Alpha Function

I generally want to know more about Bion. And in particular I want to know more about his alpha function. The following selections are from readings that offer some comment or explanation on his alpha function. I’ll keep updating these notes as I learn more.

Eigen mentions Bion’s alpha function inreference to what he calls “basic rhythms” – rhythms of trauma and recovery, destruction and reconstruction, psychic abortion and rebirth, recovery from catastrophic impacts. He says Bion reaches a general formulation of difficulties involved in basic unconscious rhythms when he writes of the alpha function. “Bion coins the term ‘alpha function’ partly to indicate that we do not know much about how we process affects, how feelings become real for us, how ’emotional digestion’ works. Yet he believes feelings and emotional meaning are the heart of psychic life. He chooses ‘alpha’ perhaps because how affects are processed is of the foremost importance, perhaps because the way we process feelings plays a role in the way we process everything else, perhaps because emotional life is what makes life feel like life.”

“To get a sense of alpha work, we can liken it somewhat to dreamwork or primary process, involved in initiating the processing of feelings. There is a tradition in psychoanalysis that values that primary process or dreamwork contributes to affect processing. Now, Rycroft, Milner,and Ehrezweig – to name a few – are part of this tradition, in which emphasis is less on primary process as discharge than on what it adds to experience. Years ago most workers tended to see secondary process as the binder, but psychic work involving holding and reworking of feelings is already present in primary process. For example, processes Freud describes in chapter six of the dreambook, such as condensation, displacement, symbolization, are already parts ofthe psychic digestive system.”

“Bion especially emphasizes the role alpha function/ primary process/ dreamwork plays in initiating the processing of catastrophic impacts, shocks that go with sensitivity. Processes involved in dreamwork often gravitate toward catastrophe and try to break down, rework, and feed these impacts into images, ideograms, myths, narratives, reveries, reflections, various forms of thinking and expressive actions. A general formula might be: impact gives rise to image, image gives rise to symbol, symbol gives rise to idea. But all such formulations are too simple. To add to our difficulty, Bion points out that dreamwork can be used both to evacuate and modify emotions at once aiding the psyche to evolve and to get rid of itself. As ource of confusion is that we can build and null life at the same time and building is part of the nulling. At a given moment we may not know whether we are creating or destroying. The biblical dictum, “by their fruits ye shall know them,” can lead to uncanny problems.”

“I have used alpha loosely in conjunction with dreamwork and primary processing, but in Bion’s writings they are not strictly identical. Alpha function is the broader concept, left open, as Bion put it, as a kind of nest where birds of meaning might alight. Thinking about what alpha might mean helps correct what seems to me a misleading tendency in certain parts of ourfield. For example, it mitigates against polarizing acting and thinking or thinking and feeling, body and mind, or concrete and abstract. It is not simply a matter of action vs. thinking or sensation vs. feeling vs. thinking, and the like. It is more a matter of how any capacity is being used.”

“An amazing tap dancer has alpha feet, a pianist has alpha hands, an analyst has alpha intuition at times. Of course, things are in movement, subject to change. A baseball player makes an alpha catch one day, and on another he is leaden and unable to move. Life is uneven. A pianist with great alpha hands and a heart for music may be unable to love a person – music reaches alpha function but people remain beta objects. Things get complicated. Often sensations are said to be examples of beta elements, but again it is a matter of functioning and use. Logical processes can be used in anti-alpha ways and sensations can throb with alpha life. Symbols can be used to destroy the alpha function they rest on, while sensations can stimulate growth (the writer of the Song of Solomon was a sensation genius). There are those who think abstractly but stupidly, those who think concretely but intelligently. What capacity and what portion of reality are involved is less important than how the capacity is being enlisted to light up the world” (A Little Psychic Music, On Sensitivity, 2004).


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