Part One: Listening Without Memory, Desire, or Understanding
You don’t get it. Your husband cheated on you when you thought your marriage was fine. Your teenage daughter used to be sweet, but now she says she hates you. You told your wife a hundred times how to load the dishwasher and she still does it wrong. You can’t stop being anxious, even when there’s nothing to be anxious about. You can’t fathom how anyone could vote for that cretin who just got elected. You wonder where we came from, where God went, and what is the meaning of life. These are some of many things you are not likely to comprehend. What do you do with them? How do you wrap your mind around the inexplicable?
This isn’t the first time you felt like this. When you were a baby, you didn’t know what the hell was going on, either. You’d wake up in your crib feeling distressed, but didn’t have a word, any word to describe it. You did the only thing you knew how to do. You cried. Eventually someone came and figured out what was wrong. You learned what that was, not by their words, for you knew no words, but by their actions. Your caretaker sorted things out for you when you couldn’t.
The psychoanalyst, Wilfred Bion studied how we think about things we can’t comprehend. He had a lot to say about it, using terms you may not be familiar with. When I tell you them, you’ll feel a little like that baby. These terms are peculiar. They wouldn’t mean anything to you at first but let me break them down for you. I’ll be like the caretaker.
The things the baby was experiencing when he woke up were beta elements, raw sense-impressions and emotional data. When the caretaker heard the baby, she immediately went into alpha function, that is, she reassured the child everything will be OK, determined what was wrong, and took action. By doing so, she taught the baby what was wrong. These are the alpha elements. It’s like when you eat some food. The raw food is beta, the enzymes that digest it are alpha, and the process of digestion is the alpha function. The caretaker is like the stomach. She contains the raw beta.
The same goes with the other examples. Your teenage daughter just shouted that she hates you, stomped up to her room, and slammed the door. You wondered, who was that? That can’t be my daughter. You felt all sorts of things in your body, ranging from a sick stomach and a heavy heart to rage. That’s your beta elements.
What can you do with undigested beta elements? It’d be nice if someone could come by and be perform the alpha function, but there’s not always someone around and they don’t all do a good alpha function. Let’s see what makes a good container to digest your beta. It’ll have to be someone who can digest it.
Bion was a battlefield tank commander in World War I. His soldiers were subject to all the risks and terrors of that terrible war. That was their beta. Being on the battlefield, he experienced it all, too, but he had the responsibility of command. He found a way to contain his own beta by remembering the whole battalion was counting on them. This duty was his alpha. So, he contained his own terror. When his soldiers looked to him and saw he was brave, they knew they could be brave, also. He was subject to the same beta as they and pushed onward, anyway. He contained their terror, too. He got decorated for his bravery and the bravery he inspired in others.
The first requirement of a good container, someone to perform the alpha function, is they are subject to the beta but have already contained it. If your wife had been standing right there when your daughter stormed off or had already been on the receiving end of her wrath, she would be just like the battlefield commander who’s at your side in the battle. She could be calm if she worked through her beta; and if she’s calm, you can be calm.
But if she has never seen this side of your daughter before, you’ll have to describe it when your wife gets home. The way she takes in this information is crucial, and it will determine whether she can perform the alpha function. A lot of people can’t take beta elements. No one likes to feel that way. They’ll blame you for bringing beta elements into their lives and refuse to hear about it. They’ll get rid of the beta elements by offering hasty solutions. It’s not enough for your wife just to know what happened, she must feel what happened before she can help you. It’s not enough for her just to feel it, she must show to you she feels it. That’s where empathy and the display of empathy comes in.
As a therapist, I’m often called upon to be a container of my client’s beta elements and expected to perform the alpha function. I wasn’t there when the thing happened to my client, but they’re telling me the story. I have the responsibility to heal, so I can’t turn away. Seldom have I experienced exactly the same thing as they, so I must rely on empathy. I can’t pretend I understand or utter some empty, soothing words, for they’ll see right through them. They’ll know the empathy is fake if I try to perform it without feeling some of the beta, too.
