Bion's infant: How he learns to think his thoughts

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Waterloo]On: 30 October 2014, At: 12:02Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

    Infant Observation:International Journal ofInfant Observation and ItsApplicationsPublication details, including instructions forauthors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/riob20

    Bion's infant: How he learns tothink his thoughtsNancy H. WolfPublished online: 04 Feb 2008.

    To cite this article: Nancy H. Wolf (2003) Bion's infant: How he learns to think histhoughts, Infant Observation: International Journal of Infant Observation and ItsApplications, 6:1, 10-24, DOI: 10.1080/13698030308401684

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13698030308401684

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  • Bions Infant How He Learns to Think His Thoughts

    Nancy H. Wolf

    y thinlung on Bion and the infant began when I was invited to speak to The New York Freudian Societys Infancy and M Toddler Program about Bions understanding of prenatal

    life and infancy. The Infancy Toddler Program knew of my interest in Bion through a paper I had written and presented on reverie; their request gave me the opportunity to investigate Bion anew in regard to his specific writings on infancy. My initial interest in Bion was sparked by Thomas Ogdens writings on both Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion. I was particularly interested in Ogdens account of Bions extension of Kleins concept of projective identification. Bions idea that projective identifi- cation is the earliest form of thinking seemed potentially useful in my work with patients who used language less symbolically or not at all. The Bion Conference in California in February of 2002 occurred after my talk with the candidates; the conferences focus on the prenatal mind was enormously provocative and helpful to me in elaborating the thinking begun with the candidates in the New York Freudian Society Infancy and Toddler Program, and in its application to my own clinical work.

    Bions infant is a theoretical one; Bion has not observed and studied the infant a s Daniel Stern nor has he treated the infant as Melanie Klein or Margaret Mahler or Donald Winnicott have. Bion knows of infancy through speculative imagination and reconstruction. Bion supposes that intrauterine life exposes the foetus to experience that is repstered. These experiences or impingements can be considered as a kind of thought or trace thought. Bion wonders what the infant does with his thoughts, how he makes sense of them. The developmental task before

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  • Bions Infant

    the infant is to acquire the capacity to think his thoughts; central to this task is the communication of these thoughts to another. I intend to discuss Bions interest in intra-uterine life and infancy as opportunities to examine archaic levels of thought and to study the importance of projec- tive identification for finding means to communicate these thoughts, making them available for thinking. I will show how his understandings can contribute to both adult and child treatment.

    I am an adult psychoanalyst so when I wish to illustrate how Bions theories apply to infants, I will cite clinical moments from the work of the Swedish psychoanalyst, Johan Norman. I will begin, however, with a clinical moment in my practice. My way of listening and containing the analysands communications and my interventions owe much to my understanding of Bion and his thinhng about comprehending archaic levels of the mind.

    My patient is a 30-year-old woman whom I have been seeing for three years four times a week. This session led me to contextualise a particular state of self representation that was more experienced than represented. It was not the first time we encountered her powerful conviction that something was very wrong with her, but that conviction was forcefully alive in this session. A particular event in her personal life meant that she had to face a failure in a relationship and speak with her friend about it. She began by telling me that she was angry with herself all day and at other people who got in her way. I responded by recalling with her how any difficulty in her life resulted in her attacking herself. She agreed, but only seemed partially able to use my intervention for reflection; she mostly maintained her conviction that difficulties meant impairments in her. Then she continued to tell me that a recent job appointment might interrupt our meeting schedule temporarily. She felt that niy lack of response indicated a too willing acceptance of her absence. We thought about this together and then Something shifted in the session. It shifted without my fully understanding why, though in retrospect it may have been that she felt that I wanted to get rid of her and nothing in our inter- change had altered her belief.

    The shift lay in the character of the communication. Her words carried an emotional force that seemed to be the essence of the commu- nication. She began to tell me of her childhood wishes to hurt other chil- dren and that she in fact had acted on them. This was information I had not heard about before, and my usual way of working would have been to ask more about this recollection. But it felt less like a communication to think about and more like an assault. In retrospect, I can gather it up as an attempt to attack me in retaliation for my non response to her

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  • The International Journal of Infant Observation

    possible interruption, as an attempt to disturb me with this disturbing part of her self, as a more powerfully direct way to prove to me that she was flawed, and to explain it if I dared. This was an emotional commu- nication that seemed less about recollection or memory and more about placing something powerful in the room; maybe this something was about who was dangerous to whom, me the abandoner or she the one awful enough to need to be forever abandoned. The most I could venture to address this was to ask her with whom she was angry. She mumbled something, then said maybe herself. She began to speak of how ugly she was. Moving inore into my usual frame, I asked her how she was ugly? In response, her tone and use of language shifted again. Here I think the shift in her level of communication resulted from my having been able to contain her projections. She began speaking to me as her analyst, not as the container for her projections. She said as I have told you before, it is not something I can see; its more a feeling . . . like being deformed. And slowly I had room to think and my thought was about an infant being given away and what might be registered emotion- ally with such an abandonment. Her mother had placed her in an orphanage shortly after her birth.

