Group Psychoanalysis


an introduction to the GROUP FIELD model,
starting from the thought of F. Corrao

Seminar by Marco Longo

Rome, Feb 17 1995
Rome University 'La Sapienza' - Faculty of Psychology


Today we'll discuss some ideas elaborated by Francesco Corrao, which nowadays still represent a basic contribution to the foundation of a psychoanalytic model of group structure and to the understanding of its specific mental functioning. As Corrao himself suggested in his paper of 1981, entitled "Polyadic structure and gamma function" (F. Corrao 1981, Struttura poliadica e funzione gamma, Gruppo e Funzione Analitica n. II - 2, Marzo-Luglio 1981, ed. Centro Ricerche di Gruppo "Il Pollaiolo" Roma; this work was also presented at the Fifth European Symposium of Group Analysis, Roma 2-5 Settembre 1981. Note: all the quotations from Corrao's work come from this article, unless it's otherwise specified) every attempt to catch and describe group's psychodynamic features involves an approach to an <<hypercomplex configuration, extremely variable, unusual from a perceptual, emotional and cognitive point of view, thus with a character of indefiniteness, uncertainty, evanescence>>. In the attempt to build up an appropriate representation of such a complexity, Corrao starts from critical analysis of the well-known model of group structure as a network.

Acknowledged of this model validity, at least for what regards its capacity to describe group communicational aspects, Corrao criticises its inadequacy to represent wholly its structural aspects and its mental functioning. Through an attentive description of group thinking representational levels and of group language features, Corrao face the analysis of group thinking origin and development, its symbol-poeic and mythopoeic functions. Finally, analysing logical operations occurring within group situation, both conservative and transformative ones, he suggests the presence in group of a specific transformational function, called "gamma function". He brings up this subject more extensively in a seminar in 1985, entitled "Mental space" (F. Corrao, Spazio mentale, seminar given at Centro Ricerche di Gruppo "Il Pollaiolo", Rome, March, the 14th 1985), where he gives a fundamental contribution to group field conceptualising. Proceeding in order, let's take up again the way through which psychoanalysis arrived to the network model definition.

Network model

Network model was mostly developed by Foulkes around '40s as an evolution of libidinal ties network described by Freud in 1921 in his work "Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego". Foulkes realises, through his experimental studies on groups, that Freudian theory was not sufficient, since it called for an excessive stiffness and motionlessness in affective ties between members, with its exclusive attention to transference. As a consequence Freud's group theory included in group dynamics representation an idea of plan bi-dimensionality, that did not fit with data from direct observation.
This model appeared by that time dated, by the light of the active research taking place in those years on projective identification and other mental primitive aspects.

Thus Foulkes, with reference to Lewin's studies on field concept around 30s, which can be summarised as <<the whole contains more and other than the sum of its parts>>, created the group matrix model to describe better that multidimensionality he thought to be characteristic of group thinking
and communication. With the concept of "matrix", chosen for its clear link with the concept of "mater", Foulkes aimed to underline the original and specific quality of group situation, not only depending on the sum of single members' personality features. The matrix shows its own structure
and functional autonomy, in some way transcending individuals, even if it's constructed and shared by the whole of individuals. In fact matrix is at some extent able to affect their thought, language and behaviour.

In the same years, Bion arrived at similar conclusions, yet distancing himself from network model. Bion spoke explicitly of group mind and introduced concepts such as protomental system , basic assumption and work group. According to Corrao, who introduced in Italy Bion's thinking at the end
of 60s, Bion chose not to use any concept referred to a conventional space model, that was necessarily a bi-dimensional or tri-dimensional one, in order to mark how complex - even if unitary from a substantial and functional point of view - group is.

Starting from a topological model of field as well as Foulkes, Bion emphatised that this model includes unity and cohesion, but also contemporaneity and mutuality; thus, to catch the multidimensionality of groups, he believed it was better not to speak of network any longer. He rather preferred to refer to a physical-matemathical model, comprehending also time and operational
dimensions in group thinking, as well as mental function undergoing and determining its birth and evolution. This is also the path followed by Corrao.

