Bion and the Group

by James Telfer


There is one lamp in this house, when it shines I can see a group together everywhere. Bb Fighani, circa 1515, Quoted by Jahangir

Bions formal work on groups started in 1940 when he was a military psychiatrist. Beginning with intensely pragmatic exercises, Bion developed an approach to groups that led to the radical theories outlined in his collection of essays Experiences in Groups published in 1961.

Bions methods of investigation into groups were seminal in military psychiatry, group psychotherapy, the development of therapeutic communities, and applications to education, community mental health, management, encounter group movements, rehabilitation programmes and training courses.

Bion became a psychoanalyst of individuals only, not of groups, after 1948. But his engagement with groups never ceased. The idea of a group is implicit in all his later work. It is explicit in concepts he used such as common sense, the mystic and the establishment. He described the analyst-patient dyad as a group of two. A group made up of parts of himself is portrayed in his final work A Memoir of the Future.

Bion believed that the group was indispensible:

I consider that group mental life is essential to the full life of the individual, quite apart from any temporary or specific need, and that satisfaction of this need has to be sought through membership of a group. (1961, p54)

The groups Bion belonged to from infancy were especially powerful and destroyed individuals who opposed their purpose. Bion knew the power of the group over a persons mind, and also how it to stand separate and alone even while in the group, at whatever risk, in order to preserve sanity.

The Family Group

Wilfred was the first born child (1897) of a family in India. Their home was Mathura, an ancient city with legendary associations with Krishna, Buddhism and later the syncretism of vedantist and sufi mysticism.

His father was an irrigation engineer in one of the vast and intricate networks of canals the British Civil Service were building in Northwest India, then one of the largest engineering projects in the world, a work group synergistic with the railways, transforming and enriching the life of millions.

The Bion family was a hybrid of India and England neither fully one nor the other, exiles from both groups. The father who had hunted tigers with King George  and the emotionally distant mother seemed more English than the English in their manners and talk but could only really belong in India. This split between two worlds became a pattern in Bions life which inspired his group theory. He was always in a group, but never of a group. He became an exile to himself, an observer of his own mind.

He never returned to India after being sent to boarding school in England at eight years of age. He had planned to visit Bombay in 1979 but died 2 months before the arrival date. Maybe he had planned to die in his native land. He was 82.


After he was left in a Prep school in England, Wilfred was not to see his mother again for three years, and when he did, he failed to recognise her. (F. Bion 1995).

The new boy was bullied and shamed as was the custom in such schools. Wilfred did not indentify with the aggressor and was never a bully himself. At the age of 8, he knew the feelings of other bereft boys.

The function of such exclusively male schools was not primarily didactic. It was to inculcate the mores of the male upper middle class and equip boys for life membership of that group. It gave Bion the correct way of speaking and a bearing that could be recognized instantly as that of a member of the Establishment, equipped for leadership.

Sport was vital to Bion. Bion recollected games were substituted for sex (1982, p42). And surely for aggression. Bion became intensely groupish perhaps in reaction formation to an inner sense of exile. At senior school Bion became excellent at all games, and a group leader: captain of the first fifteen, captain of the swimming team, aspired to become an International at University.

But the final years of school replaced sport with war. The great war was the group activity to end all groups.

War groups

Bion joined the Tank corps a month before the first tank was operational. The tank he saw reminded him of the brutal mechanisms of tiger traps his father had shown him as a child near Gwalior. The brutality of the tank is a theme in his war memoirs. He comments on a photograph of a tank hit by shell, its track blown off, in mud:

Note how it has sunk into the ground.

The holes are very small as the shell has gone in and burst inside. The worst of it was that the splinters would usually kill or wound the crew and set the tank alight. The wounded often couldnt get out and were simply burned to death. The petrol could catch at once and then the oil. After that the ammunition kept on going up, as the sides were just honeycombed with it. ( War Memoirs1997, pp 34-35)

The tank provided many metaphors for his later work, not least that of the container.

Kay Souter (2009) shows how many of his descriptions of psychic experience are reminiscent of the Western Front for example: the patient feels surrounded by minute links, which being impregnated now with cruelty, link objects together cruelly (Bion 1993, p50).

