Learning from Experience

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Learning from Experience was Wilfred Bion's first major venture into metapsychology and epistemology. In this work he set out to specify how normal and psychotic minds function. To accomplish his mission, he defines certain ideas as tools of understanding. He defines a "factor" as a mental activity that is a subset, along with other factors, of a "function." "Factors are deduced not directly but by observation of functions," he claims.

The particular function that he explicates in this work, one that he elaborates throughout his later works, is the alpha function, so named to preserve it from contamination by a penumbra of preconceptions and other associations. In the course of developing his ideas about how alpha functions work, he adds an idea borrowed from Freud (1911b) "A special function was instituted which had periodically to search the external world, in order that its data might be familiar already if an urgent internal need should arisethe function of attention " (p. 220). "Freud did not carry his investigation of attention far, but the term, as he uses it, has a meaning I would investigate as a factor in alpha-function."

Attentionand later notation, inquiry, and actionthus became factors in alpha-functioning. Later they became the components of the horizontal axis of his grid.

Bion frequently returns to Freud's two principles of mental functioning, the pleasure principle and the reality principle, and seems to reason that distinguishing them as primary and secondary processes is artificial in terms of the sense organ of attention that apprehends them. Consequently, he designates the alpha function as the sense organ of attention for each principle. He then introduces the factors of beta elements, the unprocessed sense impressions that require the activity of the alpha function to transform (render, metabolize) them into alpha elements suitable for mental processing into memory, dream elements, and thoughts. He came to this idea from his experiences with psychotic patients: "The attempt to evade the experience of contact with live objects by destroying alpha-function leaves the personality unable to have a relationship with any aspect of itself that does not resemble an automaton. Only beta-elements are available for whatever activity takes the place of thinking and beta-elements are suitable for evacuation onlyperhaps through the agency of projective identification" (1962, p. 13).

To explain the motivation for seeking to learn from experience, Bion gives the K (knowledge) link the same, if not greater, status as the L (love) and H (hatred) links. He clearly makes a triad out of Freud's instinctual drives and Klein's epistemological instinct and transforms them from instinctual drives into subject-object linkages, with K as the leader.

Following this, he discusses the need to correlate samples from all the sense organs as one form of "common sense," in addition to the "sense organs" from both the self and the other (the analyst) as "second opinion." When these correlations are made, abstraction from them and "publication" (allowing oneself to know them and act upon them) become possible. The complementary functioning of consciousness and the unconscious as sense organs is most clear in the following passage:

The theory of consciousness is weak, not false, because by amending it to state that the conscious and unconscious thus constantly produced together to function as if they were binocular therefore capable of correlation and self-regard. . . . For these reasons and others arising from clinical experience of psychoanalysis of that class of patient in whom the psychotic part of the personality is obtrusive, I find the theory of primary and secondary processes unsatisfactory. This theory is weak in the need to postulate two systems at the point where, in my theory of an alpha-function, an emotional experience is transformed into alpha-elements, to make dream thought, unconscious waking thinking and storage in the mind (memory) possible. I attribute the appearance of beta-elements, the closely associated bizarre objects and the serious disturbances ordinarily associated with excessive obtrusion of the psychotic elements of the personality, to the failure of alpha-function.

Bion thereupon develops the idea that the alpha function gives rise to abstraction and the progressive realizations that abstractions enable the subject to have: "The concrete statement might be: breast exists that can be depended on to satisfy his hunger for food; abstraction from this might be: there is something that can and does give him what he wants when he wants it."

Still later Bion considers the notion of the selected fact. He states that the selected fact coheres the objects of the paranoid-schizoid outlook and thereby makes possible the onset of depression and does so by its membership in a number of deductive systems. He goes on to state, "The relationship between mother and infant described by Melanie Klein as projective identification is internalized to form an apparatus for regulation of a pre-conception with the sense data of the appropriate realization. This apparatus is represented by the model: the mating of pre-conception with sense impression to produce a conception. This model is in turn represented by .... The repetition of mating of pre-conception and sense data, that results in commensal abstraction, promotes growth in . That is, the capacity for taking in sense impressions develops together with the capacity for awareness of sense data."

Finally, Bion returns to the K link and, in light of his experiences with psychotic patients, contrasts it with the K link, that which denudes the sense data of meaning to prevent realizations from developing.

James S. Grotstein

See also: Grid; Love-Hate-Knowledge (L/H/K links); Primal, the; Protothoughts.

Source Citation

Bion, Wilfred. (1962). Learning from experience. London: Heineman; New York: Basic Books.


Freud, Sigmund. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.

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Learning from Experience

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