Bion; Learning from Experience
Updated: Feb 26
I want to share a few thoughts on the book Learning from Experience. I've re read the work at least three times and continue to be drawn towards new ideas within it. This is what I find so compelling with Bion's writing - like his concepts of Alpha Function, Beta Function, Alpha Elements, Contact Barrier ect ect - his writing is not a conceptual overlay or structure, the concepts are strategies not locked theories. The thought is a scaffolding from which to think. It is why the work is so deep and concentrically enveloping. His writing is an associative trigger, it is generative and widening. I am reminded of the work of Heraclitus and of Nieztche at his best, his axioms. Bion's writing is succinct, he invites you to think. Sometimes he is cryptic but I get the sense this is not an attempt to be oblique. He is trying to work through the most taxing of problems about being human. He is limited by language, by the frame of writing, by the linearity of expression and by the confines of the human mind.
For Bion we are dreaming all the time. If I were talking to you I would also be dreaming perhaps about having sex or skating on ice or running through a field holding your hand or any number of things that our conversation might spark in unconscious phantasy. These mental processes would flash through my mind sometimes they come forward sometimes they remain unconscious whilst simultaneously we are continuing to talk. For Freud we dream in sleep to maintain sleep but for Bion we sleep to dream. These dreams are not a manifestation of an unconscious wish then modified by a pre consciousness to be symbolised and tolerable but rather the dream is a spilling over of the Alpha Function that is taking place. In his later work Cogitations he calls these night processes Dream Work Alpha. I wonder if the dream is an attempt to symbolise as it is worked through in the unconscious, something that has moved from the somatisation or (a beta element) into a something not entirely constructed or understood. The waking sense of dream thoughts is that our reality testing is intermingling with our waking phantasy life, which is littered with archaic equations of a very primitive nature. Certain reality contacts will cause a large amount of unconscious phantasy work other thoughts will be familiar and may not strain our alpha function so obviously. It is the other, the contact with the other, that is so generative in this process.
‘Man’s alpha function whether in sleeping or waking transforms the sense impressions related to an emotional experience, into alpha-elements, which cohere as they proliferate to form the contact barrier. This contact-barrier, thus continuously in process of formation, marks the point of contact and separation between conscious and unconscious elements and originate the distinction between them.’ Bion, Learning From Experience
These thoughts twist for me and always feel so concrete when set down. My previous paragraph reads concretely as writing always does, but I don't mean to assert some handle or totalising on the concepts or their meaning. They are a matrix, a model, and not static, in that from each of my statements previously written I find more nodes emerging to form further branches. The details loop and turn they do not sit still for me, the associations continue. When I speak or write about Bion I feel associations emerge the origin of which I cannot be sure. Bion talks about a thought without a thinker, the origin of this notion is that thought lies in negation. The absence of material satisfaction creates sensations which must then be thought to be understood, thought comes second in order to process experience. The absence of the breast is where thought begins. This is so correct and so profound. This can also be extended to conceptual truths, that truths about ourselves, about the nature of existence, are waiting to be thought. That without Freud we would have no Klein and without Klein no Bion ect, a progression but within this there is something further; that ideas that are true are merely waiting to be thought, they existed before the thinker thought them.