The process of transferring beta elements from one person to another who has no reason to feel them is called projective identification. After Bion died in 1979, we discovered mirror neurons, brain cells that fire the same no matter whether I’m feeling something myself or observing my client feeling the same thing. We think this is how one person obtains information about how another is feeling. When I observe someone in rage, my blood boils a little. Just a little. That’s how I know I’m dealing with rage. I identify with the projection. When the caretaker of the infant hears the cries coming from the crib, she feels a little distressed, herself. It shows on her face when she picked the child up, sooths it, and says it’ll be all right.
At this point it would be good for your wife to check if she’s on track. She should imagine how she’d feel if she was you, name that feeling, and say something like, you must be feeling shocked, hurt, angry, sad, or whatever it is. If you agree, then she already succeeded in processing most of the beta into alpha. She named it.
Naming it is crucial in performing the alpha function. You can think of alpha as a place to put the beta. She’s putting it into a box and slapping a label on it. Containing it. Here’s the thing though. The beta must fit in the box. There can’t be any parts spilling out, or you will not accept her alpha.
Bion had some surprising advice for people performing the alpha function for others, whether they be caretakers of babies, therapists listening to their clients, or wives listening to their husbands. “Listen without memory, desire, or understanding.” By memory, he meant treat this like it’s your first time hearing about it. By desire, he meant, don’t steer towards a particular outcome. By understanding, he meant go ahead and be befuddled by the beta. To be in beta means that you’ve never seen this before, don’t know what to do about it, and don’t even know what it is. Don’t tell your soldiers to be brave if you’ve never experienced the battlefield.
If you’re familiar with English literature, Bion’s advice might remind you of something the poet John Keats said that a writer needs to pursue truth and beauty even when it leads to confusion and uncertainty. He called it Negative Capability, “That is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Another writer, TS Eliot, commenting on negative capability said, “The author negates himself, his own desires and passions, in order to present a fully independent character, one with all the uncertainty and mutability of a real person.”
So, for the wife to be able to process her husband’s beta elements with her alpha, she must listen to his story without memory, desire, or understanding. No memory means that, if she had an agenda for her husband, if she’s been trying to get him to treat his daughter differently, she must set it aside and listen as if she had no memory of it. No desire means she doesn’t have an outcome already in mind before she hears the problem. No understanding means she’s just as surprised by this change in their daughter as he is, she must get rid of the usual way she understands things, so she can get a new understanding. She must negate herself for a moment, so that she can fully understand him. Not everyone can do this all the time, but if she can, then that enables her to receive the beta and process it into alpha.
She doesn’t need to negate herself forever, however. After she’s done taking in everything he has to say and checking with him to see if she’s got it right, she can reach into her own memory, desire, and understanding to bring out anything that’ll be helpful. She’s looking for a box to put his beta in. She already put his feelings into a box and contained them by naming them. Now she must name the problem and contain that.
Your wife might say, it must be your daughter’s hormones that are out of whack, or she’ll refer to pressure she’s getting in school, a boyfriend who just dumped her, or fears about climate change. She might take the side of your daughter, against you. Taking sides is generally what people do when they don’t want to accept your beta elements, but if she’s already demonstrated she understands your feelings and still takes the other side, then you ought to seriously consider what she has to say.
I name the problem when I give a diagnosis. Sometimes it’s out of the DSM. You can’t get up in the morning because you have depression, you can’t sleep because you just stopped doing drugs, you fly off the handle because of trauma. More often, I have an explanation that’s not the name of a disease. You’re feeling distant from your friend because you haven’t talked to him about how you feel. The client will not believe what I say if I haven’t shown empathy because empathy shows that I understand the problem. In the same way, the caretaker names the problem, when she says the baby has a dirty diaper. In this case, it’s not important what she says because the baby doesn’t understand the words anyway. It’s what she does that’s important. If she changes the dirty diaper, that’s the way she declares her diagnosis.
When the baby wakes up in distress the second time, he’ll begin to use transference to understand what’s happening. He’ll compare the second set of beta elements with the ones before, transfer the earlier instance to the later one, and see how they’re similar and how they’re different. That’s how babies learn what it means to have a dirty diaper and how it differs from being hungry. The baby begins to perform his own alpha functioning.
