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Wilfred Ruprecht Bion DSO (8 September 1897 – 8 November 1979) was a British psychoanalyst. A pioneer in group dynamics, he was associated with the 'Tavistock group', the group of pioneering psychologists that founded the Tavistock Institute in 1946 on the basis of their shared wartime experiences. He later wrote the influential Experiences in Groups, London: Tavistock, 1961. Experiences in Groups was an important guide for the group psychotherapy and encounter group movements beginning in the 1960s, and quickly became a touchstone work for applications of group theory in a wide variety of fields.

Bion's training included an analysis with Melanie Klein following World War II. He was a leading member in the Kleinian school while in London, but his theories, which were always based in the phenomena of the analytic encounter, eventually revealed radical departures from both Kleinian and Freudian theory.[1] While Bion is most well known outside of the psychoanalytic community for his work on group dynamics, the psychoanalytic conversation that explores his work is concerned with his theory of thinking and his model of the development of a capacity for thought.


Bion was born in Mathura, North-Western Provinces, India, and educated at Bishop's Stortford College in England.[2] After the outbreak of the First World War, he served in the Tank Corps as a tank commander in France, and was awarded both the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) (on 18 February 1918, for his actions at the Battle of Cambrai),[2][3] and the Croix de Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur.[4] He first entered the war zone on 26 June 1917,[5] and was promoted to temporary lieutenant on 10 June 1918,[6] and to acting captain on 22 March 1918, when he took command of a tank section,[7] he retained the rank when he became second-in-command of a tank company on 19 October 1918,[8] and relinquished it on 7 January 1919.[9] He was demobilised on 1 September 1921, and was granted the rank of captain.[10] The full citation for his DSO read:



T./2nd Lt, Wilfred Ruprecht Bion, Tank Corps.

For conspicuous gallantry, and devotion to duty. When in command of his tank in an attack he engaged a large number of enemy machine guns in strong positions, thus assisting the infantry to advance. When his tank was put out of action by a direct hit he occupied a section of trench with his men and machine guns and opened fire on the enemy. He moved about in the open, giving directions to other tanks when they arrived, and at one period fired a Lewis gun with great effect from the top of his tank. He also got a captured machine gun into action against the enemy, and when reinforcements arrived he took command of a company of infantry whose commander was killed. He showed magnificent courage and initiative in a most difficult situation.[11]

Subsequently, he studied history at Queen's College, Oxford and medicine at University College London. Initially attracted to London by the 'strange new subject called psychoanalysis', he met and was impressed by Wilfred Trotter, an outstanding brain surgeon who had also written the famous Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War in 1916, based on the horrors of the First World War. This was to prove an important influence on Bion's interest in group behaviour. After obtaining his medical qualification Bion spent seven years in psychotherapeutic training at the Tavistock Clinic, an experience he regarded, in retrospect, as having had some limitations. It did, however, bring him into fruitful contact with Samuel Beckett. He wanted to train in Psychoanalysis and in 1938 he began a training analysis with John Rickman, but this was brought to an end by the Second World War.

He was recommissioned in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a lieutenant on 1 April 1940,[12] and worked in a number of military hospitals including Northfield Hospital where he initiated the first Northfield Experiment. These ideas on the psychoanalysis of groups were then taken up and developed by others such as S. H. Foulkes, Rickman, Bridger, Main and Patrick De Mare.

The entire group at Tavistock had in fact been taken into the army, and were working on new methods of treatment for psychiatric casualties (those suffering post-traumatic stress, or 'shell shock' as it was then known.) During the war Bion's wife gave birth to a daughter, but, tragically, she died soon afterwards. His daughter, Parthenope, became a highly-regarded psychoanalyst. She herself died prematurely, in a car crash in Italy in 1998.

Returning to the Tavistock Clinic Bion chaired the 'Planning Committee' that reorganised the Tavistock into the new Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, alongside a new Tavistock Clinic which was part of the newly launched National Health Service. As his interest in psychoanalysis increased, he underwent training analysis, between 1946–1952, with Melanie Klein. He met his second wife, Francesca, at the Tavistock in 1951. He joined a research group of Klein's students (including Hanna Segal and Herbert Rosenfeld), who were developing Klein's theory of the paranoid-schizoid position, for use in the analysis of patients with psychotic disorders. He produced a series of highly original and influential papers (collected as "Second Thoughts", 1967) on the analysis of schizophrenia, and the specifically cognitive, perceptual, and identity problems of such patients.

During the forties, he produced a series of papers on group dynamics, (collected as "Experiences in Groups", 1961). Later he attempted to understand thoughts and thinking from a mathematical and scientific point of view, believing there to be too little precision in the existing vocabulary. Later he abandoned the complex, abstract applications of mathematics, and even the Grid, and developed a more intuitive approach, culminating in the Memoir of the Future.

