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Catastrophic Change


The concept of catastrophic change emerged from Bion's mathematical period in which he expressed interested in physical transformations. When an analysand undergoes a violent psychotic change, for instance, what aspects of him remain invariant through that change, from the pre-catastrophic through the actual catastrophic to the post-catastrophic stage. Invariance in change is a concept Bion borrowed from mathematical set theory. He also relates the invariance in change to differing modes of representing an image, such as in art, where the artist has to represent a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface. Bion asserts, "It should possible to detect a pattern that remains unaltered in apparently widely differing contexts. It would be useful to isolate and formulate the invariants of that pattern so that it could be communicated" (Bion 1970).

His basic thesis in this regard is that "the psychoanalyst should be regarded as transformation of realization (the actual psycho-analytic experience) into an interpretation or series of interpretations" (Bion 1965). He invokes the term "catastrophic" to designate a psychic event in an analysand that subverts the order or system of things in the environment and/or in the analysand himself, and this catastrophic change represents either a controlled or uncontrolled regression on the part of the analysand where the emergence of violence is pivotal.

Analysis in the pre-catastrophic stage differs from the post-catastrophic stage insofar as the former is characterized by the analysand's being unemotional, theoretical, and not manifesting any evidence of change. In addition, hypochondriacal symptoms are manifested. In the post-catastrophic stage the presence of violation is obvious, it lacks an ideational template, in contrast to the pre-catastrophic stage where "ideational violence" without affect is more in evidence. The analyst must then look, according to Bion, for the invariants in the post-catastrophic stage that correspond as invariants from the pre-catastrophic stage, e.g., hypochondria in the latter may be invariant with paranoid relations with external objects in the former. Returning to the middle stage, catastrophic change, that stage is characterized by the emergence of violence.

Bion encloses the phenomenon of pre-, post-, and catastrophic changes as transformation as follows: In terms of the analysand, the transformation is, when a realization takes place, from T (patient) a to T (patient) b. In the analyst, if there is no observed change, the event is inscribes as T (analyst) a and T (analyst) b. In the event of a change, the inscription is: T (pre-catastrophic change) to T (post-catastrophic change).

James S. Grotstein

See also: Hallucinosis.


Bion, Wilfred R. (1965). Transformations: Change from Learning to Growth, London, Heinemann.

. (1970). Attention and interpretation, London, Tavistock Publications.

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