So this guy built a toaster…

…and tells us an awful lot about who we are (and a bit about group therapy).

His name is Thomas Thwaites, and I first saw the video where I find a good deal of smart things, on TED. Check it out:

Pretty terrific, right? Just sharing it with you is exciting, but I’d like to say a bit about it, hopefully without  sounding too much like an academic and ruining the whole thing. I’ll try.

If you know me (or read this blog, or both) you’re familiar with my passion for seeing and exploring our sociality. We’re connected, as human beings, in profound ways and, in my opinion, if we’re going to have a better time on this planet (and take better care of this planet) we desperately need to do a better job building with one another, and finding ways of figuring out how to get along.

The thing is, even in as crowded a place as New York City, there’s a lot of resistance to accepting just how much our lives are social. There are a number of reasons for this, including that other people are a pain in the ass, and the very fact that we feel so lost when it comes to building groups and relationships–we’re not good at it, so we resist accepting just how important it is! I also think psychology and other social sciences deserve some of the blame here. It’s easier to study human beings as isolated individuals, and as a result that’s what tends to get studied.

This is where the toaster comes in. It stands to reason that if you want to understand a toaster, you take it apart and analyze the pieces–what are they made of, how were they formed and put together. Once this thorough analysis is done, you might reasonably conclude that you have not only a solid understanding of that particular toaster but of toasters as a broader category of thing.

And you’d be right. Except for all the parts you’d be missing.

As Thwaites’ project makes clear, if you want to understand a toaster, you’ve got to recognize that, as he puts it, “it takes an entire civilization.” Whether we like it or not, it is a profound understatement to say that we are interconnected. In fact, Thwaites actually leaves out an awful lot. He made use of the professor, and Wikipedia, which he acknowledges, but he would also no doubt admit that he’s had a lifetime of experience with other toasters, an understanding of heat and electricity, a power grid in which to plug in his toaster and… The sociality of that toaster is simply overwhelming.

Moving through the chaos of New York City, it’s not hard to see how connected are our lives–if we look. But it’s not just the physical, in-the-flesh people we encounter that should serve as reminders of this fact. If we’re listening to music or reading a book, riding the NYC subway, or alone in our apartment eating toast, we’re not really so “alone” at all. Even the ways we understand who we are, our emotions and our bodies, and the language we use to talk about ourselves–all of these are unavoidably social.

What’s this have to do with group therapy?

If we recognize that we are fundamentally social, we might want to consider a social context in which to grow as human beings (i.e. our therapy). Just as the toaster has been created by civilization, so have our emotions, our relational habits, our limitations and how we view them all. In group therapy, we have the chance to understand ourselves, and grow socially. Just as evolutions in toaster design have emerged socially, so do developments in how we build our lives.

To put it another way, one might imagine that in attempting to build a therapy without sufficiently attending to our sociality we would end up with a therapy that looks an awful lot like the toaster Thwaites ended up with: An A for effort, but it doesn’t make very good toast.