Cultivation of Alpha Function in the Analytical Field

By Michal Lapinski

Presented to the Bill Blomfield Conference, Melbourne, 16 June 2012

I put down my cup and examine my own mind. It is for it to discover the truth. But how? What an abyss of uncertainty whenever the mind feels that some part of it has strayed beyond its own borders; when it, the seeker, is at once the dark region through which it must go seeking, where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not so far exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.

This is how Marcel Proust introduces us to his Search of Lost Time, his monumental work which bears that tittle and which also is a realisation of such a quest. The reflection I have started with follows on from the now famous scene in which Proust, through the narrator of the novel, describes an extraordinary experience brought about by taste of a little cake - petite madeleine - taken with a cup of tea. The simple sensations trigger off the reverie-like experience which acquires significance of a timeless unity with the essence of existence, of love and of ultimate pleasure.

The narrator queries the nature and the source of his experience, wonders how to apprehend it (apprhander) - in the both senses of the word - how to seize it and capture, and how to grasp it, comprehend it. The experience, alas, is transient and elusive. It cannot be pinned down and wont be made to reappear. Moreover, the attempts to do so make it escape even further away, leaving the narrator with an ever increasing chasm between a possible delight and triumph of satiation and the dark place of growing loneliness and emptiness; place where creation of the safe loving universe collapses.

When in order to overcome it, he puts his mind to work by letting it stray beyond its own borders, it brings into the light of day sweet and mournful memories of the past, associated with his mother, with her desired and desirable presence, and with his unmet longings for her. That pursuit which brings Remembrance of things past gives some reality and substance to the ineffable and illusive experience. But that very pursuit takes him to the place not different from his starting point, bringing back the sense of inescapable disappointment and the pain of unfulfillment.

Thus the remembrance does not offer to the hero of the novel relief of his suffering, nor resolution of his existential dilemma. Instead, he is led to embark on the path of further search and research, in order to create, to try to give a reality and substance to his emotional life. This shift from remembering to creative exploration is illustrated by the unparalleled endeavour of the author, who in search of lost time, impossible in itself, created a timeless oeuvre for all of us to enjoy and ... to suffer.

Interestingly there was a parallel shift in the way the tittle of the novel cycle - in French, la recherche du temps perdu - was translated: initially as Remembrance of Things Past and then revised to the more accurate In Search of Lost Time.

If you are asking yourselves by now what it all has to do with the theme of this presentation, and with psychoanalysis in general, let me draw the following parallel.

As Proust dedicated the work of his life to the search for an unattainable essence of experience, and to the mind's quest for truth about itself, Bion, too, devoted his life to a similar task.

But Bion conducted his explorations with the help of a special tool - psychoanalysis. He believed that that method offered a unique opportunity, not only to bring to the light of the day remembrances of things past, and to reveal the dark secrets of the human soul, as it was endavoured by Freud and Klein, but it could create conditions for the mind to give reality and substance to its own unique existence.

For Bion, mind is created by the life it is confronting; it is the mind that is also the creator of its own universe. This is the mind which struggles with the pain and traumas of life, and against the life-opposing destructive forces; it lives by truth, and starved of it dies. Bions model of the mind was a realisation of his life-long quest for truth, which, however, like the lost time, could never be found and captured. But he believed that we live by going on searching.

Bion's model of the mind has offered a new paradigm. Some elements of it have been adopted, but as a whole it has resisted integration into the mainstream-s of psychoanalytical thinking. But if the integration meant attenuation or mutilation, maybe just as well.

I would like to offer some reflections about a pivotal element of that paradigm alpha function.

By introducing the concept of alpha function Bion created a new field of psychoanalytical thinking. In one broad, ingenious stroke he put cognition in its centre. But not cognition in a positivistic sense. Cognition in his formulation encompassed both thinking and feeling; conceptualisation as well as intuition.

But how to account for the fact that alpha function as such does not exist? -- Bion makes it clear: "The theory of functions and alpha-function are not a part of psycho-analytic theory. They are working tools for the practising psycho-analyst to ease problems of thinking about something that is unknown." (Bion, 1962: p. 89)

So the concept of alpha function is a tool that helps us to think about the ineffable inner universe of the mind and about how it might be created. Alpha function is a concept in the category similar to that of the black hole a universal entity that cannot be seen, but the influence of which manifests itself in movements of galaxies and in disappearance of stars.