Between the vivid details of metal, mud and explosives Bion speaks warmly of his men. His wife Francesca comments on this theme in his war diaries: the capacity for love that can sometimes be found in group behaviour appears later in Bions work under the guise of the terms compassion (1992, p123) and concern (1992, p247-248) and his experience of it is the mental humus from which the theories of L, H & K links were to grow. (1962).

Bion later reconfigured Kleins concepts of projective identification to show that the baby or the mentally ill person requires the presence of another mind to think. He had learnt from his combat experience what happens to the mind when the group is shattered, when there is no one to think with. The implied opposite to this catastrophe is the mothers reverie that receives the projections, metabolising them to thought.

Bion processed his war experiences for the rest of his life, often using them as metaphors. There is an instance of these war images being processed in Bions concept of Transformation. He gives as an example a painter depicting a field of poppies on canvas. To discern that the landscape and the canvas, or indeed a photograph or a poem about the scene refer to the same object is the process of transformation in the mind. All these things are different and yet the same simultaneously. To apprehend the sameness and the difference at once is to use binocular vision. Then it is possible to discern a common denominator which Bion termed invariant. The common denominator of all common denominators is ultimate reality. But I think that this example is also of a deeper transformation: of grief in Bions life and mind. The poppies are those of Flanders Fields, a group of Bions lost dead, gone to flowers.

Theory and Practice between the Wars

After the war Bion read history at Oxford, studied French Literature at Poitiers, made an abortive return to teaching at his old school, then decided on a career in psychiatry.

He studied medicine at University College London, qualified 6 years later (1930) planning all along to be a psychoanalyst. He won a gold medal for surgery.

He worked with William Trotter, a neurosurgeon, who became a role model in the way he listened to patients. Trotter listened with unassumed interest, as if the patients contributions flowed from the fount of knowledge itself.

In 1916 Trotter had written a best-seller: The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War which was published in 1920. Trotter postulated that human gregariousness is an instinct. Freud, 1921, objected to this and said Let us venture then to correct Trotters pronouncement that man is a herd animal and assert that he is a horde animal, an individual creature in a horde led by a chief. Freud had stated that each individual is a component part of numerous groups, he is bound by ties of identification in many directions, and he had built up his ego ideal on the most various models.

Bion endorsed Freuds view rather than that of Trotter. It is probable that his admiration for Trotter and the advocacy for Freud by Dr Hadfield, a tutor at University College, who became Bions therapist, led to his engagement with the theory of groups. But unlike Freud, Trotter and Hadfield, Bion would speak from his own lived experiences in groups, rather than from a scholarly viewpoint.

Bion joined the Tavistock Clinic in 1932 and the subgroup trained by Hadfield. Anticipating Bowlby and attachment theory, Hadfield added a third drive, a drive to dependence, to Freuds dual drive theory of sex and aggression. (Blandonu, 1994, p43). In this way he anticipated Bions 3 basic assumption groups.

Bion was analysed by John Rickman 1937-1939. Rickman had been analysed by Freud 1920-1924, by Ferenczi and then with Melanie Klein 1934-1940. He was eminent in the British Psychoanalytical Society. He published articles on groups and psychosis.

Rickman was remarkable for his independent thinking. In World War I he had been a conscientious objector, descended from a long line of Quakers. He had volunteered for ambulance work in Russia. Unlike most analysts he was not an atheist and indeed presented a paper The Need for a Belief in God in 1938 in which he discussed Quaker faith in terms of Melanie Kleins theory of early object relationships.

The Quaker group was an unacknowledged model of the small groups Rickman and Bion later developed. Their use of silence, the freedom to speak when one chose, and the equality of all members were Rickmans legacies.

In the three years of analysis with Rickman, Bion became independent in his thinking from Hadfield, married an accomplished and beautiful woman, published his first paper and prepared the ground for his later analysis with Melanie Klein.

Rickmans analysis of Bion terminated with the advent of World War II: both men then left the Tavistock to join the Army Medical Corps and worked together in Military Psychiatry.

Military Psychiatry: The idea of a therapeutic community

Bion was dismayed by the incompetence of the treatment of shell shock, traumatic stress disorders. He had seen these in the First World War and suffered from one himself. In 1940 he observed that in a hospital the insecurity of the patients was perpetuated by the doctors and the medical institution.

