In his paper, "A Theory of Thinking" (Second Thoughts, 1967, pp. 100-120), Wilfred Bion speaks of raw sense-data and of "inchoate elements" which have to be transformed into alpha-elements by alpha functions. That description is the precursor of what he was to call later beta-elements. He first uses the term beta-elements in Learning from Experience : "If alpha-function is disturbed and therefore inoperative the sense impressions of which the patient is aware and the emotions which he is experiencing remain unchanged. I shall call them beta-elements. In contrast with the alpha-elements the beta-elements are not felt to be phenomena, but things in themselves" (p. 6).
Bion often speaks of beta-elements, raw sense-impressions, and raw emotional data. Beta-elements are very concrete. They are felt as bad internal "things" which can be dealt with only by expulsion. He emphasizes that the beta-function emotions are also experienced as physical objects.
This is an extension of Klein's view that the infant experiences hunger as a bad internal breast that has to be expelled. It is important to keep this in mind, because otherwise some of Bion's statements may seem contradictory, because he speaks of sense data that have to be expelled, but on many occasions he refers to the fear of death (hardly a sense-datum), which has to be expelled and projected into the breast. But for the infant at that stage, hatred and fear are experienced as bad objects. The experience is confused with the object responsible for the experience. In Elements of Psycho-Analysis (1963), Bion provides 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 feelings of love and generosity . . . The mechanism is implicit in the theory of projective identification in which Melanie Klein formulated her discoveries of infant mentality."
Beta-elements can be dealt with only by expulsion. They are not material for thought, but underlie acting-out, hallucinations, and delusions. When beta-elements are projected into the mother they can be transformed into alpha-elements, which are elements of dream and thought, by the alpha-function. The nearest clinical approximations to raw beta-elements are bizarre objects. Beta-elements do not combine with one another in an integrated way, but they can become accumulated. When this happens the contact-barrier becomes a beta-screen. Unlike alpha-elements, beta-elements are saturated: they are not open to change by new impressions, and therefore not open to reality-testing. They can be only transformed by alpha function.
See also: Alpha function; Alpha-elements; Bion, Wilfred Ruprecht; Concept; Contact-barrier; Grid; Learning from Experience ; Maternal reverie, capacity for; Object; Primary object; Primal, the; Protothoughts; Psychotic panic; Idea/representation; Reverie; Symbolic equation; Transformations.
Bion, Wilfred R. (1962). Learning from experience. London, Heinemann; New York: Basic Books.
——. (1963). Elements of psycho-analysis. London: Heinemann.
——. (1967). Second thoughts. London: Heinemann.