Bion postulated that alpha function is begotten in the fruitful interaction between the two psychosomatic entities - mind-bodies: the mother and the infant. And there is always the third entity -father. In that equation and in all that follow, one plus one is two, but it also makes three. That process is replicated in a myriad of different ways between the patient and the analyst in the analytical universe.

A postulated primary element (beta) creates a demand that makes the existence of the processing function (alpha) necessary. But this is a dialectic transaction the essential paradox of which Bion attempted to capture by postulating that,

        thoughts are regarded as epistemologically prior to thinking and (that) thinking has to be developed as a method or apparatus for dealing with thoughts. If this is the case then much will depend on whether the thoughts are to be evaded or modified or used as part of an attempt to evade or modify something else. (consequently) An apparatus has to be produced to make it possible to think the already existing thought. (Bion, 1962: p.82)

Grotstein suggested that alpha function could be primary: - it would be considered a potential, first letter of the proto-mental alphabet, perhaps prefabricated in the psycho-soma of the parents. Such a postulated rudimentary function, by picking up crude beta elements, proto-thoughts without a thinker, would initiate the process leading through what Ferro called alpha-beta-sation, to the development of ideographic, and then symbolic thought. (Grotstein, 2007; Ferro, 2005)

In such a dialectic relationship, alpha would beget beta but would be also prompted by it to existence. This is indeed a chicken and egg dilemma, that cannot and perhaps needs not to be resolved. The outcome of it, however, can be experienced and observed: it is the creation and the workings of the thinking mind.

Intolerance of frustration and inability to bear and deal with unfathomable experiences and budding thoughts, would lead away from the formation of the thinking mind to give rise to the different development - of the apparatus for projective identification. This in turn would lay foundations for establishment of dysfunctional, psychotic part of personality.

In the both situations the suggested development is linked with the processes of dealing with the mental contents - sexual and destructive - rather than to the contents themselves. Those contents, pertaining to the emotional development along the lines of paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions are generated and handled in the dimension which Bion called container-contained.

Those three, concurrent and interrelated aspects: alpha functioning, container-contained and positions - paranoid-schizoid and depressive, constitute the Bion's triad - the skeleton of Bions conceptual building, comprising also its essence: the realm of transformations and O.

Traditional psychoanalysis has been based on two assumptions: the first, that the patient can make use of his thinking mind; the second, that the analytical work takes place mainly through verbal interpretations, particularly of the transference. Both take for granted sufficient alpha functioning, that is, availability and effectiveness of the apparatus for dealing with thoughts.

Those propositions are defied by the reality of working with patients who may not able to use symbolic interpretations nor to dream, cannot differentiate between reality and phantasy, and for whom analytical experience may not be in the as if category. Their processing and thinking function fail; instead, they resort to dealing with mental data by means of evasion, expulsion and falsification.

Bion s concept of alpha function was informed by the clinical experience of working with such patients suffering from alpha deficiency. In that way, he was able to identify the reasons for their inability to register, describe and process their emotional experiences, and therefore are likely to have great difficulties in analysis which involves learning from experience.

The model of alpha function helps to understand why the traditional psychoanalytic approaches based on the analysis of resistance and transference are likely to be frustrated.

A patient may appear to be equipped with alpha function and in some respects has a functioning mind but in fact may be lacking in some essential aspect. The appearance of a verbally capable adult masks the existence of someone who is emotionally illiterate or literally infans unable to speak ... his mind.

Expectation that the pt who suffers from alpha deficiency can deliver the traditional analytical goods is likely to be frustrated. And in that case it may not be the patient's resistance to analysis causing problems, but the resistance of the analyst to see that deficiency.

When alpha-dysfunction becomes evident, it requires a reformulation of the task of psychoanalysis. One such reformulation is offered by Ferro. He says,

"The focus is no longer on a psychoanalysis that aims to remove the veil of repression or to integrate splittings, but on a psychoanalysis interested in the development of the tools that allow the development and creation of thought, that is mental apparatus for dreaming, feeling and thinking. "

Still Ferro: "... Classical concept of interpretation is often replaced by the activities of the analyst, which activate transformations in the field, transformations which can also derive from the changing of the analyst's mental state, from minimal interventions that function almost like enzymes . (Ferro, 2006)

Even though it is difficult to find description of specific clinical strategies in Bion's writings, he suggests that Interpretations derived from these theories appear to effect changes in the patient's capacity for thinking and therefore of understanding. But his descriptions and formulations do provide conceptual framework for the development of those activities of the analyst that would have in its scope what I call cultivation of alpha function.