    In this clinical moment, Bions ideas of archaic levels of thought and of the use of projective identification in communicating and deciphering those thoughts were all somewhere in my mind. My patient and I had traversed a difficult moment which forced us both to be in contact with painful and troubling parts of her. It seems to me that Bions idea of stray thoughts without a thinker fits both myself and my patient in this session. My patients conviction that she was dangerous may be a stray thought from an archaic Ievel of experience which she needs to engender in another in order for her to begin to think about it. Bion has a theory as to how this thinking process develops and it is this developmental process to which I turn.

    Stray thoughts Bion writes of something he labels stray thoughts (1977). He proposes that we can separate thoughts from the thinking of those thoughts. This separation results in attention to the raw materials of thinking. He assumes that there are proto ideas, primordial ideas and feelings, that there is the existence of thoughts without a thinker (1980). Bion writes: If a thought without a thinker comes along, it may be what is a stray thought, or it could be a thought with the owners name and address upon it, or it could be a wild thought. The problem, should such a thought come along, is what to do with it (1977):

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  • Bions Infant

    The worst of not being a mathematician or an artist is that I am very much in the position of the infant or the foetus, which I imagine hasnt a great deal to communicate. I suppose the infant might want to communicate that it is either lonely or hungry. And I in this peculiar world in which I now find myself am both in need of nourishment and of somebody with whom to communicate, not because I have an awful lot to say, but because I find myself in the state of mind with which I am distressingly familiar- the state of mind in which I can only say I am abysmally, literally and metaphorically ignorant. That is why it is a matter of some urgency to me to find some sort of network in which I can catch any thoughts that are available . . . (1977).

    The above passage reflects Bions belief that there is continuity between intrauterine existence and infancy (1989). It also allows him to employ the foetus and infant as clear examples of the immaturity of the thinking process. Both the foetus and the infant experience and register basic need states such as hunger and aloneness, perhaps maternal distress or comfort, but cannot think about them. The remnants of the experience linger. Christopher Bollass concept of the unthought known may capture this as well, but for Bion it would read thought without a thinker. The question Bion poses is how do these thoughts find an address, a home, so that they reside rather than plague, confuse, or disturb. My patients thought-feeling about her malformation could be the way she processed early experience of separation and loss.

    Bions suggests that even in utero, the foetus experiences and regsters experience. Because his infant is a theoretical one, Bion relies on what he calls speculative imagination. In his NY lectures to IPTAR in 1977, he asks the audience to employ speculative imagination, to imagine themselves in a primitive state of awareness. H e continues that it is:

    worth labelling as probable . . . that even in the womb a creature becomes aware of certain things which are not self. For example, I could suggest to you here, Dont lets say a thing; lets shut the windows, make this place as silent as we can. What do we hear? If that could be carried out as an experiment then we could hear our heartbeat, the surge of blood in the arteries. It is possible that the foetus is aware of primordial sight, of light and can much c-llslike these impingements of experiences which seem to come from outer space . . . sensations of light, sensations of noise ... also from somewhere that may appear internal . . , the heartbeat, the blood rushing through the arteries. That might all be so intolerable that the foetus would to use our conscious

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    terminology forget it, get rid of it. Then the infant is born, but this inheritance of enormous intelligence still survives (1980).

    Bion has an idea that there is an inaccessible state of mind which is neither conscious nor unconscious. Inaccessible does not mean non-exis- tent. Bion likens it to our dreaming experience, an experience that we can report on retrospectively because we awaken with traces from it. Though Bion assumes that the lack of some kind of container for the experience means that the foetus gets rid of it as soon as it can (1977), Bion thinks that the vestige remains . . . has a power like that of a wound which festers; the evacuated has to be kept evacuated . . . (1980). A hypo- thetical example Bion gives of such an evacuated thought which lingers is a migraine headache which may be the effect of light patterns from pre-natal levels of mind (1989). This is a conjecture for Bion, useful for exploration.

    Alpha and beta as categories for experience In his attempt to attend to the elements of thinking, Bion creates cate- gories for different kinds of thought. H e begins with something he labels beta and writes of it in Taming Wild Thought:

    The first box I am thinking of is really not suitable for anything as ephemeral as what I usually call a thought, something that is physical; I shall call it a beta-element . . .There is something a bit more sophis- ticated: that is to say a similarly physical creature, hut one that arouses in me primordial thoughts or feelings, something that is a prototype ot a mental reaction. These I shall call alpha elements. I likewise dont know much about them, hut I think I have been in states of mind in which I am aware of their existence. That is to say I have what I call a stomach ache or headache, or I am possibly told that I am extremely restless ...

    He uses colours as analogues and writes:

    when it comes to this sort of thing which I have called a beta element, it gets more difficult . . . Perhaps provisionally it would do to say gross darkness which is different from darkness which has a certain amount of light in it;...