Pioneers in Object Relations Clinical Thinking:
Wilfred Ruprecht Bion (1897-1979)
On September 8th, we celebrate birthday of Wilfred Bion, one of the influential British Object Relations
theorists and psychoanalytic thinkers. Here are some of his thoughts:
“Psycho-analysts must be able to tolerate the differences or the difficulties of the analysand long enough to
recognize what they are. If psycho-analysts are able to interpret what the analysand says, they must have
a great capacity for tolerating their analysands' statements without rushing to the conclusion that they know
the interpretations. This is what I think Keats meant when he said Shakespeare must have been able to tolerate
negative capability.” “...Beta-elements are not amenable to use in dream thoughts but are suited for use in
projective identification. They are influential in producing acting out. These are objects that can be evacuated
or used for a kind of thinking that depends on manipulation of what are felt to be things in themselves as if to
substitute such manipulations for words or ideas. . . . Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into
alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are
familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst
has interpreted them. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep.
As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream
–thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up.”
“I shall state the theory first in terms of a model, as follows: The infant suffering pangs of hunger and fear
that it is dying, wracked by guilt and anxiety, and impelled by greed, messes itself and cries. The mother picks
it up, feeds it and comforts it, and eventually the infant sleeps. Reforming the model to represent the feelings
of the infant we have the following version: the infant, filled with painful lumps of faeces, guilt, fears of impending
death, chunks of greed, meanness and urine, evacuates these bad objects into the breast that is not there. As it
does so the good object turns the no-breast (mouth) into a breast, the faeces and urine into milk, the fears of
impending death and anxiety into vitality and confidence, the greed and meanness into feelings of love and
generosity and the infant sucks its bad property, now translated into goodness, back again.”
“Bion the analyst is indescribable. Insofar as analysis is so unique and private an experience, it is too laden with subjectivity, and is also too unrecoverable an experience to journalize about. Nevertheless, most of those who have been analyzed by Bion agree that he constituted perhaps one of the most formidable and impressive psycho-analytic instruments of ours or any time. His sense of self-discipline was monumental, and yet his fount of interpretation was almost overflowing in its richness, depth, perspective, hue, allusion and originality. One at first has the idea of a DaVinci working on the restoration of one's shabby structure until the idea gradually develops that the shabby structure is but the current ruin of an edifice worthy of this DaVinci; and, moreover, he was building it with the mortar and brick from one's own productions. Herein lay his genius as an analyst and also his deep respect for human beings who may have long since forfeited their own self-respect… ‘Bion paradoxically seems to advise people not to read books but rather to write them. I myself have become a great and grateful ‘victim of this advice” (Grotstein 1981).
"In addition to introducing the reader to Bion's ideas, the Symingtons offer a highly interesting critique of his work. Because of the limitations of space, and because the critique is not only the most original part of the book, but is bound to be the most controversial as well, I will focus my attention on that. It centres on some important questions about the nature of psychoanalytic knowledge and the relation of theory to observation and practice. These questions were also quite important to Bion: inLearning from Experience, he described a psychotic patient who was unable to recognise the qualities that distinguish a mind from non-mental objects, and whose world, as a result, consisted only of inanimate material objects. He went on to observe that:
The scientist whose investigations include the stuff of life itself finds himself in a situation that has a parallel in that of the patients I am describing … It appears that our rudimentary equipment for ‘thinking’ thoughts is adequate when the problems are associated with the inanimate, but not when the object for investigation is the phenomena of life itself … [this] means that the field for investigation, all investigation being ultimately scientific, is limited, by human inadequacy, to those phenomena that have the characteristics of the inanimate. We assume that the psychotic limitation is due to an illness: but that of the scientist is not. Investigation of the assumption illuminates disease on one hand and scientific method on the other … Confronted with the complexities of the human mind the analyst must be circumspect in following even accepted scientific method; its weakness may be closer to the weakness of psychotic thinking than superficial scrutiny would admit (1962, p.14).
The problem Bion has formulated is this: the scientific methods and modes of thought that are appropriate to an understanding of the inanimate world (such as those of physics or chemistry), or to an understanding of the mechanical aspects of biological or social systems (such as those of physiology and behaviorism), yield models that are mechanical and therefore inappropriate for understanding states of mind. How, then, may we psychoanalysts arrive at a description of the mind without falling prey to the scientific version of what crippled Bion's patient—an inability to think about or perceive emotional realities that restricts (perhaps disastrously) our thoughts and imagination to the realm of the inanimate?" (Caper, 1998).
Click & Watch 10-min professional video of the ORI's 2011 Annual 20th Anniversary Conference on Dialectics of Mortality and Immortality: Time as a Persecutory vs. a Holding Object.
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Intro to the Object Relations Thinking and Clinical Technique - with Dr. Kavaler-Adler (part 1).
Projective Identification: Object Relations View (part 2 of the mini-video series)
Time as an Object - Object Relations view (part 3 of mini-video series)
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