What do you do if there’s something upsetting you can’t comprehend and there’s no one around to help you contain your beta? You can’t be calling your wife, mother, friends, or therapist all the time. You’ll have to perform your own alpha function. There are three routes to go. First, try to put what you should do about what happened in one of only four boxes. Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. You probably already did it anyway, without even thinking about it. It’s all automatic, an instinctual response to something you don’t understand. You may have already chosen fight and said something like, don’t talk to me like that young lady. Flight seems unnecessary since your daughter already took flight, but you can take flight from your own beta elements by getting a stiff drink. Freeze is what a lot of people do when they’re surprised, so shocked they’re immobilized. The fourth box is Fawn. That means you try to make nice to your daughter and forget she said anything to hurt you.
Fright, flight, freeze, and fawn is a very crude system, but it’s a good emergency protocol. It helps you sort things out a little, at the cost of as many problems as it solves. For one thing, fright, flight, freeze, and fawn can be its own beta element. Take rage, for instance. It’s a variety of fight that has been known to create some new problems. You wouldn’t know what came over you if you flew into a rage in this instance, giving you another inexplicable thing. So, it’s good to have more choices than just the four.
The second method is to match whatever happened to some other occurrence that resembles it. Maybe your teenage daughter never said she hates you, stomped up to her room, and slammed the door before, but she was two years old once, wasn’t she? She must have had the terrible twos. Her temper tantrums, then, may not have been a perfect match, but they’ll be close.
This is transference, another one of those psychoanalytic terms. It’s when you transfer expectations of one to another. There are problems with transference because the new experience may not fit perfectly in the old box, but it’s a start. A child’s temper tantrum at fourteen is different from one at two, but remembering it will help you get by.
You were a teenager once and may have told your father you hated him, stomped off, and slammed the door. Remember what was going on for you then, and you might better understand her now. This is also a use of transference, but take it another step, further. Think about how your father responded and decide if you want to follow his example. This is the third method. What would your role model do and what would they say about it? This is sort of like having that person perform an alpha function for you, except he’s just in your head. You would need to have a simulation of a role model in your brain for such occasions. Fortunately, when it comes to important people in your life, you already have one. Of course, a father’s response now may need to be different from a father’s response when you were young, but it gives you something to build on. Not only can transference help you understand what just happened, it can also give you a fresh perspective on what happened then. You’re finding out what it’s like to be a father whose child says they hate him.
Once you have most of your beta processed into alpha, you should be ready to go talk to your daughter, if she’s ready. You’ll probably find her sobbing on her bed, filled with her own beta. Her beta most likely is what prompted her outburst in the first place. When she said she hates you, that was fight, stomping upstairs was flight, and slamming the door a combination of the two. She’ll spend a few minutes at least telling herself how hateful you are. That’s her trying to pack all her feelings away in a box called, how mean my father is. It explains something to her. There will be some beta left over because not everything fits in that box. A few minutes ago, she was sweet, so she must have liked you then. You might be able to help her with alpha functioning, to the extent you’re able to take the beta she dishes out.
Those are some of the things you can do to help you think about whatever you can’t comprehend. Find a box in your brain to put it, so that it’s manageable. If you can’t do it alone, find someone to help you. Use their mind. Make sure they really get it and try using their box to put it in. But what can you do when it doesn’t all fit? In the second part of this series, I’ll talk about that. Often, it doesn’t all fit. In fact, if you really look at it, it never does; but processing your beta functions into alpha will help you get by.
- Learning from Experience by Wilfred Bion (1962)
- The Clinical Thinking of Wilfred Bion by Joan and Neville Symington (1992)
- Bion and Being: Passion and the Creative Mind by Anne Reiner (2012)
- Explorations in Bion’s “O”: Everything We Know Nothing About Edited by Afsaneh K. Alisobhani and Glenda J. Corstorphine (2019)
- WR Bion’s Theories of Mind: A Contemporary Introduction by Anne Reiner (2023)
 It’ll be posted on this website on 1/12/23.