Bion and Rickman inspected the military psychiatric hospital at Wharncliffe, Sheffield. Their memorandum contained a prospectus for what later was termed a therapeutic community. Such a proposal was unprecedented: that the hospital would develop a group programme operated by the patients. They would work together on equal terms, giving mutual aid to recover their health.

The actual process of creating a communal life and of accepting responsibility for it was to be the therapeutic agency.

It was to be three years before these proposals were implemented, but the effects of these proposals were to transform mental health for a generation.

Leaderless Groups

After the fall of France in May 1940, the British army was desperately short of officers. Many soldiers would not put themselves forward. The failure rate in officer training units constituted a crisis. There was a ponderous selection process of military exercises, military and psychiatric screening interviews, batteries of psychological tests and then multidisciplinary team meetings to decide who would pass or fail. This took 2 days for 32 men.

Bion proposed an alternative that would take 2 hours. This was his revolutionary method of a leaderless group. As in his memorandum proposing a therapeutic community, a democratic principle was applied. After mutual introductions, as in a Quaker meeting, a free group discussion on a subject chosen by the group, the men now out of doors would face a rapid succession of military problems, spontaneous situations.

Bions experiences under fire had taught him the requirements for thinking and leading others in combat. He assessed these with the group task.

The men were asked to solve a practical problem, for example to build a bridge, and given materials to do so as a team. The test was not the quality of the bridge but the quality of interactions among members of the team.

Bion wrote of this in 1946:

It was the duty of the observing officers to watch how any given man was reconciling his personal ambition, hopes and fears with the requirements exacted by the group for its success.

It is significant that this was an exercise in observation, analogous to the analytic session, requiring abstinence from the observing officer.

Bions comments apply to psychoanalytic method:

Nearly all mistakes arise through failure to keep the selecting officers mindful, throughout all the tests, of the very simple basic principles mentioned above. Either officers tend to interfere, and so distort the field, or else they watch how well the group does any given task. It is important to insist that the active task of the test is merely a cloak of invisibility intended to explain, and therefore explain away, the presence of the testing officers. It is not the artificial test, but the real life situation that has to be watched, that is, the way in which a mans capacity for personal relationships stands up under the strain of his own and other mens fear of failure and dislikes for personal success.

He summarized the core quality sought in the candidates:

if a man cannot be the friend of his friends, he cannot be the enemy of his enemies (1948, p48). In this context the enemy was not only the Nazis, but mental illness itself.

Bions method of testing and team building is now commonplace in the services, in business and education, management and in the development of many community services.


Why was Bion so democratic, in sharp contrast to the elitist hierarchical groups he had known all his life? Many possible explanations exist his analysis with Rickman, egalitarian Quaker values, team spirit, his abhorrence of bullying, his keen interest in the Indian self rule movement, the model of Ghandis satrigraha, his experiences of university life, the model of learning from patients set by Trotter.

But I think there is another, simpler explanation. Bions belief that truth is necessary for the health of the mind explains his application of democratic process. He had learnt from his own mortal danger and from loss that the health of the group depends on truth, not lies. He had witnessed the destruction caused by Establishment lies in the Great War. To rely on authority to tell you the way things are and who you are is to give the mind over to lies. Freedom to think together requires action: democracy in real life situations.

Years later Bion developed an analytic concept of common sense which is in conflict with megalomaniac narcissism and psychotic processes within the group and individual. The analyst must..possess a social consciousness of a very high degree common sense must never be allowed to become put it another way, the analyst must never cease, even the midst of his analytic work, to be a member of one or more social groups. (1959, p24).

Northfield and the origins of group therapy.

In 1942 Northfield, near Birmingham, was the largest military psychiatric hospital in Britain, grim, authoritarian and inefficient. Bion and Rickman had requested transfer there to implement a program designed to return disabled soldiers to combat. They published an account of 6 weeks of their medical intervention there in the Lancet in 1943, the Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic (1946)

They attempted to transform the hospital into a therapeutic community with a shared aim to understand and confront neurosis as soldiers would their enemy. He set out to produce self- respecting men socially adjusted to the community and therefore willing to accept its responsibilities whether in peace or war (1961, p13).