From 1962 till 1965, Bion was President of the British Psychoanalytical Society. He spent his later years in Los Angeles, California, before returning to the UK shortly before his death.

He left a reputation which has steadily grown in Britain and internationally. Some commentators consider that his writings are often gnomic and irritating, but never fail to stimulate. He defies categorisation as a follower of Klein or of Freud.

Bion created a theory of thinking based on changing beta elements (unmetabolized psyche/soma/affective experience) into alpha elements (thoughts that can be thought by the thinker).

Bion's Theory of Mind

Bion uses as his starting point the phenomenology of the analytic hour. He selects two principles as his underlying assumptions, “the emergence of truth and mental growth. The mind grows through exposure to truth.”[13] The foundation for both mental development and truth are, for Bion, emotional experience.[14]

The evolution of emotional experience into the capacity for thought and the derailment of this process are the primary phenomena being described in Bion’s model. Through his hypothesized alpha and beta elements, linking, attacks on linking, and the grid , Bion provides a language to help one think about what is occurring during the analytic hour. These tools are intended for use outside the hour in the clinician’s reflective process. To attempt to apply his models during the analytic session violates one of his central tenets: engage the clinical hour without memory, desire, or understanding.

Alpha Elements, Beta Elements, and Alpha Function

The infant requires a mind to help it tolerate and organize experience. β elements, α elements and α function are elements that Bion (1963) hypothesizes. He does not consider β-elements, α- elements, nor α function to actually exist. The terms are instead tools for thinking about what is being observed. They are elements whose qualities remain unsaturated, meaning we can't know the full extent or scope of their meaning, so they are intended as tools for thought rather than real things to be accepted at face value (1962, p. 3).

For Bion, thoughts exist prior to the development of an apparatus for thinking. The apparatus for thinking, the capacity to have thoughts “has to be called into existence to cope with thoughts” (1967, p. 111). Thoughts exist prior to their realization. Thinking, the capacity to think the thoughts which already exist, develops through another mind providing α-function (1962, p. 83).

To learn from experience alpha-function must operate on the awareness of the emotional experience; alpha–elements are produced from the impressions of the experience; these are thus made storable and available for dream thoughts and for unconscious waking thinking. . . . If there are only beta-elements, which cannot be made unconscious, there can be no repression, suppression, or learning. (Bion, 1962, p8)

α-function works upon β-elements. β-elements are undigested facts, impressions, and sensations, that cannot be mentalized. α-function digests β-elements, making them available for thought (1962, pp. 6–7).

Beta-elements are not amenable to use in dream thoughts but are suited for use in projective identification. They are influential in producing acting out. These are objects that can be evacuated or used for a kind of thinking that depends on manipulation of what are felt to be things in themselves as if to substitute such manipulations for words or ideas. . . . Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst has interpreted them. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep. As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream –thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up. (1962, pp. 6-7)

Basic assumptions

Wilfred Bion's observations about the role of group processes in group dynamics are in Experiences in Groups where he refers to recurrent emotional states of groups as basic assumptions. Bion argues that in every group, two groups are actually present: the work group, and the basic assumption group. The work group is that aspect of group functioning which has to do with the primary task of the group - what the group has formed to accomplish. The basic assumption group describes the tacit underlying assumptions on which the behaviour of the group is based. Bion specifically identified three basic assumptions: dependency, fight-flight, and pairing.[15] When a group adopts any one of these basic assumptions, it interferes with the task the group is attempting to accomplish. Bion believed that interpretation by the therapist of this aspect of group dynamics would result in insight regarding effective group work.[16]

In dependency, the essential aim of the group is to attain security through and have its members protected by one individual. The group members behave passively, and act as though the leader, by contrast, is omnipotent and omniscient. For example, the leader may pose a question only to be greeted with docile silence, as though he or she had not spoken at all. The leader may be idealized into a kind of god who can take care of his or her children, and some especially ambitious leaders may be susceptible to this role. Resentment at being dependent may eventually lead the group members to "take down" the leader, and then search for a new leader to repeat the process. In the basic assumption of fight-flight, the group behaves as though it has met to preserve itself at all costs, and that this can only be done by running away from someone or fighting someone or something. In fight, the group may be characterized by aggressiveness and hostility; in flight, the group may chit-chat, tell stories, arrive late or any other activities that serve to avoid addressing the task at hand. The leader for this sort of group is one who can mobilize the group for attack, or lead it in flight. The final basic assumption group, pairing, exists on the assumption that the group has met for the purpose of reproduction. Two people, regardless the sex of either, carry out the work of the group through their continued interaction. The remaining group members listen eagerly and attentively with a sense of relief and hopeful anticipation.

