The Neuroscience of Shadow Integration

The Neuroscience of Shadow Integration

My hope is that this article will inspire you to use the power of your own consciousness to become aware of your shadow, to allow it to be your teacher, and to integrate it. As we become more deeply and mindfully centered in our hearts, the recognition and integration of previously unconscious shadow processes changes our brains. This is exciting because it highlights the transformative power of our own heart-centered mindfulness or consciousness to transform our minds and our bodies.

neuroscience of shadow integration

First, what is the shadow? 

According to Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, the shadow is comprised of the denied aspects of the self; these can be both positive and negative. The shadow comes about when we narrowly identify with our social mask, the persona.

The persona represents our identification with our personalities and our habituations. It implies a lack of awareness, always at the expense of the unattended aspects of the self. This is a very important point, because we’re talking about a lack of attention to the deeper potentials of ourselves, whether they are positive or negative. So, the persona represents excessive attention on our social mask—our personalities, our thoughts, our opinions, our beliefs, and our biases.

Carl Jung taught thatas we become excessively and narrowly identified with the persona, the shadow—the unattended aspects of the self—starts to sabotage us. We may set a conscious intention, and then unconscious processes will come up that seem to sabotage that conscious intention. This self-sabotage is an attempt by the shadow (our unattended aspects) to get our attention. To resist recognition of these aspects, the persona then projects the shadow on to other people, things, and situations.

How do we recognize the shadow? 

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This sense of self-sabotage is one way we can recognize the shadowWhenever we feel like nothing we do is right, that our conscious intentions are getting messed around with, that’s often a sign that the shadow is in play; there are some unattended aspects of ourselves we haven’t been paying attention to that are trying to get our attention.

Another way to recognize our shadow is through the phenomenology of the shadow. Phenomenologically,the shadow appears in our first person experience as a strong emotional reaction to something. It could be anything or anyone in our environment; often it is something that’s very visible. When we feel a strong emotional charge, it usually comes with some kind of bodily felt tension or contraction. That’s how we become aware of it. For example, we might tend to be critical of somebody, or we might praise somebody, as in, “Oh my God, that person is just incredible! There’s no way I could ever be like them.” These represent two strong emotional reactions, one negative, the other positive.

What we’re experiencing is actually an attraction—an emotional attraction. It can appear as an aversion, but that is still a kind of attraction, because our attention becomes attracted to what we don’t want. Our attention becomes attracted to the things that bother us. We tend to focus on what we don’t like and be critical.

Who are you attracted to?

  • Who makes you feel like you can never measure up? You might place them on a pedestal, and there’s a strong emotional charge when you think about them.
  • Who annoys you?
  • Who are you jealous of?
  • Who do you complain about?
  • Who makes you angry?
  • Who can you not stand?

These people are our teachers, because they help bring our awareness to certain denied aspects of ourselves. So, this method has to do with becoming aware of our felt, visceral reactions to things, people, and situations in our immediate environment. A good thing to keep in mind here is that everything we experience is teaching us something about ourselves. When we really get that, it helps us become more aware of how we’re projecting our shadow out there, both the positive and negative aspects of our unattended selves.

Outer manifestations of projecting our shadow could be when we’re gossiping about or criticizing others, and a strong emotional charge accompanies that. If we’re using language and actions that indicate a strong desire to destroy somebody, either through language, physically, or emotionally, this is often the emergence of the shadow. Anything, really, that’s emotionally charged and is projecting something out there tends to be the shadow.

Modes of Perception

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Let’s start by exploring right and left modes of perception. This brings up images of the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and when I’ve talked about these modes with people educated in neuroscience before, they have sometimes interrupted, saying something like, “Hey, that’s lateralization. We all know that in any mode of perception, both the left and the right hemispheres are involved, and there’s no such thing as a perception solely correlated with just the right hemisphere or just the left hemisphere.” I agree, actually.

At the same time, however, Dr. Dan Siegel puts forth the idea of modes of perception—right modes of perception and left modes of perception—to describe how in certain perceptual processes there will be one hemisphere in which key things are happening that distinguish that particular perceptual mode as a right mode or a left mode of perception. Passive meditation would be a good example of this. We know that when we start to meditate passively, there is a diffused expanse of attention rather than a focused attention, and there’s a sense of allowing oneself to be meditated rather than trying to meditate.

What is happening neurologically in this case is the attention-association area in the right frontal lobe becomes active, while the areas around it, including parts of the left frontal lobe, tend to deactivate, when looked at under positron emission tomography. So, initially a process is ignited in the right hemisphere, and then when the activity stabilizes, it spills over to the left hemisphere. When this happens, deeper states of meditation emerge as a correlate of that activity. I’m not suggesting that the activity causes meditative consciousness, but the activity does co-arise with meditative consciousness. Because this particular process happens first in the right hemisphere, before it can take place in the left hemisphere, we can therefore call this type of meditation a right mode of perception.

Neural Correlates of the Shadow and Persona

Persona

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Building on this, let’s talk about the possible neural correlates of the persona and shadow projection. Last week, we described the persona as an excessive, narrow identification with the social mask—identifying with our biases, our belief systems, and our linear ideas about how reality should be. We often experience a distinct emotional charge when people challenge these ideas. We can say that there is a left mode perception happening here with the persona, because key areas in the left hemisphere are involved in linear, logical and literal thinking.

