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Bion used the term "element" first in Experiences in Groups (1961), only in very general terms. In A Theory of Thinking (1962) Bion describes for the first time (except for an unpublished paper presented at a scientific meeting of the British Psycho-Analytical Society) the use of the concept of alpha-function as a working tool in the analysis of disturbances of thought: "It seemed convenient to suppose an alpha function to convert sense data into alpha-elements and thus provide the psyche with the material for dream thoughts and hence the capacity to wake up or go to sleep, to be conscious or unconscious. According to this theory consciousness depends on alpha function and it is a logical necessity to suppose that such a function exists if we are to assume that the self is able to be conscious of itself in the sense of knowing itself from experience of itself."

In this paper he describes how alpha function converts beta-elements (raw sense data) into alpha-elements, and he is particularly concerned with the differentiation that is established between the unconscious and the conscious. He considers alpha-elements to be elements necessary for consciousness. By "consciousness" he means specifically self-consciousness, since beta-elements in a sense are also conscious as raw perceptions. When the infant's consciousness is invaded to an unbearable extent by beta-elements, the infant is driven to project these outside. When the beta-elements are transformed into alpha they become consciously apprehended, and a differentiation is established between the conscious and the unconscious. The alpha-elements can be consciously experienced, repressed, symbolized, and further worked on.

In Learning from Experience (1962), Bion gives the following example:

"If a man has an emotional experience when asleep or awake and is able to convert it into alpha-elements he can either remain unconscious of that emotional experience or become conscious of it. The sleeping man has an emotional experience, converts it into alpha-elements and so becomes capable of dream thoughts. Thus he is free to become conscious (that is wake up) and describe the emotional experience by a narrative usually known as a dream."

Similarly, a person having a conversation converts the beta-elements into alpha, and thus freed of all the most primitive ways of functioning, he can have a rational conversation while not losing touch with his unconscious. Alpha-elements form what Bion calls a contact-barrier, the part of the mind in which beta-elements are transformed into alpha, and this contact-barrier could be seen as a flexible barrier of repression. "Alpha-elements comprise visual images, auditory patterns, olfactory patterns, and are suitable for employment in dream thoughts, unconscious walking, thinking, dreams, contact-barrier, memory."

Bion developed his thought in a number of later writings, particularly in Learning from Experience. Alpha-elements are a product of alpha function. They can be stored and repressed. They undergo further transformation and abstraction. They are the elements of dream thought, dream, myth, and conscious thought. And they form the contact-barrier between the conscious and the unconscious.

Hanna Segal

See also: Alpha function; Beta-elements; Bion, Wilfred Ruprecht; Contact-barrier; Grid; Infant development; Learning from Experience ; Maternal reverie, capacity for; Primal, the; Protothoughts; Idea/representation; Symbolic equation; Transformations.


Bion, Wilfred R. (1961). Experiences in groups. London: Tavistock Publications.

Bion, Wilfred R. (1962). Learning from experience. London: Heinemann.