See also


  1. Symington J. & Symington N. (1996). The Clinical Thinking of Wilfred Bion. pp. 12-13.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Malcolm Pines, ‘Bion, Wilfred Ruprecht (1897–1979)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; online edition, May 2007. DOI:10.1093/ref:odnb/51057 . Retrieved 2008-09-10.
  3. Template:LondonGazette
  4. Template:LondonGazette
  5. Medal card for Bion, Wilfred Ruprecht, Documents Online, The National Archives (fee may be required to view full original medal card). Retrieved 2008-09-10.
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  7. Template:LondonGazette
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  11. Template:LondonGazette
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  13. Symington & Symington, 1996, pp. 2-3
  14. Bion, 1962, Intro & pp 5-6.
  15. Margaret J. Rioch, "The Work of Wilfred Bion on Groups", 1970.
  16. Page 194 to 196, Irvin D. Yalom, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, third edition, Basic Books (1985), hardback, ISBN 0-465-08447-8


Works by Bion

  • Bion, W.R. (1940). The war of nerves. In Miller and Crichton-Miller (Eds.), The Neuroses in War (pp. 180 – 200). London: Macmillan, 1940.
  • Bion, W.R. (1943). Intra-group tensions in therapy, Lancet 2: 678/781 - Nov.27, 1943, in Experiences in Groups (1961).
  • Bion, W. R.(1946). Leaderless group project, Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 10: 77-81.
  • Bion, W. R. (1948a). Psychiatry in a time of crisis, British Journal of Medical Psychology, vol.XXI.
  • Bion, W. R. (1948b). Experiences in groups, Human Relations, vols. I-IV, 1948–1951, Reprinted in Experiences in Groups (1961).
  • Bion, W. R. (1950). The imaginary twin, read to the British Psychoanalytical Society, Nov.1,1950. In Second Thoughts (1967).
  • Bion, W. R. (1952). Group dynamics: a review. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol.33: , Reprinted in M. Klein, P. Heimann & R. Money-Kyrle (editors). New Directions in Psychoanalysis (pp. 440–477). Tavistock Publications, London, 1955. Reprinted in Experiences in Groups (1961).
  • Bion, W. R. (1954). Notes on the theory of schizophrenia. Read in the Symposium "The Psychology of Schizophrenia" at the 18th International psycho-analytical congress, London, 1953 International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol.35: . Reprinted in Second Thoughts (1967).
  • Bion, W. R. (1955a). The Development of Schizophrenic Thought, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol.37: . Reprinted in Second Thoughts (1967).
  • Bion, W. R. (1955b ). Language and the schizophrenic, in M. Klein, P. Heimann and R. Money-Kyrle (editors). New Directions in Psychoanalysis (pp. 220 – 239).Tavistock Publications, London, 1955.
  • Bion, W. R. (1957a). The differentiation of the psychotic from the non-psychotic personalities, International Journal of Psycho Analysis, vol.38: . Reprinted in Second Thoughts (1967).
  • Bion, W. R. (1957b). On Arrogance, 20th International Congress of Psycho-Analysis, Paris, in Second Thoughts (1967).
  • Bion, W. R. (1958). On Hallucination, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis,vol.39, part 5: . Reprinted in Second Thoughts (1967).
  • Bion, W. R. (1959). Attacks on linking, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol.40: . Reprinted in Second Thoughts (1967).
  • Bion, W. R. (1961). Experiences in Groups, London: Tavistock.
  • Bion, W. R. (1962a). A theory of thinking, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol.43: . Reprinted in Second Thoughts (1967).
  • Bion, W. R. (1962b). Learning from Experience London: William Heinemann. [Reprinted London: Karnac Books,]. Reprinted in Seven Servants (1977e).
  • Bion, W. R. (1963). Elements of Psycho-Analysis, London: William Heinemann. [Reprinted London: Karnac Books]. Reprinted in Seven Servants (1977e).
  • Bion, W. R. (1965). Transformations. London: William Heinemann [Reprinted London: Karnac Books 1984]. Reprinted in Seven Servants (1977e).
  • Bion, W. R. (1966). Catastrophic change, Bulletin of The British Psychoanalytical Society, 1966, N°5.
  • Bion, W. R. (1967a). Second Thoughts, London: William Heinemann. [Reprinted London: Karnac Books 1984].
  • Bion, W. R. (1967b). Notes on memory and desire, Psycho-analytic Forum, vol. II n° 3 (pp. 271 – 280). [reprinted in E. Bott Spillius (Ed.). Melanie Klein Today Vol. 2 Mainly Practice (pp. 17–21) London: Routledge 1988].
  • Bion, W. R.(1970). Attention and Interpretation. London: Tavistock Publications. [Reprinted London: Karnac Books 1984]. Reprinted in Seven Servants (1977e).