Before we face with more details Corrao's discourse, I think it could be useful a metaphor token from such a current and evocative network communication example. Perhaps Corrao himself would have talked about it, for his extreme attention to every new technical or scientific situation, especially to those including a group dynamic in a larger or smaller number of persons, but he prematurely died on spring 1994.

A current example of network: Internet.

As you probably know, nowadays there's a lot of talking, even in not specialised contexts, about Internet and Cyberspace.

Internet is a universal interconnection net between informatical conjunctions, that is to say single terminals or small local nets; thus it is a world wide net which allows, by a specific common language called TCP/IP protocol, communication and text and data (including graphics, sound and digital movie) transfers between computers differing for power or hardware configuration. All that is possible simply using as a carrier the normal telephone network, opening in this way the system to anyone - in any part of the world - who has a computer, a modem, a phone and a telephone address, both in a dialling network and in a satellitare one.

"Cyberspace" stands for the informatic universe built up thanks to Internet, a virtual space that in some ways represents a twin system of natural space, where it is possible to "navigate" (this is the commonly used term) and to reach in real time every place in the world, that is every computer knot in the network and its data. All that at a city call toll.

The informatic notion of Cyberspace, perhaps just because any information is immediately and always available, has since the beginning attracted lots of expectations and phantasies, perhaps too many (I'm thinking about Anzieu's group illusion). This always happens for new phenomena regarding most of humanity, such as telephone, cinema, and of course radio and television. Thus, there's a lot of talk of Internet in terms of "virtual community" or "global village" and somebody affords to talk of a sort of "new Enlightenment" the system could arise.

The last hypothesis is based on the fact that - through Internet - every "citizen of the world" can receive and edit information steadily accessible to everyone from system's collective digital memory. So in many people is born the hope or the illusion that "all networks' mother" - as Internet has been often defined (and I'm thinking not only to Saddam Hussein, but also to Foulkes' notion of "matrix") - could support a democratic solution for many of the problems affecting human civilisation, i.e. by fostering a new - and this time peaceful and bloodless - "French Revolution", capable to fight against and finally defeat the present feudal management of information or the monarchical absolutism of mass media controlled by a few and powerful economical groups.

Saying the truth, somebody states - more realistically, perhaps - that we are seeing the birth of a more sophisticated system of televideo, waiting for an interactive television (hybrid sets, such as television including computer and modem, have already been put on the market), the control of which will probably stay in the same hands of those managing television. What happened for piratical radio or private tv channels, will recur. Moreover, in Internet there are already wide areas for advertising or electronic-mail ordering.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect in this context is the fact that within the Cyberspace every person is virtually in a synchronous contact with the whole humanity. This is not a physical contact, but it is an immediate and not sensorial linking through an invisible space, a topological space where distance and closeness, the rarefying of vacuum and the total fullness are perceptible. Not by chance some phantasies about Internet refer to a "dark cave" or one of the most popular navigating system on the net is called "Gopher". "Gopher" is the name of a small rodent boring and living in long underground tunnels, whose scientific name is significatively "Gopher Polyphemus". Furthermore, not by chance (possible examples are infinite) one of the most Italian knot is named "La città invisibile" (The invisible town).

Beyond the example, we can say that, even if Internet is not a real group structure since there's no sensorial touch between its members, it is nevertheless perceived by a part of our mind as a sort of a great group field. This depends on the perturbing awareness of its wide extension, exposing to simultaneous sensations of falling form a dizzy height and of floating; it depends on the regression induced by the impossibility to see, talk and hear each other directly, together with the nearly magic impression that the monitor represents a window on the world, allowing a universal contact and dialogue. Still, on the immediate connection to every site, combined with the apparent transparency and perhaps the removal of technical (both telephonic and informatic) support, that creates the illusion of some kind of time suspension and of immersion in a space and time continuum. All that involves that the invisible cyberspace is filled with projective fantasies and typical group expectations.