I intend here to give only a broad outline of some of the activities and strategies that have been described by various authors. I will highlight those that have made particular sense to me in my work.

Cultivation of alpha function concerns the patient, as well as the analyst, since we conceptualise, in accordance with Bion's work, psychoanalytical process in dyadic terms, as a two way street, or, using the term coined by the Barangers, as the analytical field, co-created and shared by both participants. (Baranger, M. & Baranger, W., 1960-61)

This work can focus, as described by Antonino Ferro in his numerous publications and presentations, on weaving of narratives and dialogues, derived from the detailed and meticulously discerned experience of the analytical field, which concerns the patient as well as the analyst. The analysts interventions are directed towards promoting alpha-beta-sation enabling expression in the field. They are often presented in an unsaturated form, referring to pre-symbolic ideographic representations, unfolding stories and characters in the field. (Ferro, 2005; 2006)

This is equivalent to the level of discourse which Bion located in the row C of his Grid, encompassing Dream Thoughts, Dreams and Myths. That level stands for the process more akin to dreaming than to structured thinking, and applies, according to Bion, to the analytical situation, and also to his way of writing.

That level of analytical discourse and work has been of particular interest to Thomas Ogden who in his work describes the use of dream process and reverie. He creatively applies concepts of Bion, and of other authors, to what he conceptualises as intersubjective process unfolding in the analytical dyad, and including also what he describes as the analytical third. Ogden evocatively demonstrates usefulness of the Bions models of alpha function and that of container-contained in the most practical sense. He shows through his work, that Bions formulations ought not to be treated as theories to be memorised or instructions to follow, but when they are understood for what they are and absorbed, they can be used by the analyst in his unique way, to promote his freedom, creativity and independence. This involves cultivation of alpha function not only in the patient but in the analyst, too. (Ogden, 2004, 2008)

Notwithstanding the important practical implications of the Bions work, as those just mentioned, his non-linear and non-positivistic conceptualisations sometimes lend themselves to more tangential interpretations and esoteric developments. The work of another proponent (and an analysand) of Bion, James Grotstein, has been criticised, with some justification, for those tendencies. However, his more recent book, A Beam of Intense Darkness, shows, in my opinion, not only his passion for intense work in darker regions of the mind but also his real understanding of profound significance of Bions work.

While discussing various way in which the phenomena related to alpha dysfunction can be addressed, Grotstein demonstrates how to expand and productively use the ideas Bion developed in his later work, (starting with Transformations and followed in Attention and Interpretation). Then Bions epistemological model (of cognition) became based not on K (getting to know) but on O (ultimate unknowable truth). Grotstein advocates making consistent use of those Bions formulations which include transformations, relationship with the ultimate truth, and the analytical attitude (without memory and desire). In his approach Grotstein highlights the importance of considering and approaching what Bion formulated as O - in the session. Such movement towards O is facilitated by immersion of the analyst in the subliminal, implicit aspects of he analytical field. Consequently, the credence is given to his intuitive capacity, and validity is attached to spontaneous non-rational interventions. (Bion, 1965, 1970; Grotstein, 2007)

All these approaches lead to increased recognition of the importance of the analysts functioning in the field.

In his now famous recommendations, Bion outlined the postulated analytical attitude free as much as possible from impediments of memory, desire, and understanding. He believed that cultivation of such a state of negative capability is necessary if the analysts objective is to experientially apprehend the essence of the session, and to arrive at shared understanding through his reverie and intuition, in the process akin to dreaming. (Bion, 1970)

The focus is also on what kind of work the analyst needs to do in order to protect and foster his thinking mind, as much as that if the patient. The imagery that have been used at our recent conference was that of thinking under fire, thinking while sinking or even thinking while being throttled'. This may also suggest that the recommended activity would be like the one in the airplane safety instruction: in the case of lack of oxygen, use the oxygen mask first and then attend to others.