Every man had to participate in a program of group activities. This program was analogous to the analytic frame. The purpose of the frame was to promote the conditions for thinking together. Study of the intra group tensions never ceased the day consisted of 24 hours.

Every man had to be a member of one or more autonomous groups engaged in practical activities such as map reading, carpentry, crafts. These were small groups modelled on the prototype of a therapeutic community set out in the Wharncliffe memorandum of 1940. Any man could form a group (minimum number of members was 3) if he wanted to do so. The alternative to group work was to remain quiet under supervision in the rest room. A 30 minute parade each day allowed the whole group of 100-200 to see themselves together.

In the six weeks of the project, Bion and Rickman showed what was possible. Morale rose. The group method and therapeutic community structure were proven feasible and effective as rehabilitation strategies in themselves. They had demonstrated that the conventional medical psychiatric hospital was obsolete.

The Northfield experiment was ended abruptly by orders from above for reasons never explained. Eric Trist attributes this to a cover up of Bions discovery that a high ranking officer had been embezzling funds. Trist recalls Bions pain and anger. He considered that Bions concern for the truth had caused him to be victimized. Bion would not have been discrete about corruption.

Bion later said:

Any psychiatrist who attempts to make groups study their own tensions, as a therapeutic occupation is in todays conditions stopping a retreat and may as a result be shot at. But he will lose some of his feeling of guilt. (Bion 1946)

Years later Bion was to develop a visual analogue to formally describe the way thinking develops and how ideas are used the grid (1963, 1971). He had this in mind at Northfield. The layout of the training block was in fact the blue print for the grid, a living working model of it. He describes the organisation of the block as if it were a framework enclosed within transparent walls. Inside this space the patient would be admitted at one point, and activities within that space could be so organized that he could move freely in any direction as a result, his behaviour could be trusted to give a fair indication of his effective will and aims(Bion 1966, pp14-15).

Therapeutic Community

Bions Northfield experiment set off a chain reaction which continues. (Harrison T. 2000).

The term Therapeutic Community was first applied to a second experiment in Rehabilitation Methods at Northfield undertaken by Harold Bridger. This was a program based on small groups developed from Bions original work which proved effective in rehabilitation. Stating at Northfield Michael Foulkes inaugurated group psychoanalytic therapy. Tom Main there and thereafter developed the therapeutic community as an alternative to the old style mental hospital. Psychiatric hospitals world wide were reformed using these principles. These became standard forms in mental health services in the US, UK and Australia after the war and elements remain so in hospitals and community mental health to this day.

Civil Resettlement Units

The final projects of British military psychiatry in World War Two were civil resettlement units (CRUs). Bion himself individually interviewed 400 officers who had been prisoners of the Germans in North Africa. Repatriated soldiers were resident for a month and occupied using groups. A large portion of the staff were ATS (women). The CRU was an open system and worked with industrial firms to implement rehabilitation projects. Bion hoped to engage a variety of groups in the community as a whole. Bion considered the whole community was responsible for the health of all its members. This was a prototype of community psychiatry as distinct from psychiatry in the community.

From Bion also the concept of life planning, a prototype of life coaching, was introduced to the rehabilitation of soldiers.

An evaluation of this scheme at follow up (a controlled study 1947) found that repatriates who attended CRUs had better outcomes in adaption to civilian life, in terms of 15 major life roles. A further study showed that a number of CRU cases made an adjustment well above the norm for the control group. The mutual reinforcement of social therapy with group psychotherapy allowed men to function at a higher level than their accustomed norm. This was the first hard empirical evidence of the effectiveness of Bions methods pioneered at Northfield, (Curle & Trist, 1947). It became a prototype for many rehabilitation programmes.

Bions war ended with tragedy in 1944. His wife died of a pulmonary embolism 6 days after delivering their daughter, Parthenope. Bion was recalled from Normandy where he had been authorized to apply his group methods as close to the units engaged with the enemy as possible. This model of treatment would be the standard in later wars. It is a model adopted by community mental health internationally as an alternative to both hospital admission and individual psychotherapy.

Tavistock Groups

In 1948 The Professional Committee of the Tavistock asked Bion to establish group therapy at the clinic. He started a range of groups, including a staff group for administrators, a students group, and a group for therapists like those later developed by Michael Balint. Bion hoped to apply his group methods of observation and understanding to industry and started meetings of senior managers in industry. He conducted therapy groups twice a week with patients 8 to a group. These appear to be his first groups with women parallel to a shift in Bion who was now a widower, father of a daughter and analysand of Melanie Klein.

