Rats: The Shadow of the Collective Human Psyche

I am a big fan of Burt’s conceptual approach to the rat. While on occasion he appears overly wordy and attempts to put an overly abstract spin on rats and their relationship to humans, overall he shoes an uncommon psychological-mindedness and cunning perspective on the species.

I was very intrigued by Burt’s view of rats as a reflection of the negative qualities of human behavior: pervasive and endless consumption, disregard for consequences of behavior, and massive production of filth and waste. This draws a connection (that I will discuss below) that I appreciate as someone who is interested in psychoanalysis, and I’m sure Dr. Nelson found it interesting as well with her connection to a Jungian psychoanalyst.

We discussed dreams in a previous class and briefly discussed some of the conceptual developments that Carl Jung made in the field of analytical psychology. One of his major contributions was the concept of the “collective unconscious.” To start, each of us as individual has an unconscious part of our minds that makes up the majority of the activity in our brains. Most of our conscious thoughts are surface manifestations of underlying processes that occur without the conscious parts of our minds being aware. Sigmund Freud used an analogy of an iceberg, as an iceberg tends to have a small percentage above the water (conscious mind) with the majority being underwater (unconscious mind).

One of these aspects of the unconscious mind was called the shadow by Jung. In short, each person has a whole spectrum of qualities, behaviors, perceptions, emotions, etc. that makeup their personality and psyche. However, many of these qualities are either shameful, disgusting, frightening, or otherwise undesired by most people. We experience significant distress when confronted with these realities of our existence, but we ALL have them. These parts of ourselves are typically displaced from our minds in some way, sometimes by repressing them, sometimes by projecting them onto other people, sometimes by expressing them in socially acceptable ways, etc. But, no matter the mechanism, they are typically kept in the unconscious mind in order to protect ourselves and allow us to lead happy and, frankly, ignorant lives.

Carl Jung went beyond Freud and introduced the collective unconscious. Jung recognized that we are not merely individuals and that our minds connect and influence each other in various ways, and as a result a collection of “archived” unconscious information is “stored” collectively in human species. It could be said that a collective shadow exists in humans, and that, socially and culturally, we project, repress, or otherwise store the shadow parts of our existence in unconscious areas of our collective mind. Burt seems to suggest that rats have served this function in some ways for us.

As I mentioned above, the rat exhibits and symbolizes many qualities that humans either don’t like or ignore about themselves. I’m sure some of you have heard the common expression that the things we tend to not like in other people are the things we tend to dislike about ourselves but ignore. The reason this happens is because the negative things we observe in other people bring light to the qualities we deny about ourselves, and that makes us uncomfortable. It may be possible that the patented disgust associated with rats has similar roots. In other words, the behavior and associations with rats express qualities that all humans possess in one form or another.

We all exhibit fiery sexual urges, gluttony, wickedness and the like from time to time, and the reaction we have to these animals may be the unambiguous success they have in activating awareness of these negative associations when we see them, hear them, etc. By projecting these qualities onto rats (and, of course, many other things), we thereby mentally unload the negative parts of ourselves onto something that we consider outside ourselves. It loses its associates with ourselves, and therefore stops bringing to light the negative aspects of our own existence. In other words, the rat serves as an external container for the shadow parts of ourselves.

Of course I could be completely wrong about this, but it’s an interesting thought I think.

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3 Responses to Rats: The Shadow of the Collective Human Psyche

  1. It’s interesting to me that you make this comparison of rats as mirrors of the more negative qualities of humanity. Although rats themselves are pretty clean animals (except for the countless bugs they might carry), we associate them with filth and detritus created by mankind, so they serve as a constant reminder of just how unclean our cleanliness really is- something most of us would rather not think about. I think that your theory of rats as a manifestation of the “shadow” is particularly intriguing because we also draw a parallel on a more physiological level between rats and humans when we use them as a model organism in biomedical research, and in this sense we have no objection to the similarity of rat and man.

    • I couldn’t agree more. And Corinne also touches on an even more basic paradox that underpins animal experimentation: We use “animal models” because of their similarities to humans. Yet we assert that our right to use animals in this way is based on their fundamental differences from humans.

  2. For my own (complicated) thoughts about rats see this post from last spring: http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/freerangedomesticate/category/rat/

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