Wilfred Bion and The Importance of Not-Knowing (Part 1)

Throughout my time in training and practice, Wilfred Bion has been a figure of inspiration and challenge. His work can sometimes confuse more than illuminate. These three posts illustrate my understanding of some of Bion’s important ideas.

Although a large portion of his (early) work was dedicated to understanding group dynamics (Pines, 1985), the forthcoming discussion will focus exclusively on the way Bion understood individual development, and his conceptualizations about psychoanalytic work, especially as they related to cure. Particular attention will be paid to his ideas of container/contained,alpha-function, linkingand his reformulation of Melanie Klein’s conceptualization of projective identification.

As will be seen, Bion was particularly interested in the factors that allow an individual to think, and especially to think unthought thoughts (W. R. Bion, 1962b). Bion focused on an “insightful understanding of psychic reality through a disciplined experiencing of the transference-countertransference” (Mawson, 2010, p. 3) as the goal for psychoanalysis. The only way a therapist can fully experience the transference-countertransference is by developing a tolerance towards the unknown (Levine & Brown, 2013), and Bion spent much of his time arguing that the royal road to cure lies on no road at all: that cure happens in a unique way in each session and with each patient. He claimed that the only way for someone to stay on the road to cure is through a tolerance of doubt and intimacy with the unknown (W. R. Bion, 1994). In fact, Bion might scoff at the author’s usage of the term cure, since, in his efforts to encourage the therapist to completely surrender to the therapeutic process, he even discouraged therapists maintaining a desire to cure patients (Aguayo & Malin, 2013, p. 9). In any event, the theories and techniques created by Bion offer a vibrant look at psychoanalytic treatment as it works towards a certain outcome.

Thinking and Container/Contained

Bion’s theory of thinking begins with things that cannot be thought, these he calls beta-elements(Britton, 1992). These are things akin to raw sensory impressions that hold no meaning or organization for the individual. It is interesting that Bion would draw our attention to elements of the mind that cannot be thought because that is precisely where Freud’s theory begins. Freud stated that the “accretions of stimuli,” (S. Freud, 1911, p. 221) such as feelings of hunger or discomfort, force themselves upon the mind of the child causing the child to deal with those stimuli through thinking (Sugarman, 2010). He stated, “Thinking was endowed with the characteristics which made it possible for the mental apparatus to tolerate an increase in tension of stimulus while the process of discharge was postponed” (S. Freud, 1911, p. 225).

Similarly, Bion believed that thinking develops to “cope with thoughts” (W. R. Bion, 1962b, p. 217). “Thinking is a development forced upon the psyche by the pressure of thoughts,” he said, “and not the other way around” (W. R. Bion, 1962b, p. 217). Beta-elements are the building blocks for the development of the mind because it is their intolerable buildup that initiates the mind’s ability to think. The infant mind needs to do something with, or about, these beta-elements, but is unable to do so at such an underdeveloped stage. The only way the baby can tolerate these experiences is through the help of another mind that can think about them, and this is where the mother comes in.

The image is a common one: a child crying due to some unseen force. The mother enters and, through words or touch, soothes the child to the point that he ceases to cry and goes on being. What happened here? Sometimes the child will be soothed without even the slightest touch from the mother (no changing of a diaper or offering of the breast), and yet something material has changed within the baby. For Bion, what happened is that the child’s experience was contained by the mother (Szykierski, 2010). The child has not yet been able to put his experience into thoughts for himself, and has therefore used the mother’s thinking ability to make his experience more palatable. Bion believed that, through the mother’s presence and reverie (which is to say, her ability to perceive what is going on for the child), she can take in the child’s experience, use her mental capacity to digest the child’s intolerable experience, and give it back to the child in a form that he can now tolerate. The mother has now contained the child’s experience (Brown, 2012). The child is then left in a much more manageable state, where he is not being bombarded by beta-elements that he cannot think about. What begins to develop, then, is a relationship where the child relies on the mother to contain his unthinkable experience until he is able to do so for himself. The mother becomes the container for the child’s emotional experience; the child becomes the contained. Now the child’s experience is momentarily more tolerable.


Although it may seem like it, for Bion the mother did not use magic in her efforts to calm the child. Instead, she used her mind’s developed ability for alpha-function (Caper, 2005). According to Bion, thinking is made up of two main components. The first are beta-elements (which have been discussed), experiences that cannot be thought by the individual. The second components are alpha-elements, which are beta-elements that have been transformed into units that can have meaning, have the ability to be dreamed or repressed, and can be thought about by the individual (Abel-Hirsch, 2016). Alpha-elements are the “higher order” components of thought that can come to mind or be reflected on. They are beta-elements that have been transformed into units of thought with which the mind can do something. The method of transforming beta-elements into alpha-elements is alpha-function (W. R. Bion, 1965). This is a more developed capacity in the mind to be able to take raw sensory experiences and endow them with meaning so that the mind can think about them.

Now, returning to the mother-infant interaction, it can be said that the infant (only filled with beta-elements) is contained by the mother’s alpha-function. In other words, the mother uses her alpha-function to transform the infant’s beta-elements into alpha-elements. She then projects the newly created alpha-elements back to the baby; these are components of experience that the baby can now tolerate. Bion called the two participants—the mother and the child—a thinking couple(W. R. Bion, 1962b). With the mother’s help, the child is able to begin to think about his experience, and together they are cocreatingmeaning for one another (Brown, 2013).

Aside from the momentary reduction of anxiety as a result of the mother’s containment, the child does not remain stagnant in this interaction. In the container/contained relationship, the child uses the mother’s capacity for alpha-function as a surrogate apparatus for thinking. Then, through repeated interactions between the thinking couple, the child begins to introject the mother’s ability for alpha-function and learns to develop his own ability to think (Brown, 2013). In other words, in the early states of the container/contained relationship, the child relies entirely on the mother’s ability to metabolize his experience. Over time, however, the child begins to build up his own capacity to thing (to transform beta-elements into alpha elements). Therefore, it is through the container/contained relationship that the contained develops the capacity to tolerate his emotional experience (Joseph, 1987), and over time, it might become possible for the infant to learn to act as his own container.

This idea that the contained develops the capacity to act as his own container had implications for Bion’s understanding of cure in the consulting room. Through the repeated interactions between therapist and patient, where the therapist continually contains the patient, the patient’s own capacity to think her intolerable thoughts begins to grow. It is believed in Bionian thinking that it is only through the continual interaction between a thinking couple that the contained can develop her capacity for creating meaning and for thinking unthought thoughts (Billow, 2003).