Starting from those vantage points, the analyst is encouraged to broaden the repertoire of his interventions, guided not so much by the need to arrive at a formulation which is offered to the patient, but by the aim to protect the field and to cultivate alpha function in himself and in the patient so capacity for thinking could be enhanced.

The focus may be on holding and containing when fragmentation and dispersal prevail; or on analysis of available experiences and thought sequences, through their elaboration in a dialogue.

To that aim, varied forms of expression and communication can be used: imagery and phantasies, somatic sensations, wild thoughts and weaving of narratives. In those, what John McClean formulated as, intermediate steps of working in the field, a suitable kind of language can develop at the level that would be meaningful and accessible for both participants.

By those means, a participatory process is encouraged in which, from scattered and unformed elements, new entities can coalesce, and the session can become like a dream shared and co-created by the patient and the analyst.

This does not mean that the need to understand, to formulate and to articulate interpretations is abandoned. However, an interpretation becomes a final, and not always inevitable result of the complex process of transformations in O in which the major role is played by the dream- alpha-cognition and intuitive apprehension.

Bion says, that it is all like ..a marriage .. Taking place between your thoughts and feelings. The intuition which is blind and the concept which is empty can get together in a way which makes a complete mature thought. (Bion, 1980: p.27)

In thinking of relative value of various interventions and in monitoring the functionality of the analyst's alpha function vis a vis the patient, it is helpful to keep in mind the Bion's following statement: In psychoanalytic methodology the criterion cannot be whether a particular usage is right or wrong, meaningful or verifiable, but whether it does, or does not, promote development. (Bion, 1962: Introduction) This may help to keep at bay the impact of spurious and constraining distinctions made in terms of right and wrong, properly analytical (meaning orthodox) or non-analytical (meaning non-kosher).

They represent prohibitions and restrictions imposed by the analytical superego, as well as by demands to fit with with idealised models of psychoanalysis. Those phenomena can create obstacles to freeing of inner resources of the analyst, and, by paralleling those of the patient, can produce collusive conglomerates or to what the Barangers called bastions.

This leads us to consideration of another category of analytical activities, complementary to those described above.

Let's imagine a garden that is stifled by proliferation of weeds and covered with rocks. Such a garden will require interventions dealing with those impediments, before anything can be grown. In the similar fashion, with the help of Bion's conceptualisations, we can identified analytical objects that have adverse, obstructive influence on the growth of the mind through the analytical process. Deconstruction of those objects becomes necessary so the cultivation of alpha function could proceed.

Using conceptualisations of Bions and others, like Tustin, we can postulate that such objects are related to the intolerable and painful experiences, associated with absence or persecuting presence. Their role is preventing emergence of an infinite abyss or a maddening void, and to keep terrors at bay. (Tustin, 1986)

Formation of such objects signifies alpha dysfunction, its partial reversal, or, in extreme psychotic states, destruction of alpha function.

Such compacted amalgams are imbued with omnipotence and magic control. They can provide a form of containment but they impoverish and suffocate the psyche. Their influence prevents nourishing and creative coupling; thwarts contact with truth.

Constructs of that nature can be detected in manifestations of conceptual and emotional deadness, promotion of omnipresence and omnipotence, implications of absolute purity or badness (like god and devil), belief in total understanding or unquestionable convictions about monstrous plots. Deficient, incomplete knowledge is replaced by the made-up belief; non-understanding by a misconception. Those constructs can be can be hidden under the radar or their true nature can be disguised: they may appear as rationally determined thoughts and justified conclusions, particularly when they fit with non-testable but desirable premises, particularly those that fulfill demands of the (analytical) superego.

I refer to those constructs as gods-of-the gaps.

The concept of God of the gaps refers to the idea of a god arising from and existing in the "gaps" of understanding of such aspects of reality that cannot be explained in rational or scientific terms. Because current science cannot figure out exactly how life started, it must be God who caused life to start.

It has to be accepted that the need for a god to exist is universal.

Even the renowned scientist, Stephen Hawking in his famous book, A Brief History of Time, seemed to accept the role of God in the creation of the universe, to account for the gaps in understanding how the universe was created according to the theoretical model of the big bang. According to him, the other models that do not require Gods existence confront us with incomprehension and confusion.