  • Bion, W.R. (1973). Bion's Brazilian Lectures 1. Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora. [Reprinted in one volume London: Karnac Books 1990].
  • Bion, W. R. (1974). Bion's Brazilian Lectures 2. Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora. [Reprinted in one volume London: Karnac Books 1990].
  • Bion, W.R. (1975). A Memoir of the Future, Book 1 The Dream. Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora. [Reprinted in one volume with Books 2 and 3 and ‘The Key’ London: Karnac Books 1991].
  • Bion, W. R. (1976a). Evidence. Bulletin British Psycho-Analytical Society N° 8, 1976. Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Four Papers (1987).
  • Bion, W.R. (1976b). Interview, with A.G.Banet jr., Group and Organisation Studies, vol.1 No.3 (pp. 268 – 285). September 1976.
  • Bion, W.R. (1977a). A Memoir of the Future, Book 2 The Past Presented. Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora. [Reprinted in one volume with Books 1 and 3 and ‘The Key’ London: Karnac Books 1991].
  • Bion, W.R. (1977b). Two Papers: The Grid and Caesura. Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora. [Reprinted London: Karnac Books 1989].
  • Bion, W. R. (1977c). On a Quotation from Freud, in Borderline Personality Disorders, New York: International University Press. Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Four Papers(1987). [Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Other Works. London: Karnac Books, 1994].
  • Bion, W. R. (1977d). Emotional Turbulence, in Borderline Personality Disorders, New York: International University Press. Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Four Papers(1987). [Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Other Works. London: Karnac Books, 1994].
  • Bion, W. R. (1977e). Seven Servants. New York: Jason Aronson inc. (includes Elements of Psychoanalysis, Learning from Experience, Transformations, Attention and Interpretation).
  • Bion, W.R. (1978). Four Discussions with W.R. Bion. Perthshire: Clunie Press. [Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Other Works. London: Karnac Books, 1994].
  • Bion, W.R. (1979a). Making the best of a Bad Job. Bulletin British Psycho-Analytical Society, February 1979. Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Four Papers (1987). [Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Other Works. London: Karnac Books, 1994].
  • Bion, W.R. (1979b). A Memoir of the Future, Book 3 The Dawn of Oblivion. Rio de Janeiro: Imago Editora. [Reprinted in one volume with Books 1 and 2 and ‘The Key’ London: Karnac Books 1991].
  • Bion, W.R. (1980). Bion in New York and Sào Paolo. (Edited by F.Bion). Perthshire: Clunie Press.
  • Bion, W.R. (1981). A Key to A Memoir of the Future. (Edited by F.Bion). Perthshire: Clunie Press. [Reprinted in one volume London: Karnac Books 1991].
  • Bion, W.R. (1982). The Long Weekend: 1897-1919 (Part of a Life). (Edited by F.Bion). Abingdon: The Fleetwood Press.
  • Bion, W.R. (1985). All My Sins Remembered (Another part of a Life) and The Other Side of Genius: Family Letters. (Edited by F.Bion). Abingdon: The Fleetwood Press.
  • Bion, W.R. (1985). Seminari Italiani. (Edited by F.Bion). Roma: Borla.
  • Bion, W.R. (1987). Clinical Seminars and Four Papers, (Edited by F.Bion). Abingdon: Fleetwood Press. [Reprinted in Clinical Seminars and Other Works. London: Karnac Books, 1994].
  • Bion, W.R. (1992). Cogitations. (Edited by F.Bion). London: Karnac Books.
  • Bion, W.R. (1997a). Taming Wild Thoughts. (Edited by F.Bion). London: Karnac Books.
  • Bion, W.R. (1997b). War Memoirs 1917 - 1919. (Edited by F.Bion). London: Karnac Books.
  • Bion, Wilfred R (1999). Seminar held in Paris, July 10, 1978. Transcribed by Francesca Bion Sept.

Works about Bion

  • Bleandonu, Gerard, Wilfred Bion: His Life and Works. Free Association Books, London, 1994
  • López-Corvo, Rafael, The Dictionary of the Work of W.R. Bion, Karnac Books, London, 2003
  • Donald Meltzer : "Dream-Life: A Re-Examination of the Psycho-Analytical Theory and Technique" Publisher: Karnac Books, 1983, ISBN 0-902965-17-4
  • Symington, Joan and Symington Neville, The Clinical Thinking of Wilfred Bion, Routledge, London, 1996.

External links

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