In order to explain this phenomenon, we can use Bion's hypothesis on the existence in our mind of a group aspect, distinct and independent from the individual part of mind itself; there's a group component of thought that can be activated under certain circumstances, even if there's no real psycho-physical touch with other individuals, for example in the presence of the individual component regression and of a complex reticular structure supporting this kind of thinking; just because it's invisible, it acts as a support or as a container for the phantasy about the existence of a shared virtual space. It's a part of the mind presenting itself as an unsaturated valency, a function of delighting linking, waiting for meeting or creating a group field. Keeping in mind these considerations, we can now re-start our discourse on Corrao from his definition of reticular linking and invisible group.

Monad, dyad, tryad and polyad.

In his paper of 1981, Corrao defines the notion of whole, as a set of objects or monads, and the notion of structure, as morphological-functional organisation of a whole of objects. Furthermore, Corrao describes dyadic relationship as the simplest unit in every interstructural relationship between objects themselves, analysing all its semantic implications both at a philosophical-psychological level and at a level of abstract formal logic and dialectics of opposites. Tryadic configurations sort out from dialectic mediation between thesis and antithesis, where synthesis is the element allowing solution and development.

According to Corrao, mental phenomenon are beaten in group by <<the constant rhythm of touch, communication and separation processes>> among the objects forming the whole, as in an organised system of reticular links, where object stands both for individual members and for mental objects that are produced and exchanged by the members. Yet, at a superficial observation, it's not the system as a whole, but the apparent emerging of <<dyadic/tryadic relational structures, that can be considered the most frequent phenomenon>>. This occurs because catching group's polyadic structure, <<the organised whole of interrelations among its elements or members>> is more difficult.

Observing and analysing polyadic structure is so difficult because <<it's a basic structure, often latent or virtual>>, at some extent invisible, to which are superimposed - at least in our perception - the more visible figures of a dyadic or tryadic kind. According to Corrao, group as a whole and group phenomena <<don't correspond to empirical observations>>, but on the contrary <<all they can be referred to an [undergoing, but deeply influencing] level that can't be seen>> (Corrao 1985).

I'd add that as we can't see stars only when there's no sunlight or other artificial sources of dizzying light, in the same way we can catch group's polyadic structure only darkening a part of our perceptive system, and then digging in the darkness and in the invisible. Furthermore, following Bion's indications, we have to activate and sustain in the "here and now" a binocular type of vision: one eye is turn to the contained, to the emerging phenomenon, the other devoted to the container, to the group's current mental functioning.

Critics to the reticular model.

When he talks of an organised system of reticular linking, Corrao stresses - as Bion did - polyadic system's structural and functional aspects, rather than the objects constituting it. According to him, network model is still useful to represent dyadic and triadic relationship among objects, as they appear in the visible field; in this sense he states that <<reticular model presents the advantage to allow sector circumscription, alternative or selective choices of the connections [among the objects] under examination>>, in this way partly enabling - as in Perseo's use of the shield - <<the indirect cognitive exploration on structure>>.

But in this way group's specific dimension is still invisible, or perhaps it's un-lookable like Medusa, whose gaze petrified everyone who dare to look into her eyes. I'm saying that because, as you know, a full immersion in group situation always involves for individual regression at a certain degree as well as the appearance of depersonalising phenomena. Obviously the individual tries to defend his identity, taking shelter just beyond the shield of his individual thinking. But in this way, he loses sight of the group and its colloidal and magmatic phenomena, that perhaps - if we stay for a while within the metaphor - can be well represented by the tangle covering Medusa's head. According to Corrao, to observe fully and directly the group, a <<simultaneousness of self- and heter-observation, and the syncretic SINESTESIA of contained/container, internal/external, part/whole>> is needed, all that involving that <<the adequate form of observation seems to consist in a mobile order, asymptotically diverging [from the common use of individual thinking], characterised by continuos adaptations corresponding to the continuos variations in [group] structure>>.

