Some view Carl Jung as a UFO debunker, others as a UFO believer, but the truth is he was somewhere in the middle. Either way, it is certain that Jung was an avid UFO researcher and fascinated with the topic. He wrote a book about the psychological symbolism and the role the UFO mythos plays in the unconscious mind. Moreover, on several occasions Jung complained that his studies would have been much easier if the UFO phenomenon was not real.
Jung the Psychologist
Jung was born in Switzerland in 1875. His father was a pastor in the Swiss Reformed Protestant Church, and his mother was from a wealthy Swiss family. He was the Jungs’ fourth child, but was the only child who survived into his childhood. As such, he grew up as an only child. Later, he wrote that he remembered enjoying his solitude.
His first experience with neurosis was at the age of twelve when a fellow student shoved him, causing him to fall and hit his head on the ground very hard. He remembered associating this experience with schoolwork, and whenever he had to go to school or do schoolwork he would faint. Overhearing his parents’ concern that this condition would cause him to be unable to support himself as an adult, Jung fought to overcome the problem and eventually returned to academics.
Although Jung had a profound interest in spirituality, his experiences triggered an interest in psychology and he decided to pursue a career in medicine. It wasn’t long before he realized that studies in psychology would allow him to combine his interests in medicine and spirituality, and in 1902, he completed his doctoral dissertation, which was titled “On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena.” He graduated with a medical degree from the University of Basel.
After graduating, Jung went to work with psychiatric patients at the University of Zurich asylum. He wrote a paper on word association that he sent to Sigmund Freud. Freud was impressed with Jung’s work, and they quickly became very close. Freud considered Jung his successor. However, after several years, Jung began to develop his own ideas beyond the work of Freud, and due to their disagreements, the relationship turned adversarial.
Freud’s work with the ego and unconscious served as a foundation for Jung’s work. They both felt that disconnects between the conscious and unconscious minds caused neurosis in people. They also both relied on dream interpretation to explore a person’s unconscious mind as a method for subsequently resolving neurosis. In fact, one story holds that Jung and Freud interpreted each other’s dreams and both completely disagreed with the other’s analysis, thus hastening the dissolution of their friendship.
A major area of disagreement between the two was that Jung did not believe a person’s unconscious was driven solely by sexual desires, as Freud did. Jung believed other strong emotions such as fear and aspiration were just as influential. He also conceived of a deeper level of the unconscious called the collective unconscious, which he believed is a part of our unconscious mind that holds ideas and concepts shared by all humankind. He believed these base ideas are then shaped by our cultural perceptions and personal experience. For example, we all have ideas around the notions of mothers, fathers, wise elders, etc. Jung called these shared notions archetypes. Jung felt that these archetypes not only would manifest in dreams, but could be seen in people’s creative works and behavior, including art, religion, and mythology.
Jung’s contributions to psychology are numerous. Even today his ideas of extraversion and introversion are a mainstay in personality psychology. He also came up with the idea of psychological complexes and synchronicities. All of these ideas and terms are commonly used in everyday conversation today, and all were made popular by Jung.
Jung and Alchemy
It is the idea of the archetype that brought Jung to have a particular interest in UFOs. When Jung interpreted psychological meaning he would search for archetypal figures. As mentioned earlier, such figures could be a mother or father. But, in a mythological story, the archetype may be the hero, a dragon, or even a planetary entity such as the sun. However, Jung also had an interested in alchemy.
Alchemy is typically connected to legends of ancient mystics attempting to unravel the secret of turning lead into gold. The work of alchemists is credited with the development of modern chemistry. However, another side of alchemy is spiritual in nature, relating to personal transformation. Jung had a passion for alchemy in this sense, and felt that the metal lead was a metaphor for an impure soul, whereas gold was a metaphor for a perfected soul. Jung’s interest in alchemy was thus as a method of purifying the soul.
Jung wrote a couple of books focused on interpreting alchemical symbolism and processes as different stages of personal growth that mirrored his ideas. He felt these symbols were archetypes that were unconsciously manifesting in the work of alchemists. Although he acknowledged the physical goals of alchemy (an attempt to transmute lead into gold), Jung did not give it much attention in his writing and focused on the non-physical aspects that related to his psychological theories. This is very similar to the way he approached the topic of UFOs.
Jung and UFOs
In 1951, Jung wrote to a friend in the United States: “I am puzzled to death about the phenomena, because I haven’t been able yet to make out with sufficient certainty whether the whole thing is a rumour with concomitant singular and mass hallucination, or a downright fact.”
Although Jung showed an interest in the mystery of the physical reality of the UFO phenomenon, professionally he stated, “As a psychologist, I am not qualified to contribute anything useful to the question of the physical reality of Ufos.” However, Jung could contribute by analyzing the unmistakable psychological side to the UFO phenomenon. In 1958, several of Jung’s papers regarding the psychology of UFOs were published in a book. It was originally published in German, but in 1959 it was translated to English under the title, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies.
In the book, Jung argued that although there may be a physical reality to UFOs, there is certainly a portion of the phenomenon that is fantasy. He examined the difficulty many have in accepting fantastical stories of UFOs, even when they come from pilots, and points out, “What is worse, most of the stories come from America, the land of superlatives and of science fiction.”
For the sake of argument, and to examine the psychological aspects of the phenomenon, Jung presumed that UFOs are fantasy. This is an important aspect that many critics overlook when they characterize Jung as dismissive of the phenomenon altogether. UFO researchers also tend not to appreciate the portions of Jung’s book in which he examined the UFO phenomenon in regards to archetypal imagery and alchemic symbolism. Jung himself assures his readers that although his work may appear to be “unbridled fantasy” to those unfamiliar with psychology, it is actually based on “thorough research into the history of symbols.”