The Tavistock Institutional Event had a prototype in the big groups at Northfield and the methods used in the new therapeutic community. The task is the here and now study of the relatedness within the framework of the total conference as a institution and the fantasies about it (Guerica 1979). This model has been adopted by a bewildering array of organisations: industrial groups, the encounter group movement, psychotherapy organisations, rehabilitation of addicts, even cults and radical political groups. It remains an excellent method of elucidating organisational culture.

The Decline of Group Therapy

Bion put up a notice at Tavistock:

You can have group treatment now or you can wait a year (or more) and have individual treatment. (Trist, 1985)

Those days when it seemed that group psychotherapy would replace individual psychotherapy seem far away now.

The efflorescence of research into groups in the USA and Britain in the 1960s subsided. It is hard to explain why. Maybe a lack of empirical evidence. There is good empirical evidence of the effectiveness of individual psychoanalytic psychotherapy (Shedler 2010) but relatively little evidence for group psychotherapy as a single treatment modality.

Bions Method in Groups

Bions method was the analysts inner action in maintaining a receptive and reflective state of mind in the face of inputs of whatever kind from anywhere. This is thinking under fire. He later described the state of mind as reverie, relating it to Freuds evenly suspended attention, abstinence, and Keats concept of negative capability. He developed the discipline of no memory, no desire which his daughter Parthenope thought arose from his childhood intuition of Indian culture.

Melanie Kleins concept of projective identification was well known to Bion from her published work and from John Rickman before Bion began his work with groups. After World War II Bions analysis with Klein made the understanding real. He developed a faculty for receiving and recognising projective activity which was extraordinary. His method of observing groups may be summarized as Projection meets Reverie.

Bions Interpretations

Bions practice was to direct interpretations to the group as he experienced the phenomena of the group, here and now. He rarely addressed individuals.

Here he had gone beyond Kleins and Freuds concept of projective activity as a defensive evacuation. He used it that is the countertransference, as clinical data, as a potentially meaningful communication made to him. He would process it into thought expressed in common sense language. He aimed to make the unconscious conscious.

Bions Style

Trist describes Bion in a Tavistock group; detached yet warm, utterly imperturbable. He gave rise to feelings of immense security. Bions talk, always to the group, was minimalistic, in contrast to many of his writings. In the group he expressed himself in direct, concise language that everyone could understand. But he would not say anything if he reckoned others could work it out for themselves.

Bion gave an example of how he would talk to the group, not to the individual:

A woman in the group (of six) probably suffered from a social phobia. She described fears of choking in restaurants, of recent shame when she sat near an attractive woman. About half the group indicated, by innuendo, that they didnt feel like that; the rest were indifferent.

Bion states that in an individual analysis the possible interpretations he could make to the woman did not apply to the group. It follows from this model that the behaviour of individuals in a group cannot be understood from working with an individual 1:1. What he said to the group was that the womans difficulty was theirs: In avoiding what they had in common with this womans predicament they had made themselves superior to her. This inhibited any other member to admit any problem because they would then be shamed.

Bion was uncompromising in his focus on the group mentality, not the individual person. Bion tells us that the woman got no help because, for her, group treatment was the wrong treatment. What she got was .a reinforcement of feelings of loneliness and lack of worth. (1961, p182)

Bion has been criticized as insensitive for his unrelenting focus on the group mentality (Pines, Sutherland). Joan and Neville Symington, in their study of the Clinical Thinking of Bion, differ from the critics. They note Bion believed the division between individual psychology and social psychology is an illusion. He believed what he felt in himself was shared by the group. His group interpretation made this conscious and strengthened each individual in the group.

The Theory of Groups: The Work Group

A group mentality constantly worked to subvert work, but under certain condition could revitalize it. His opus Experiences in Groups (1961) is his first published account of his understanding of these processes. It made his reputation.