The reticular model appears to him as the result of an observational modality that is too strictly tied <<in a specific way, to aspects full of sensoriality and materiality>> (Corrao, 1985), completely outstretched to recognise the continuity of knots and connections, giving place to a stiff - nearly petrified representation of group Polyadic structure>>. By introducing the notion of group field, it is instead possible - in accordance with the model of quantum physics - to grasp the discontinuity aspects of group and the logical falls typical of group's thinking, or even better, as in the topological model, the co-presence and simultaneousness moment to moment of continuity and discontinuity. In this sense there's no longer need to stay anchored to a reticular model, <<we have no longer need to consider the material linking, the wires connecting one knot to another>>. In this way, we can afford to lose sight of concrete objects and - as for electrons' orbital - to use the theory of probability to state that particles are in every moment in every place within the continuum of space and time.

It follows that in a polyadic structured group situation, thinking elements can be considered as always available widespreadly within the field, as free from stiff local net links, dyadic or triadic, anyway preconcerted, thus they are also available to become object of transformative operations of a global kind. In other words, fostering the establishment and the maintenance of a group field allows to overcome the risk of a continuos local reproposal of contents and meanings which could be saturating for group's mental life, making it fall and crystallise in a stiff and defensive bidimensional, or at most tridimesional situation, that would be more familiar and reassuring for individuals, but anyway characterised by a block at space-time level, as in those situations that are strongly influenced by basic assumption.

Gamma function.

If group field's constitution always involves for the members a regression and a deindividualization, we could state that the polyadic structure level reached by the group depends at every moment on the regression degree of the individuals component. According to Corrao, this regression includes:
a) depersonalising phenomena
b) identity transference from individual to group
c) a decrease of subjective functions of conscious alert, with appearance of oneiroid and ipnoid states

In Bion's terms, we could thus talk about a situation characterised by the mitigation or the suspension, in certain moments even by the inversion of individual personality mental function, with a particular reference to alpha function. As it's well known, Bion called alpha function that part of our mind having the task to accomplish transformative operation to elaborate and organise all our sensorial and emotional experiences, giving place to alpha elements, that are the basic elements for the construction of thought. Alfa function has also the task of establishing and maintaining a barrier between conscious and unconscious.

Alfa function's suspension make thus impossible any distinction between conscious and unconscious elements, so the un-transformed sensorial and emotional elements, Bion's beta elements, invade the mind. Those primitive elements, since they can't be elaborated, are unpleasantly lived as "things" and the mind tries to set itself free from them expelling them in the surrounding field. As a consequence Corrao wrote, <<subjects' extra-personal field, that is the group field, is progressively invaded [...] by beta elements. Yet those elements can be restrained by the [reticular] preconstructed structuralizations, giving place to those configurations called basic assumptions, unless the typical transformative functions of polyadic structure intervene.

On the basis of these considerations, Corrao names "gamma function" group's capacity to transform primitive sensorial and emotional elements, and redefines it <<the symmetrical analogous, in group structure, of what alpha function represents in personal structure>>. Transformative operations induced by gamma function on the basic elements infuse in the group field, lead to the production of those gamma elements which are necessary to create a group thought. It's a <<multiple, multifocused or polycentric kind of thinking>>, with a vorticous course and an high rate of productivity, using contemporaneously different logical levels and tools, sometimes opposite ones.

I should end with Corrao's words: <<if we use the notion of field, there's no need of thinking the intermediate space between internal and external, because within the field, since all the points can be used, there can be [simultaneously] internal, external intermediate [...] because it's omnicomprehensive. Gamma function model presumes that there are transpositions or functional OMEOMORPHISMS , OMEOFUNCTIONALISM between individual and group mind. With the notion if field, we can talk more easily of a transpersonal mental apparatus or of the production of groupal thoughts. Kaes, in order to give a conceptual justification [... to his theoretical reflections on group mental apparatus, talks of a pluripsychic apparatus; but] pluripsychic involves the necessity to go on distinguishing and taking care of individual members. It's not in [the polyadic meaning we point at] of simultaneous multidimensionality. With the notion of field we can comfortably talk of transpersonal>>.