In his book, Jung observed that most UFO sightings describe the objects as disc shaped, which is a symbol that is often seen in alchemy and existed in the mythology of other cultures. For example, the Hindu and Buddhist symbol of the mandala is a circular disc-shaped symbol. Jung believed that the mandala is a protective sphere, which is elicited in the unconscious in times of emotional tension. Jung noted that, around the time of many of the UFO sightings, the world was under a collective stress due to “Russian policies and their still unpredictable consequences.” In short, he felt that perhaps UFOs were appearing in visions at the time because of the world’s Cold War jitters, and that the UFOs were a manifestation of a need for protection and salvation.
Jung’s book also provided detail of the analysis of particular sightings and art. One of the significant contributions to ufology made by the book is a focus on two historical broadsheets, a type of ancient newspaper, that recorded mysterious apparitions that many have speculated to be UFO related. Although Jung asserted that these reports were in the UFO literature prior to the publication of his book, Jung clearly made them popular as potential ancient UFO sightings.
The first is referred to as the Basel Broadsheet, and it dates back to 1566. It was written by Samuel Coccius and is a report of “many large black globes” that were seen flying in front of the sun “with great speed.” The Basel Broadsheet notes, “Some of them became red and fiery and afterwards faded and went out.” Jung noted the similarity of this phenomenon to modern UFO accounts.
The second report is called the Nuremberg Broadsheet and dates back to 1561. This report chronicles a “very frightful spectacle” that was witnessed by several people. Again, “globes” were seen near the sun, “some three in a row, now and then four in a square, also some standing alone.” There were also “two great tubes.” Jung noted that in UFO literature large tubes are considered “motherships,” and have been reported to have smaller discs that appear to fly out of them.
The Physical Reality of UFOs
In his book, Jung also examined the possibility of the physical reality of UFOs. He noted that, “unfortunately,” UFOs cannot be dismissed as purely psychological in nature. He pointed to numerous sightings, some of which have been caught in photographs and on radar. Jung even poked fun at astronomer Donald Menzel, a UFO debunker, saying that he “has not succeeded, despite all his efforts, in offering a scientific explanation of even one authentic UFO report.”
Jung was well-versed on UFO research. He wrote, “since 1947 I have collected all of the books I could get a hold of on the subject.” He was also a member of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), an early civilian UFO organization that included many credible members. In fact, in his book, Jung often referred to the work of Major Donald Keyhoe, a cofounder and director of NICAP.
Prior to releasing his book, Jung was considered by UFO researchers to be a proponent of the physical reality of UFOs. In 1955, he wrote an article on UFOs for a British journal called the Flying Saucer Review. In the article, Jung stated that he had never seen a UFO himself, but that “I can only say for certain: these things are not a mere rumour: something has been seen.”
He went on to argue that the U.S. Air Force “despite its contradictory statements,” considers the phenomenon to be real and they conduct official investigations. He warned that, by concealing information on the topic, the military is making it more likely that people will panic since the public is denied “an adequate picture of what is happening.”
Jung also stated that “the ‘disks’ (that is, the objects themselves) do not behave in accordance with physical laws, but as though without weight, and they show signs of intelligent guidance, by quasi human pilots, for their accelerations are such that no normal human could survive.”
Not much was made of Jung’s 1955 article until it was reprinted in 1958 by the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO) in the organization’s bulletin in July 1958. APRO posted the story as part of an announcement that Jung had agreed to become an official consultant for the organization. The New York Herald Tribune quickly picked up on the report and printed a story with the headline, “Dr. Jung Says ‘Flying Disks’ Suggest Quasi-Human Pilots.”
Jung was not happy with the implication that he believed UFOs represented a physical phenomenon and later wrote a letter to United Press International news agency clarifying his position. He wrote: “I expressly state that I cannot commit myself on the question to the physical reality or unreality of the UFOs since I do not possess sufficient evidence either for or against.” He then stated, “Something is seen, but it isn’t known what.” Jung later repeated this statement in his 1958 book and in several letters.
Although Jung was clearly embarrassed by the public perception that he conclusively believed flying saucers were physical in nature, he later reiterated his prior statements and earlier criticisms of the U.S. Air Force’s handling of the matter in very strong words. He wrote:
In spite of the fact that I hold my judgment concerning UFOs—temporarily let’s hope—in abeyance, I thought it worthwhile to throw a light upon the rich fantasy material which has accumulated round the peculiar observations in the skies. Any new experience has two aspects: (I) the pure fact and (2) the way one conceives of it. It is the latter I am concerned with. If it is true that the [American Air Force] or the Government withholds telltale facts, then one can only say that this is the most unpsychological and stupid policy one could invent. Nothing helps rumours and panics more than ignorance.
It is no wonder that many have been confused as to Jung’s official stance on UFOs. He seems to have believed the phenomenon and sightings to be real, but is uncertain whether UFOs are a physical reality or are limited to a psychological phenomenon. He stated that although “by all human standards it hardly seems possible to doubt this any longer,” in the decade or more he had been studying the topic, neither he nor anyone else seems to have learned much from the study of the physical aspect of UFOs. Jung said that this is precisely why he found it much more fruitful to study the psychological aspects of UFOs, an area in which he felt he had gained an abundance of knowledge.
Jung may be right. Concrete physical proof of UFOs continues to elude us to this day. Yet, Jung is another example of a luminary who garners a great amount of respect in his field of study, who also had the vision to seriously consider the UFO phenomenon. His UFO interest is a story that should not be forgotten, and his insights into the phenomenon may help guide us today, just as his insights into the human mind continue to be a part of the bedrock of modern psychological understanding.
A version of this article originally appeared in Open Minds UFO Magazine. Back issues can be found here.