G. Jung, On the Psychology of the Unconscious, CW 7, 109. 

9. Coming Into Mind. The mind-brain relationship: a Jungian clinical perspective, London and New York, Routledge, 2006, 36.

10. 21. 

11. 107. 

12. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors, trans. Charles Lock Eastlake; Introd. Deane B. Judd), Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1970, 27. 

13. Gerald Hüther, Personal communication, August 16, 2006. 

14. 99. 

15. One of the translators of Hoffmann’s book was Mark Twain when he was in Berlin in 1891. Although Twain wanted his translation published right away, it did not see the light of day until 1935 as: Mark Twain [Samuel Langhorn Clemens], Slovenly Peter, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1935. See Justin Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1966, 315. 

16. Neues vom Zappelphilipp (News from Fidgety Phil), Düsseldorf, Walter Verlag, 2002. 

17. Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, New York, Ballantine Books, 1992, 194.  

18. 18-19

19. C. G. Jung, A Review of the Complex Theory, CW 8, 201. 

20. 204. 

21. C. G. Jung, On the Psychology of the Unconscious, CW 7, 109. 

22. C. G. Jung, The Psychology of the Child Archetype, CW 9/I, 290. 

23. 291. 

24. Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything, Boston, Shambala, 2000, 9. 

25. Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (ed. Thomas H. Johnson), Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1960, No. 632, 312. 

26. C. G. Jung, On the Psychology of the Unconscious, CW 7, 109. 

Copyright Rainer Maria Kohler 2007.

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