Wilfred Bion's work on the "alpha function" was based on Melanie Klein's concept of projective identification. He added a further dimension by suggesting that projective identification is not only an all-powerful fantasy in the infant's mind, but also its first means of communication.
Bion discussed the alpha function for the first time in an article titled "A Theory of Thinking" (1962), but the idea had already been prefigured in his work. For example, in "On Arrogance" (1958), he described a patient who perceived his analyst as someone who "could not tolerate it" (the "it" not being defined) (1958, p. 146). From this Bion drew the conclusion that the patient's means of communication was preverbal and occurred through projective identification with the primitive id, and that the patient was experiencing the analyst's insistence on verbalization as an attack on his means of communication.
In "Attacks on Linking" (1959), Bion described a patient who as a young child could not contain his fear of death. He dissociated himself from it and at the same time from a part of his personality, and projected it onto his mother: "An understanding mother is able to experience the feeling of dread, that this baby was striving to deal with by projective identification, and yet retain a balanced outlook" (p. 313). By projecting its terror onto the mother, the infant makes it into her experience and communicates to her its own distress. This situation is repeated in analysis. In this study, Bion stressed that projective identification has a realistic aspect that can elicit an appropriate response from the mother. If this response is not forthcoming, the baby's fear of death is reinforced and cannot be processed.
In "A Theory of Thinking," Bion formed the hypothesis of an alpha function exercised by the mother when she processes the baby's projective identification and converts what he calls "nascent sensory data," including emotional data, or beta elements, into alpha elements—the materials of dream thoughts and conscious thoughts:
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 (p. 308).
Bion deliberately refrained from giving a definition of the alpha function, since he could only deduce its elements. He let it be understood that further study of it was needed. Instead of giving definitions, he described the process and provided the following model:
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. As an abstraction to match this model I propose an apparatus, for dealing with these primitive categories of I, that consists of a container and the contained. The mechanism is implicit in the theory of projective identification in which Melanie Klein formulated her discoveries of infant mentality. (1963, p. 31).
The concept of the alpha function led to that of the container/contained relationship. The internalization of the latter provides the elementary thought-thinking apparatus. The mother's receptivity to the child's projective identification is a central factor in this process. Her receptivity is dependent upon what Bion called the maternal capacity for reverie—a dreamlike state whose contents are love for the child and its father.
Deficiencies in maternal reverie or excessive feelings of omnipotence or envy on the part of the infant can interfere with the alpha function and the container/contained relationship. The alpha function is related to—conjoined with—the shift from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position.
See also: Alpha-elements; Arrogance; Beta-elements; Beta screen; Bion, Wilfred Ruprecht; Contact-barrier; Hallucinosis; Infantile psychosis; Lack of differentiation; Learning from Experience ; Nonverbal communication; Object; Primary object; Protothoughts; Psychotic panic; Realization; Transformations.
Bion, Wilfred R. (1967). On arrogance. In his Second thoughts. London: Heinemann. (Original work published 1953)
——. (1959). Attacks on linking. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 40 (5-6) 308.
——. (1967). A theory of thinking. In Second thoughts. London: Heinemann. (Reprinted from International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 43,(1962) 4-5.)
——. Elements of psycho-analysis. London: Heinemann, 1963.