When I’m teaching and a certain magic number of at least 4 students come together I can feel a transformation take place. Before that, I am just ordinary me, talking to individuals one on one. When that critical mass is reached I become a different person, I am the Teacher, rather than just myself. I put on my version of a super-suit. Suddenly I possess a remembering, performing, adapting and extemporizing mind. Suddenly I possess a confident game show host personality of almost infinite confidence and patience. It’s an instant flow state and I enjoy it very much, I’d enjoy being this guy more of the time but he is inaccessible when I am alone.
A corollary effect happens to the class students. A circuit of exchange forms between us and we are like two people pumping one of those old railway handcars together. With enough people participating and with a basic level of openness, of receptivity, there is a tipping point for them as well where they become somehow attuned to a common positive frequency that is attuned to mine and we become a self-maintaining energy flow machine. I give them energy in the form of good teaching and their attention and enthusiasm gives enthusiastic energy back to me that absolutely powers my teaching. We work together to achieve lift-off and the key in both of us is happiness, not long term, but an upbeat feeling, a positive charge.
Shared Energy is the Root of Relationship
If students come to class with the idea that this is all drudgery, beneath them, they pull me down with them. They hold onto my ankles and prevent take off. I can feel the lifeless lack of connection and my job becomes harder. I am doing all the lifting and in the end, I am not happy and energized, I am drained and flat. A bored, unreachable class is just dead weight. When the magic doesn’t start, I don’t turn into The Teacher, just a guy bailing out a stalled sailboat. When things go well though, a bigger, better me is summoned from oblivion and cheerfully possesses my body for a couple of hours. What we are is mysterious and flexible, there are unseen versions of us just waiting for a particular random meeting to be born. There are genies in this bottle.
Teaching is a highly specific instance of this kind of group energy exchange but I mention it because I imagine you’ve had this experience too and can relate no matter what side of that event you were on. This is invisible human magic, it has thousands of parallels in our lives but there is something elemental in it that everyone seems to miss. We give up a little bit of our autonomy and independence in order to cooperate, I say give up, but “offer up” is better because it is freely given, it’s a contribution. When we share ourselves, these contributions blend and there is something new to work with, an original concoction. A potluck of personalities and moods begin harmonizing and creating energy together that could not exist alone.
In a classroom, this kind of exchange is never intimate or deeply personal, we are more like random pedestrians running together to roll a stalled car out of traffic. In the classroom, we have an hour of feeling like a unified group with shared energy, intent and goals once or twice a week. When we gather we are like a very insubstantial, temporary individual made of multiple people. It pops like a soap bubble as we part company.
The Third Mind or, Becoming Mr. Blobby
When any two people meet they have this encounter and they generate an insubstantial, blobby bubble self like this by interacting. A third mind is created when any two meet. This mind talks to itself, finds a mood, energy, a temperament, a personality; a self. If excitement and energy are generated, this mind can consider amazing things, dream up and risk trying new things, and entertain itself enormously. As the two contributors part, this mind dissolves though it can be remembered with love, disgust, or disinterest by its agents.
This third mind is the basic social molecule. it is the fundamental social molecule, the catalyst of everything new. The magic of interpersonal chemistry decides much of what happens next. Families start here, as do cold, indifferent workmates. The basic social molecule of two, in a way, has to be intimate, not necessarily good or welcome but intimate. One on One is the molecule of intimacy. There are things two can do that are amazing, but two cannot do everything.
As the number of people meeting rises, the new mind naturally appears, shifting and changing with the new ingredients. This self is less intimate but capable of generating different kinds of energy. The polarity of two opens up with 3 and beyond. Certain kinds of projects and tasks can be energized and tackled by small groups in a way that feels supernatural. We can taste being greater than the sum of our parts at times, we can feel the larger energy unlocking new abilities.
More Powerful, Less Stable
Complexity is still possible with small groups. The excitement of an ensemble working to put on a show or start a business can be electric. There is often a feeling of “auto-organizing” of becoming limbs and organs specializing and working in concert with the virtual body. Of course, many organizations create third-minds that are inert, jealous or contrary. The only guarantee is that SOME mind will emerge at the moment of engagement. The energy that happens when motivated minds meet, this third mind, or these “virtual creature” minds can be enormously powerful but keep in mind, the power is essentially amoral. The power will flow if the “batteries” are present. If the mind is engineering reform or art or charity or terrorism…the energy is there.
Emergent human social behavior is not all good and positive. This energy can go dark and bloody in any mob. Hutus and Tutsis would not have massacred each other without this electric build up and overflow. The Nazis couldn’t have existed without it. When a demonstration becomes a riot it is this.
One of the scariest days of my life was in San Francisco after the 49ers won the Superbowl. The streets were full of people celebrating and in a moment that felt strangely like clouds covering the sun, the mood twisted. There were transitional moments: people shouting words of happiness that sounded oddly angry, people looking a little too hard to see if you were celebrating too. At this moment it was like they were looking for outsiders, looking for something to push back against. Soon things tipped and it was like wild animals except that wild animals do nothing like this. It was like a torrent of human craziness and anger, feeding on itself and igniting like flammable gas. And all because “We won!”. Except not really. I don’t think it had anything specific to do with the winning, except that there was a kind of build-up of a charge. A critical mass of charged up, energized humans bumped into each other like pressurized molecules. This is why large gatherings of people always have a risk component and why well planned large events feature effective guidance of group energy, logistics management, and at least a skeleton of police exuding the “remain orderly” pheromone. It’s just a guess but I bet losing teams have way fewer fan riots than winning teams.