On my way into work the other day I happened to be listening to the radio when a program called “Inside Science” was playing. The theme for the program was “Alien Minds”. A man called Peter Godfery–Smith was talking about his book “Other Minds”. He described how we assume the existence of a central nervous system, like our own, a brain commanding the peripheral nervous system. He then went onto describe the Octopus, whose decision making processes, not sure this is the right word, are distributed throughout the body, the tentacles can act separately to the rest of the body. He describes the research that discovered this; the podcast is available for you to listen to on BBC podcasts.
Why did this stay with me? And why is it relevant to the group? When talking about groups we hear about a group mind, or the social unconscious (Hopper) using the symbol of something central acting on the individual, however, the description of the octopus would perhaps provide a better metaphor for group processes. As individuals we like to think we are free to act from an autonomous position, however when we begin to think about all the influences around us, some known, others we are not aware of, we realize life is more complex than we thought.
When you join a group or team you have access to many minds working together, it multiplies the opportunity for self-awareness, for sharing experiences, for helping others as well as being a help and understanding. Of course on the other side of this is what you are told might be difficult to hear, emotions connected to competition and rivalry, challenges long-held ideas, exposure to others who do not think as you do emerge. However, if we are to build the resilience we need to face these difficult emotions in order to reach our potential.
As the group develops, like the octopus, the group is held together through its biological connections that make it an integrated organism. In the group, a matrix of interactions forms from the histories each member brings to the group, which cross from generation to generation as part of transgenerational processes, the social context with its vast variety of influences, economic, political and familial.
As this plays out in the group each person has the opportunity of gaining insight and understanding into how they have been shaped by the many groups they have encountered throughout their lives and shared history. Relationships evolved, often unconsciously, to influence how we behave in the present, repeating patterns that may not be healthy and need adjustment to enhance our mental wellbeing.
Thea Beech is a Group Analyst, full member of the Institute of Group Analysis and a Training Group Analyst and works from our Hove practice. She is currently running an psychotherapy group which is accepting new members.