Monday, May 27, 2013

Beware the Choir

Freshly returned from a week of the world's best cycling in Tuscany, I had opportunity to reflect on a favorite subject of mine: group energy, group dynamics -- what works and what doesn't (and perhaps shouldn't!). Our intrepid wee crew were five in number. And a more diverse quintet you'd be hard pressed to find. Four cyclists and a fifth member very content to rest, read, and reflect as she invested fully in a 21-day meditation challenge -- with, just for balance, a healthy sampling of Italy's history, food, and other distractions. Two bikers of modest experience, new to the 12 to 15 percent grades of long, twisting climbs and knuckle-whitening descents; two with decades of riding and thousands of kilometers on their resumes.  Two couples virtual strangers to each other. But how well it all worked!

Group chemistry is rarely a fluke. And even less 'accidental' (and perhaps just a bit counter-intuitive) is to find a 'designed' or planned group composition to be a particular success. Building a 'team' is not as simple as it might sound -- seen any of the Blue Jays so far this season??  Many years ago, I'd run across a hiring policy utilized by a successful, off-shore auto industry giant in its selection of middle and upper management candidates who would be 'working together'. This policy has been christened creative abrasion. The aspect that caught my eye was the intentional pairing of individuals who did not subscribe to similar business philosophies and who would likely challenge each other's ideas. The thought was that constructing a group of 'yes men' or spouters of the party line may promote a superficially compliant and consistent work environment; but at a deeper level it was to simply build a 'choir' of a single register, whose creative capacities would be severely limited as a result. Worse, who would have the courage, much less insight to offer much-needed, self-correcting devil's advocacy?

I've had occasion to watch two films recently (one has to protect oneself against the cinematic choices of Air Transat, after all -- better to download than trust to the TS universe!) that explore this same concept with some considerable eloquence. Friends and Crocodiles is built around a Gatsby-esque character, and set in the late 1990's. It examines the career vagaries of a (sometimes) wealthy and highly creative young man who samples the extremes. These polarities range from a totally self-contained and highly indulgent 'estate' wherein no limits are placed on one's creative inclinations; to an equally failed and utterly stifling attempt at joining a 'think tank team' (a bit oxymoronic when one considers it). Throughout, our protagonist has the instinctive wisdom to recognize that he needs 'grounding' in some fashion -- lest he orbit too far from a balanced centre and escape 'gravity' completely. To this end he hires a 'secretary', initially the sole counterpoint to the laissez faire 'insanity' and self-indulgence that characterizes the estate.

Not surprisingly, once the first great experiment fails, she opts for the ultra-conservative main stream of big business, firmly anchoring the other polarity of 'group think', callous and often blatantly self-serving choices -- but never losing sight of her own ethical centre. Predictably this 'establishment' posture also fails, with the 'pair' recognizing that alone, they swing 'too wide'; and while the energy is too intense when in close proximity to each other, they absolutely need the balancing influence of the other -- at a safe distance! Creative abrasion to be sure. 

The second film, Cloud Atlas, is a complicated piece exploring themes of collective unconscious, karma, and compassion.  With its half-dozen stories, covering several centuries, it too explores the importance and sometimes tragic outcome of the questioning, challenging posture. And, as importantly, the need for 'pairing's' of two solitudes: slave with (ultimate) abolitionist, primitive with highly advanced cultures, intrepid investigative journalist with tentative and timid scientist, rebel with engineered organic automatons -- neither 'complete' within themselves, requiring the contributing energy of their counterpoint.

From bicycles to movies to diagnostic manuals. With the advent (ascension?) of the DSM-V, the psychiatric 'bible' for classifying mental disorder and replacing the DSM-IV this year, comes a final instance of creative abrasion. David Kupfer, the chair of the committee charged with revising the earlier version, could not be more philosophically distant from Thomas Insel, the head of the National Institute of Mental Health in the U.S. The latter sees an abiding need to develop not just another compendium of symptoms, based on little more than patient self-report and of little utility in directing treatment to a causal source.  His 'Research Domain Criterion' makes a compelling case for identifying hard research data underlying various disorders; supported by 'tests' for same. Dr. Kupfer, ever the pragmatist, is quoted in response as follows: "Insel's vision of a system based on biological and genetic markers remains disappointingly distant (italics added) and cannot serve us in the here and now. It merely hand[s] patients another promissory note that something may happen sometime." Still in an interview recently on CBC radio, he concedes "efforts like the National Institute of Mental Healths Research Domain Criteria [RDoC] are vital to the continued progress of our collective understanding of mental disorders." Two solitudes, each holding the other to account, balancing the polarities.

Choirs undoubtedly make lovely music -- but only when all four registers are present and accounted for. String quartets, by the very virtue of their 'fourness', are reportedly very complicated beasts (from BBC Music's May 2013 article String Tension), evidently running counter to nature's eschewing of this number in a group. Nevertheless, to paraphrase, with respect for the role of the other(s), comes the groups  harmony.

Image, New Yorker cover June 3, 2013

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