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The importance of Teams to our Mental Health

During a recent training session it occurred to me, literally whilst speaking, that the modern mind, especially here in the west, is very different to that of our ancestors.

But bear with me - this is simply a thought exercise so, before the more scientifically rigorous amongst us begin to sharpen their talons, remember that the following is more or less complete speculation.

Let me start with a story I read some years ago that first got me thinking on this matter:

In the account I read (there are several), St Augustine happens to walk in on Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan whilst the latter was reading, some time around 400 C.E.

The aspect of the encounter that has many scholars furrowing their brow is the fact that Ambrose continued to read silently whilst in Augustine's presence. In his Confessions Augustine wrote:

"But when Ambrose used to read, his eyes were drawn through the pages, while his heart searched for its meaning; however, his voice and tongue were quiet. Often when we were present — for anyone could approach him and it was not his habit that visitors be announced to him — we saw him reading in this fashion, silently and never otherwise."

Secondly, the act of reading, if done at all, was considered a social one to be carried out as an communal activity - an obvious extension to the ancient tradition of oral story-telling.

The thought that occurred to me at the time, though, was that maybe this encounter was evidence of something more.

I feel, and have no doubt that people far smarter than I have studied this, that it demonstrated one of two things:

Either our brains had evolved over the centuries to the point where people like Ambrose were inclined to internalise the material they were reading, rather than needing to hear it read out loud to make sense of it.

Or, and this is the one that rings most true to me, our habits changed with the increased availability of written literature, especially among the clergy, and our brains changed as a result.

As a side note, academics have discovered recently, that up to 50% of us don't have an internal monologue, or voice inside our heads, that narrates our lives. It would seem that this aspect of our physiology is either permanently variable, or is still in the process of evolving.

But there is a large school of thought that says thinking was done very differently in the past.

Theologians and anthropologists have long discussed the possibility that the voices of angels, gods and demons spoken of in ancient texts were, in fact, manifestations of the part of our brain that deals with abstract thought and more 'big picture' concepts, that part we tend to call the 'right hemisphere' as in 'right-brain-thinking'.

Now, there isn't space here to discuss the validity of what popular psychology calls left- and right-brain thinking - suffice to say that the analogy has use in that it allows us to differentiate between two types of thought: logical, empirical and sequential as opposed to abstract, holistic and intuitive.

Whilst the left/right brain model has never been proven to be an actual scientific reality; that there are, indeed, two sides to our mental coin is self-evident. We have two very different thinking modalities that are not entirely unassociated with the physical reality of our two-sided brain.

This apparent rise in the internalisation of our thinking processes has had a somewhat unexpected result - the belief in 'self' as an independent entity.

That's not to say that our forefathers didn't see themselves as individuals, more that they saw themselves much more as part of a greater whole: the village, the community, the tribe.

The idea we have that we should 'look after number one' because 'you're worth it', is a relatively new concept. Prior to the outbreak of WWI and beyond, many people, most people, felt they were duty-bound to subjugate their own desires to the needs of the group.

Clearly, that is not the case nowadays and, whilst aspects of this evolution are to be applauded, I feel there is a price to be paid that we haven't quite got to grips with: the breakdown in mental health.

As I said earlier, I have no way to prove this but experiential evidence suggests it's not too wide of the mark.

Historically, our sense of self was derived from the tribe to which we belonged. Initiation rites, birth and death rituals, stories handed down through generations told us exactly who we were and where we belonged.

These are, for the most part, gone. To be replaced with platitudes about our rights as individuals and our ability to do anything we want.

But many of us don't want. We just want to belong. After years of working in factories, this has become painfully evident to me. The anxiety felt by those experiencing redundancy is not merely that of employees losing their means of living, but of displaced people losing their community. Ditto ex-military and other groups of close-knit professionals.

We are still, for now at least, tribal animals. We need to belong. To hear the stories of our people. Whether this idea gels with our concept of inclusion is another matter. We are what we think. And we have much less control over what we think than we think.

This explains, to me at least, the success of High Performance Teams in the workplace. Belonging to something in which you are a valued member of the group has much greater value than simple camaraderie.

It is a place for the Id to regain dominance over the Ego. A place to blend. A place of safety.

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