Bion knew from practical experience how to create the conditions that allowed a group to cooperate freely in a shared project. When a group does this it has a sophisticated rational structure, uses common sense and empirical methods, and is, broadly speaking, scientific in its approach to the unknown. It measures the passing of time. It knows the inevitability of death. It gets things done. It tolerates the individual and works with whole objects. The notion of such a work group parallels that of the Ego described by Freud. All groups, to live in the real world, have the attributes of a work group. But Bion had witnessed catastrophic disruptions of work groups, in his childhood development, in the wars, in his psychiatric career, in his own mind. He observed a constant subversion of the work group due to a hidden group mentality antithetical to learning from experience.

Basic Assumption Groups

From his observations of interactions between members of a group and most particularly from his awareness of the pressures put in to him from an anonymous unanimous group mentality, Bion was able to describe basic assumptions of the group mentality.

These basic assumptions of avoidance and denial of reality are not simply internal working models, schemas, fantasies or part-object relations because they are not only intra psychic, they are inter psychic. He called them basic because they seemed to be primitive, unlearned or instinctive, unmodified since infancy.

Basic assumptions, b As, are like a pseudologia phantastica, a myth in a dissociated as if world. They are similar to Freuds primal phantasies as they are presubjective, universal across cultures and possibly a genetically transmitted inheritance. They have a resonance with Jungs archetypes of the collective unconscious, also interpsychic.

Bion unlike Jung, would insist on their infantile nature and relate them to Melanie Kleins work. But unlike Freud, Klein or Jung, Bion regarded the b As as serving the particular function of making individuals into a group.

He found three assumptions: of dependence, of fight / flight, of pairing. Only one will operate the group at any one time. These assumptions are strategies of the avoidance of reality with all its pain, loss, uncertainty and frustration. They are above all answers to the question: what makes us a group? The work group would say: we are a group united in a common project which will change the real world.

The dependent assumption groups answer is we have the same leader. The leader will provide all to the group. Bion, fantasized as a guru, was often on the receiving end of this as transference. The leader may not necessarily be a person, but an ideology, a drug, an idol, or the minutes of last meeting. The dependent bA resorts to dogmatic documents, bible making, when threatened with an idea which would lead to the development of distinct individuals within the group.

The fight/flight group bA is that the group exists because it has a common enemy. This paradigm was exemplified by Bions experiences in the great war. The enemy in peacetime was often work, or it could be the ailment, or a scapegoat.

The pair group is a get together with a coupling agenda. It acts as if the coupling will give rise to a new beginning, someone or something that will redeem the group in some quasi utopian future. In the extreme this is the messianic hope. Bion puts this with characteristic understatement as the coming season will be more agreeable. The analytic dyad is often drawn into the assumptions of a pair group which will engender the hope laden analytic baby.

The work group is always inspired by more that the task at hand. At its most powerful it is informed by the basic assumption group, and a compromise formation results. Bion gives examples of specialized work groups: the Church (dependent), the Army, (fight/flight) the aristocracy and the analytic dyad (pairing). These groups are robust because they hybridize just one bA with a work group.

Bion connected his theories with those of Melanie Klein, equating the discoveries she had made in observing childrens play with his of groups. Basic assumption methods are characteristic of the paranoid schizoid position. The implication is that reaching the depressive position is a prerequisite of the work group and for the survival of the individual within the group.

Bion hoped to find more than three assumptions. (Subsequent psychoanalysts described others). Bion found that they occur in succession and alternation within every group. They are mutually exclusive and unmodifiable by experience. They have a psychotic quality and are antithetical to understanding. Bion later described the mentality as:

a protective coat of lies, subterfuge, evasion and hallucination. The psychotic part of the personality and the bA groups challenge the belief that the analyst and analysand can survive the loss of their illusions.

The basic assumptions are always within all of us, usually unconscious. Intra group tensions bring them into the light of day. They become obvious as enactments when people naturally come together as they necessarily do to work, especially when they share the same physical space and thus can communicate non verbally.

Protomental States and Beta Elements

There is a problem of what is going on when a basic assumption is not enacted socially because it is inhibited by the other assumptions and by the work group.

Bion solved this problem by postulating a proto mental state, an undifferentiated precursor to all physical and psychological structures. The bA groups revert to this unless evoked and facilitated to social expression.

In his later writing the protomental system is replaced as a term by

β elements which are the earliest matrix from what from what thoughts can be supposed to arise (Bion 1963)

Bion proposed a psychosomatic theory which is highly speculative.

