Wilfred Bion, a British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, borrowed from the object relations theorist, Melanie Klein, projective identification (PI), to think more generally about mental functioning and cognition. For Bion, projective identification refers to much more than powerful fantasies in the infant’s mental world. It is also an early, necessary, and principal means of communication. It is through projection of primitive mental states, what Bion called ‘beta elements’, from the mind of the infant into the mind of the mother, that these states are processed and made comprehensible and the infant comes to know their own thinking and mental lives. The baby, in early life, lacks a thought-thinking apparatus sufficient to metabolize (i.e. use and integrate) early mental experience. These states he called beta (b) elements: bodily feelings and emotional states alongside early sensory and relational experience. And because the mind is not sufficiently developed to metabolize them, they must first enter the mind of the Other, where they are felt, thought, and reflected. For example, when fear is projected into a receptive parent (the responsive parent, for Bion, performs the containing function), it is made familiar; and through recognition is then available to the infant in comprehensible and usable forms. These transformations of raw sensory data (i.e. what he called beta elements, or unprocessed sense data, unassimilated and unsymbolized by the ego as ‘food for thinking’) into alpha elements is necessary for conscious and unconscious life.
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