In his more recent work, though, The Grand Design, Hawking argues, that the Big Bang, rather than resulting from the intervention of a divine being, was due to the law of gravity. Thus the science has won the day after all.

But the science can also acquire a quality of a god-like omniscience, even though it may be projected into the future. A proponent of such attitude is a militant atheist, Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion. He attacks the ignorance of believers who when faced with gaps in scientific [understanding][1], call upon a divine interventions. Dawkins upholds belief in the power of science. According to him the existing gaps in knowledge are narrowing, and the science will ultimately come up with totally rational, naturalistic explanations.

It is not always easy to find confirmation for such optimistically rationalistic view, even in the realm of natural sciences. Maintaing that position is even more difficult when we are faced with mysteries of human mind and with our gaps in understanding them. Thats perhaps why is difficult for the patients but also for the analyst to do completely without some kind of gods.

For the patient with alpha dysfunction, the absence becomes an intolerable abyss of uncertainty , cracks in relatedness open a painful chasm, and gaps in understanding are persecuting. To deal with an emerging monster of the deep, a god-of-the gaps is created. Once its reign is established it can dominate the psyche and is hard do dislodge.

God of the gaps can be revealed in the form of the patient's or the analyst's implicit belief in sanctity of the analysis, conviction about superiority of analytical understanding or in a worship of some analytical attributes.

Such convictions can be colluded with by the analyst who may believe in superiority of his technique or attitude, harbours his own assumptions and cherishes his theories. The importance of the analyst can be turned into the implicit notion of an indispensable resourceful object (parent, breast, mind), reinforcing the illusion of permanent existence of the ultimate source of goodness and wisdom and, of course, stimulating envy. By not questioning those premises, the analyst may tacitly consent to being cast in the role of a god-of the-gaps by the patient who 'believes himself impaired' (using Brittons expression), and looks for figure that could rescue him from his intolerable predicament.

But the analyst himself also may not like to be in the position of a Proust, seeking forever evasive and tantalising contact with ultimate taste of a madeleine, only to see it disappear again and again, like shadow of evanescent beauty and unreachable truth.

The analyst can preach importance of uncertainty and negative capability but it is tempting for him to attribute relevance of those inadequacies rather to the patient (a candidate, or a younger colleague). He may free himself from bewilderment of uncertainty and become immune to the pain of feeling inadequate when he makes the correct interpretation or finds comfort in reassuring certainty of an accepted theory.

Bion persisted with his efforts to illuminate the obstacles to growth of thinking mind and of cultivation of analytical functioning. Many of those obstacles result from implicit assumptions that, like gods-of-the-gaps, need to be demythologised and demystified in the analytical process.

He addresses the mythology of the correct interpretation in his characteristic manner, in one of his clinical seminars,

If you had been practising analysis as long as I have, you wouldnt bother about an inadequate interpretation I have never given any other kind. That is real life not psycho-analytic fiction. The belief in the existence of an analyst who gives correct and adequate interpretations is part of the mythology of psycho-analysis. I certainly would not be inclined to bother if you felt your interpretation was inadequate. I would be rather bothered if you felt it was adequate. The practice of analysis is an extremely difficult occupation and one which hardly provides space for dogmatic statements.

He then responds to a participant who anxiously questions, What remains for the analyst? Only feeling? saying, I think, reassuringly, (The analyst has) Practice - the inestimable knowledge of having a patient who so far has continued to come. The analyst may not know much, but he knows more than anybody else about this patient; he knows what the facts are. (Bion, 1994; p. 49)

The points discussed in the paper were illustrated with presentation of the selected material from the analysis of one of the authors patient who has particularly confronted him with difficulties of cultivating of alpha function in the analytical field, and made him look closely at his own functioning in that field. This material could not be published here for the reason of confidentiality.

The example aimed at showing the alpha function at work that was engaging both the patient and the analyst. That work seemed to have open a path to further understanding and growth. But it was not going to be easy and comfortable path. And not reassuring in terms of securing, guaranteeing a happy outcome by pinning it down. The question remained to what extent the analysis could help the patients mind, as Proust says, ... to discover the truth ... at the dark region ... where all its equipment will avail it nothing, and whether the truth would keep on growing rather than morphing into one of its counterparts - a dead certainty or a forgone conclusion.


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