R

The self exists and the intersection of our inner neural network and our external social network. That is a loose approximation of what Dr. Jeremy Holmes said in the opening plenary address to the 2008 American Group Psychotherapy Association's annual conference. The phrase has rattled around in my mind ever since, as I walk back and forth from my friends' house where I was staying, as I drifted off to sleep, and at other times when my mind wasn't otherwise activated. What does it mean?

I've always been interested in how artificial neural networks learn. In a simple model, input is fed in through the neural network. The inputs are multiplied by various factors until an end result is obtained. The predicted result is then compared with the actual result and changes are back propagated through the artificial neural network to adjust the factors in the network. I've often wondered if this process of back propagation could be applied to the online social networks we are in. Social networks often represent relationships as binary symmetrical values. Either two people trust each other, or they don't. Either two people are friends, or they are not. In reality, one person may trust the other more or less than they are trusted by the other. What if our online social networks gave us the ability to quantify such trusts? What if they used such information to predict friendships and ideas that would be interesting to us? What if they learned from our reaction to such predictions?

I've thought and written about this for years, but I just haven't been able to get anywhere with it. My mind wanders to Mr. Ramsey in Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse. Mr. Ramsey is a bright scholar, but he is stuck. He cannot get beyond R. These thoughts about the self existing at the intersection of our internal neural networks and our external social networks have brought back my thoughts about artificial neural networks and online social networks, but I feel stuck at R with them, along with Mr. Ramsey.

I've been interested in the power of groups, the wisdom of crowds, of how ideas emerge. Groups can be good when they allow wisdom to emerge. Yet they can also be angry mobs exercising the tyranny of the majority. Our media seems to focus on the importance of the individual and to cast the crowd as something dark and dangerous, the borg. The conflict is created between the crowd and the individual, yet the self exists at the intersection of our internal neural network and our external social network. It is the point where we can selectively let the power of the crowd bring us benefit.

During the conference, my mind wandered to the wonderful scene in the life of Helen Keller where she describes having water poured on her hand, and the sign for water made on her hand. It was a profound moment of recognition, a moment of learning about words, symbols. Words do have power, profound power, but we need to connect these external objects with our internal symbols.

I listened to Jeremy talk about 'mentalizing', a new concept to me. It sounded like the mirror of empathy. With empathy we get in touch with what it feels like to walk in another person's shoes. With mentalizing, we get a better view of how other people see us. They are both examples of where our self, that selective membrane that exists at the intersection of our internal neural networks and our external social networks allows something to cross. They are examples of that great experience of Helen Keller where we make sense out of and name external realities as we bring them into ourselves.

But am I still stuck at 'R'? What does it all mean? How do I apply all of this to my own internal neural network? How do I bring it out in terms of my ability to relate to others, to help others, and to grow myself?

At the First Annual Louis R. Ormont Lecture, Dr. Lucy Holmes spoke about a technique for partial identification. She spoke about how toddlers would play with their toys in a small group, unaware of the people around them. She compared it to small therapy groups where people played with their own toys, often some great sadness, but like the toddlers, are typically unaware of those around them. She spoke about helping group members learn to partially identify with others in the group. The focus on partial identification was interesting. She approached it from a gender-based perspective. The men had problems establishing the identification. The women had problems letting go of the identification when it was time to. This too, provided another interesting look at the self as it exists at the intersection of our internal neural networks and our external social networks. My mind drifted to the idea of constant partial attention, a popular idea in this world of instant messages, text messages, statuses on IM, Facebook, Twitter and beyond. What is the relationship between constant partial attention and temporary partial identification? Is this what comes beyond 'R'? How do I get there?

At various times, people complimented me on my insights, my interventions, and my analytic approach. People wondered if I was destined to be group therapist. I couldn't determine whose fantasy that was. Was it mine? Was it others? Is it in my internal neural network, struggling to come out? It is in my social network struggling to come in? That too, is where the self resides and I need to observe it, get in touch with it and see what I can learn. Will this get me passed R?

Another view of groups came out in the Presidential address. The group as family. The President's father was active in the AGPA. Her husband is. She spoke about AGPA as her second family, a feeling that seemed to echo through the conference and the people I spoke with. Even at the dance, the strains of "We are family" brought the crowds to the dance floor. Families are the first groups we are part of and aware of. Over time, we take our place and become aware of our village. We struggle between the small group, our family, and the large group, our village, and the AGPA seems to struggle with that as well, especially in the village of the large group.

So, I entered the family, the village, as an outsider, a reporter, I learned a lot about myself from that. Yet back to getting beyond R, I wondered if I was not only the outsider, the interloper but also perhaps the suitor? Am I looking to marry into the family? Are members of the family looking for me to do that? Are they looking for me to simply take the message about the family and spread it to distant lands?

R. Like Mr. Ramsey, I am stuck at R. Yet perhaps, I can be more in touch with my self, that intersection between my internal neural network and my external social network. Perhaps I can bring in more information from my external social network to change my internal neural network. Perhaps that can get me past R. Perhaps that can be help me model and demonstrate to positive power of groups.