The term "proto-thoughts" refers to primitive sensory and emotional material that has not been subjected to the mother's alpha function or been manipulated by the infant's thought-thinking apparatus. Proto-thoughts also correspond to what Wilfred R. Bion called "beta elements."
In Learning from Experience (1962), Bion posited the realm of the protomental as corresponding to objects that are "bad" because they are not in the infant's possession, and yet excite his or her desire. The infant (or the psychotic patient) tries to rid him- or herself of "bad" objects and proto-thoughts. At this time, at the beginning of mental life, there is no possibility of relief because there are as yet no alpha elements, nor a thought-thinking apparatus to process alpha elements. Bion indicated two later outcomes for proto-thoughts: either flight in the face of frustration, or modification of frustration. The end result is the same if the mother is incapable of receiving the baby's projections and later returning them to him or her in a tolerable form. If there is failure of the alpha function in the infant or the mother, contact with reality or with living objects also fails. The infant cannot think when things are not present; he or she cannot generate ideas. He or she will tend to act out, and later, the child's speech will represent an action to liberate the psyche from an excess of stimuli. The infant's personality has access only to beta elements, which have no subjective meaning, cannot be used, and are thus evacuated through the eyes, the mouth, the anus, and touching.
The modification of frustration implies the appearance of alpha elements, originating in the mother's alpha function and later the child's alpha function. Alpha elements have affective resonance and an associative "penumbra." They digest proto-thoughts and enable the development of the functions of the personality: intelligence, memory, emotional experiences, dreams, or the distinction between conscious and unconscious. Without the alpha function or alpha elements, there can be no maturation.
See also: Alpha-elements; Beta-elements; Memoirs of the future.
Bion, Wilfred Ruprecht. (1962). Learning from experience. London: Tavistock Publications.
Luzes, Pedro. Les troubles de la pensée. (1969). (Rapport) Réponse aux interventions. 907-912. Revue Française de Psychanalyse 33, (5-6), 727-843.