Are you the sole owner of your mind?  Maybe not quite as much as you think.

A while back I came across an empty hornet’s nest in a shed.  It was a large honeycomb structure and it looked like it had been machine-engineered.  The precision was stunning.  If I hadn’t known it had been created by insects I would have thought it had been made by a person.  And that’s the point.  Not only was it precise it also seemed to have been made by ONE entity.

Now think about flocks of birds you’ve seen twisting and turning across the sky as if they were one.  And shoals of fish reacting in a coordinated way and in a flash to the presence of food or a threat.   Or colonies of ants working on a common task in huge numbers and in unison.  It’s as if these groupings are controlled by a common mind.  In fact, we may well be open to the possibility there there is indeed some kind of group mind at work in these creatures.

But what about in people?

A group mind permeating humans too?

It may be a lot more surprising and disconcerting to consider that what’s true of those other species may also be true of us.  And there are clear indications that this is in fact the case.

You can see the phenomenon clearly in psychotherapy groups.   A group is about eight people plus a therapist sitting in a circle around a small table for an hour and a half with no agenda and few directions from the therapist beyond a request that the group members should say whatever comes into their heads.  As discussion ensues the therapist becomes aware that, although the individuals are talking about things that they each want to say, a message is also coming across from the group as a whole.  And the individuals aren’t  aware of it.  The group communication is completely unconscious and yet, by being attuned to it, the therapist can ‘read’ it quite clearly. It represents an underlying concern or issue (pretty well anything) that the group in its entirety has and it may change within sessions and between sessions.

The man who spotted it

Listen to these observations from the psychiatrist/psychoanalyst who founded group analysis, the type of group psychotherapy most commonly practised in Britain, Dr S.H. Foulkes:

‘The group … avails itself now of one speaker, now of another, but it is always the transpersonal network which … gives utterance, or responds.  In this sense we can postulate the existence of a group ‘mind’ in the same way as we postulate the existence of an individual ‘mind’ (Therapeutic Group Analysis, 1964)

‘The group tends to speak and react to a common theme as if it were a living entity, expressing itself through various mouths.  All contributions are variations on this single theme, even though the group are not consciously aware of that theme and do not know what they are really talking about’ (Group Psychotherapy, 1965).

‘The ‘’Group as a whole’’ is not a phrase, it is a living organism, as distinct from the individuals composing it’ (Introduction to group analytic psychotherapy, 1948).

‘Inner mental reality … is shared property of the group’ (Selected Papers, 1990)

True or false?

This is pretty mind-blowing stuff – almost literally.  We don’t know exactly how the process happens but the implications for the way we see ourselves as human beings are huge.  We are interconnected and communicating in ways that are far stranger and far more refined than we’re aware.  And it’s happening all the time wherever people are gathered, the only difference being that in most settings there’s no therapist there to notice it and ‘read the code’ of what’s being said below the surface level.

Needless to say, not everyone’s going to accept that all this is real.  Not even all group analysts.  ‘My mind is my own and nobody else’s’ writes Gregory Van der Kleij.  ‘A transpersonal network invades my privacy’ (About the Matrix, 1982).

But it’s the experience of many of us who work with therapy groups that something very unusual indeed is going on and that it repeats and repeats.

If we’re losing our minds at least we get them back when the therapy session’s over.