- that certain illnesses may be group diseases, the somatic expression of the basic assumptions that are not processed into interpsychic experience. Without the presence of another mind, the basic assumptions may be realized as illness.

The dynamics of the physical illness are the speech of that basic assumption which is not experienced in awareness between people, for example: chronic fatigue - dependency. Auto immune diseases fight/flight. Neoplasms the pairing group.

This field of psychosomatic inquiry has not been much researched and needs a methodology at present undiscovered in epidemiology.

Our everyday groups now include the internet and social media. We may apply Bions understanding to these networks of disembodied signals. We may anticipate adverse psychosomatic consequences for our embodied selves of living in cyberspace rather than in a group with physical proximity. That is the subject for further inquiry and I will not pursue it here.

The Individual and the Group

The basic assumption preserves the group as a unity in ways no task can do. The individual person looses their distinctiveness and their intelligence in the process.

Bion was curious about the link between groupishness and the distinct individual. He describes the individual as a group animal at war, not simply with the group, but at war with himself for being a group animal and at war with the aspects of himself that constitute his groupishness (1961:131).

Bion sought a new answer to the questions: why group? Why do we need each other? The answer was one he had dreamed at the front in World War One: the mind can not work under stress without the presence of another mind. For example, POWS were traumatized by the indifference of their object world, Bion thought. Multiple bereavements, culminating in the death of his wife, then his mother, had challenged his ability to keep thinking and working. His analysis and his groups had sustained him. The herd instinct or a drive to attachment did not explain the occurrence of groups; it was the necessity for thoughts to emerge.

This led to his most radical idea yet: that attachments of all kinds, from the womb through family life, are instances of the link between a containing mind and the raw material of thought. Attachments exist to make that link.

Why do babies need mothers? Bion asked: who or what needs us to need each other and to what end? Bion came to say that the capacity for reverie permits a processing of inputs, recognized and received at a non verbal level. The non verbal quality of these inputs means that the physical nearness of the other is essential for the infant beginning to think.

This is a very different view from attachment as a drive or as a social construct. Attachment and indeed family life and motherhood for Bion are now means to an end, which is always present: the need of thoughts to be known. These thoughts, like Dawkins selfish genes and memes use the mother baby dyad, the family and the group to be realized. The thought is primary, the thinker secondary.

Bion left group work altogether after 1948, perhaps at the prompting of Melanie Klein, maybe from a type of combat fatigue caused by group work.

I guess that his analysis with Melanie Klein addressed the missing femininity in his life. His idea of a container had at first been applied to men only in his all male groups. Imagery for it had been the tigertrap, the tank, the sports team, comradeship. I consider that Melanie Klein, and then his second wife, Francesca, allowed Bion to feminize containment. Then he could use the concept creatively. His publications are the outcome.

Now he was free to concentrate on the analysis of psychotic processes in individuals. His findings on groups became translated into individual terms.

The Intrapsychic Group

Bion looked back on his group work when he was a Kleinian analyst studying psychosis. He stated that individual analysis and group analysis examined the same problem from different perspectives. He used the term vertex for perspective in his analytic work.

The paradoxes of the individual and the group led to his concepts of vertex, reversal of perspective and binocular vision. Bions unique approach to the apparently mutual exclusive categories of the group and the individual was to seek the links between them.

His work with psychosis led him to equate the work group with the non psychotic part of the personality. The psychotic part, equivalent to the basic assumption group, attacks all links and prevents a reversal of perspective. It operates by splitting and projective identification. For the basic assumption group the individual mind and its ability to learn from experience to seek truth is antithetical to the group mentality.

To see both the individual and the group requires a shift in perspectives that Bion called binocular vision. This is also necessary to spot the basic assumption group simultaneous to the work group. Bion regarded this binocular way of observing as a fundamental of psychoanalysis.

Bion gives a nice example of binocular vision in observation in his 1976 paper Emotional Turbulence Instead of listening to music, someone listens to the radio interferences; there is a vast breakthrough of listening with more powerful instruments focussing on the interference: radio astronomy is born.

This analogy could apply to his attention to unconscious and psychotic processes, basic assumptions, while listening to the music of the work group, either within the individual patient or in the group or in of ones own self.