In fact, there was a recent study on transcranial magnetic stimulation, in which scientists used magnetic stimulation to deactivate the left anterior temporal lobe. This area has been correlated with thetendency to be locked into habitual, and generally very linear, ways of seeing the world. At the same time, they used the magnetic stimulation to activate the right anterior temporal lobe. What occurred was a holistic “opening up,” where people were able to re-contextualize their situation so that they could solve problems almost instantly, because of moving outside of their habitual way of seeing the world. In a genius-like way, they moved out of their linear, narrow world view and saw things in a big picture view. This clearly supports the notion that left hemispheric processes are involved in the persona.

Neuro-anatomist Jill Taylor, who suffered a stroke in her left temporal lobe, likewise associates narrow egoic identification with left mode perception:

“During the process of recovery, I found that the portion of my character that was stubborn, arrogant, sarcastic, and/or jealous resided within the ego center of that wounded left brain. This portion of my ego mind held the capacity for me to be a sore loser, hold a grudge, tell lies, and even seek revenge. Reawakening these personality traits was very disturbing to the newly found innocence of my right mind.” (from My Stroke of Insight, pg 145).

Shadow

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Shadow projection is the idea that when there are parts of ourselves we don’t want to face, they are unconsciously projected out onto the world. According to Carl Jung, this is always accompanied by an emotional charge. That emotional charge has to be involved with the limbic system, since we know of its deep involvement in emotional experience. The limbic system, by the way, lies deep in the center of the brain, and governs our feelings and motivation. So, in the case of the persona and shadow projection, there seems to be a predominance of left-mode perception undergirded by unconscious limbic activity.

Dr. Mark Waller has written about thecrucial roles the right brain and the limbic system play in our early formative development. A series of early studies showed that in the first two years of life in the human brain, the right hemisphere tends to be the most active of the two hemispheres of the neocortex. The limbic system is almost fully wired by the time we’re six years old, long before the prefrontal and the frontal areas, which are responsible for our higher order cognitive processes, come fully online. During our first six years, therefore, both our met and unmet emotional needs, and their corresponding positive and negative experiences, strongly impact the formation of the right brain and the limbic system.

Our emotional experiences, both positive and negative, literally become hardwired in the limbic system. These neural connections then emerge as a kind of attractor pattern. In chaos theory, attractor patterns are systemic patterns toward which systems, in this case the limbic system, tend to evolve. You can think of it as a specific pattern towards which the limbic system will be attracted. If you ever asked yourself, “Why do I continue to experience these same patterns over and over in my life?” this process plays a large role in that.

Mark Waller theorizes that these limbic attractors start to form sub-personalities. An unconscious process animates the limbic wiring and elicits the emergence of what he calls adialogical self, or our mosaic voice. We all grew up with a constant voice in our heads—sometimes positive, sometimes very negative. Mark Waller’s theory is that our sub-personalities are actually these different limbic attractors, formed during emotional experiences that weren’t fully and consciously processed. I would like to put forth that the shadow is, in part, a conglomeration of these limbic attractors/sub-personalities. Carl Jung very early on emphasized that the shadow is correlated with strong emotional charge, and strong emotion is always correlated with limbic activity.

Integrating the Shadow

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The important idea to grasp here is that as we grow more conscious, and as we become more conscious of the phenomenological emergence of the shadow, we can begin to be able to hold a witnessing consciousness that can witness this emotional energy coming up, without necessarily identifying with it. And not just witness it, but also feel down into it at a deep level; so not only is it a witness consciousness, but also heart-centered mindfulness that plunges the depths of the emotional charge—in profound empathy—without being possessed or carried away by it. When we’re able to dive into the feeling level of this strong emotional charge and let go of our left mode stories—the voice that always says, “No, it’s that person’s fault; that person loves me the wrong way, etc.”—when we’re able to feel down into the heart of it while also witnessing it, key areas in our brains—the higher cognitive processing centers and the emotional centers—become more deeply integrated with one another. So, with shadow integration also comes neural integration.

Possible Origins of the Shadow and Persona

The right hemisphere has to do with raw, spontaneous emotion, and according to the research of neuroscientist Richard Davidson, negative affect or negative emotion is correlated with excessive right hemispheric function. This makes sense if, in the first two years of our life, the right hemisphere is most active. The left hemisphere is not fully online yet, so we’re not able to consciously label the negative emotions that we’re feeling and integrate them into our consciousness. Instead, they just get stored, at least in part, in the limbic system via the right hemisphere, which already has quite extensive connections to the limbic system at this age.

That being said, it makes sense to me that the right hemisphere and the limbic system are the neural correlates of Jung’s personal unconscious. The personal unconscious is, in Jung’s definition, always associated with affect and imagery. We’ve already discussed the limbic system’s role in emotion, and scientific evidence strongly suggests that right hemispheric function and right modes of perception are deeply involved with human imagination. A prominent neuroscientist once stated that there are all kinds of unconscious processes happening all over the brain all the time, so it therefore seems unscientific to associate the unconscious mind with just right brain and limbic processes. And though I agree with that assertion, in this case I’m not talking about all unconscious processes, only Jung’s personal unconscious, as he carefully defined it.

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