Common sense and Narcissism

Common Sense: this term is developed by Bion to refer to a method of investigation highly developed both in science and psychoanalysis. It means that more than two modalities of perception concur with each other. The emotional counterpart to sense perceptions is the testing of the object by means of different emotions; we have to both love and hate whatever or whoever it is to know the relationship, and to know it is the same object.

Whatever it is that establishes for us an emotional contact with the group has also established a correlation with our senses. (Nebbioso, Petrini 1997)

In Bions clinical diary, Cogitations, common sense is defined socially: it is a group or socially orientated sense whose purposes go beyond the individual. I, as an individual need to consider what the group will accept as reality testing before I can feel that my view has the sanction of my common sense. (Bion, 1958)

Common sense therefore is the sense of our groupishness the groups, pressure on the individual, socialism Bion terms this, or our primary social nature. It includes the ability to see what everyone else sees when subject to the same stimulus and the ability of the individuals capacities to subordinate themselves to the group.

If for some reason the individual lacks these.he has to defend himself against his fear of the group which is known to be indifferent to his fate as an individual by destroying his common sense or sense of group pressure on himself or by destroying his own narcissism.

The extreme case may appear psychotic But this is an appearance the supposedly primary narcissism must be recognized as secondary to a fear of social-ism.

Hatred of common sense may express itself also in anti-social acting out. In analysis it contributes to the danger of murderous attacks on the analyst.

Common sense is the link between our longing to be of a group and our need to be ourselves alone. The analyst is forced to experience the split which the patient himself suffers between his narcissism and his socialism. Analysis observes the attack on common sense as an attack on linking.

There is a possibility of a concordance of emotions and perceptions to the same object. Then we know what it is from different points of view, and thus find constancy in the object. Discerning this concordance approaches the experience of truth. This discernment is the deepest application of Bions observations in groups, later termed becoming O.

The Mystic and the Group

In 1970, his monograph Attention and Interpretation took up from where Experiences in Groups, left off in 1961 and re-examines the incompatibility between individual and group in a new way.

He borrows the term Establishment referring to that body of persons in the state who may be expected usually to exercise power and responsibility. Bion uses it to denote a ruling caste in any group.

The group needs exceptional individuals to grow and prosper, Bion gives mathematicians and scientists like Newton as examples, but also others who have intuitively seen the common denominator between apparently disparate elements. He mentions Isaac Ben Solomon Luria, the 16th Century Kabbalist, and Meister Eckhardt. Bion terms these geniuses or mystics. They bear new ideas, both creative and destructive. They think thoughts that have always been true, like E = mc2, but had not been thought before, wild thoughts. The Establishment makes a framework to contain the explosive force of the new idea. The social framework becomes a metaphor for the frame of psychoanalysis.

The mystic and the group are essential to each other. Bion therefore has to question why they are often mutually destructive.

Bion summarizes this situation:

The function of the group is to produce a genius, the function of the Establishment is to take up and absorb the consequences so that the group is not destroyed. Bions implicit thesis is indeed mystical: that the mind is a group made in order to think, thus to approach an apprehension of truth. The concept of the mystic is a key to Bions later work exploring the relationship or absence of it between the thinker and the thought.

Bions Challenge to the Group

In a seminar in Rome (1977 pp 49-50) Bion invites the seminar group to share their creative (mystic) mind in wild thoughts:

He speaks to the group:

So when I say to you I think somebody else ought to do some talking, however wild the thoughts, however irrational, however unaccepted or unacceptable or unthinkable to the groups or person, I am really expecting you to be courageous. That point is difficult to see, because apparently and factually the circumstances are quite comfortable; it sounds and looks and feels as if it is safe to say what you think.

Bion refers to the reaction of the Establishment (in a society or within ourselves) to the genius as a troublemaker. He then invites the seminar group to think their own thoughts. A long silence followed.

Then Bion says you can hear the clamour yourselves.

And later:

Here, now, dare you express your creation, make it public? At any rate to yourself because you are bound to hear. If you decide to remain silent, then you are also deciding not to say what you could have said; you are bound to regret not having spoken up, and you are bound to regret having been so foolish as to have said what you were thinking.

This call to courage, action and freedom is made to us.


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