Productive Elements in
Bion's Experiences In Groups

      This is not a comprehensive analysis of Bion's ideas and writings, but an explanation of why only his Experiences in Groups is of effective value to Cooperative Commonwealth Communities. I'll first review the debilitating influence of psychoanalysis on thought in general and Bion's ideas and practices in particular; then examine the elements of his Experiences in Groups that are of productive use in CCC decision-making and dialectic interchange sessions.

      The phenomenon of a person developing creative ideas and exhibiting useful techniques in his early life and then devolving into reactionary dogmatism and mental atavism is somewhat common, as instanced in the lives of such individuals as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Francis Bacon.

      Any objective observer of the widespread pernicious influence of psychoanalysis on American and world thinking recognizes the unmistakable infestation of this insidious cult.

"Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is considered the father of psychoanalysis, which may be the granddaddy of all pseudoscientific psychotherapies, second only to Scientology as the champion purveyor of false and misleading claims about the mind, mental health, and mental illness. For example, in psychoanalysis schizophrenia and depression are not brain disorders, but narcissistic disorders. Autism and other brain disorders are not brain problems but mothering problems. These illnesses do not require pharmacological or behavioral treatment. They require only 'talk' therapy. Similar positions are taken for anorexia nervosa and Tourette's syndrome. (Hines 1990: 136) What is the scientific evidence for the psychoanalytic view of these mental illnesses and their proper treatment? There is none."

The Skeptic's Dictionary

Bion's Early Work

      During World War I, European military leaders, for the first time, began to allow the identification of nervous disorders or psychological ailments among their troops. The term "shell-shock" was used to describe these ailments, regardless of symptoms. Prior to this time, any incapacity exhibited by a soldier was identified as cowardice or malingering, which was often punishable by death. World War I hospitals became laboratories of sorts for the psychological study of individual and group behavior.

      The field of psychology was a relatively new area of study and was, unfortunately, largely dominated by the theories of Sigmund Freud which he named psychoanalysis. Most persons who studied psychology or psychiatry were therefore trained in psychoanalysis, even though this outlandish set of Freudian conceits was unpopular with a large number of professional persons.

      Founded in 1920, the Tavistock Institute of Medical Psychology was one of the major British medical institutes for the study of psychology and psychiatry. Tavistock struggled to secure funding throughout the interwar period and its efforts to win official recognition from the University of London were consistently rebuffed.

      World War II required that psychological treatment of soldiers move beyond the individual treatment model of psychoanalysis to address the large number of soldiers requiring treatment.

      Bion had completed medical training at University College Hospital in London and joined the staff of the Tavistock Clinic before World War II. During the 1940s, Bion and his colleagues began experiments with groups at a treatment facility called the Northfield Hospital.

the couch and chair Freud used       Bion and his colleagues experimented by shifting from the psychoanalyst's external investigation of the "patient" to the perspective of a therapist as a member of the therapy group. Abandoning the traditional psychoanalytic perspective of the therapist sitting behind the patient listening to him, Bion adopted the point of view of a member of the group. Bion injected his "interpretations" to detect group thoughts, expectations, assumptions, and actions. In this early work, Bion developed a new method of working with groups.

      This so-called "first Northfield experiment" proved short-lived. After six weeks, evidently concerned by an apparent breakdown in discipline, the hospital authorities posted Bion and Rickman to other units--in other words they were fired from that job. People close to the events say that a senior officer had been embezzling the mess funds, that Bion was going to report it, so they got rid of him. No attempt had been made to evaluate the effectiveness of this group and its abbreviated nature made retrospective assessment impossible. Bion never received any recognition for his work in this group experiment. At the end of the war he had the same rank he had when he entered; he was never promoted beyond major.

      This first experiment with a therapy group must have left a lasting bad taste in Bion's mouth. He seems to have devalued his work in that experiment and the book which describes it--Experiences In Groups--as something he did not wish to revisit. A letter to one of his children clearly indicates that he disliked the book and resented its popularity in contrast to the lesser esteem his later writings received.

Bion's Immersion in Psychoanalysis

      At this point in his life he had already completed his first analysis with John Rickman, who had been in analysis with both Freud and Melanie Klein. Bion now began his second psychoanalysis with Melanie Klein, who continually told Bion that his work in groups was debasing and that he should put all his efforts into learning and practicing psychoanalysis. From that time forward, all Bion's writings take on a completely different mood and air, becoming turgid with psychoanalytic jargon, old and newly formulated.

           The videos to the left are from Bion's later period when he had totally immersed himself in psychoanalysis and its bloated terminology and rigid processes. Note how he now "lectures" to the group, pontificating on ideas he has developed from psychoanalytic dogmas.

      The contrast between this dysfunctional behavior and the innovative ideas and processes reported in Experiences In Groups is remarkable.


The Productive Elements in Bion's Experiences in Groups

      Bion is one of the few psychiatrists to recognize that study of group dynamics should be applied to identifying and overcoming psychological disorders in the larger society, not just in small groups.

"Society has not yet been driven to seek treatment of its psychological disorders by psychological means because it has not achieved sufficient insight to appreciate the nature of its distress."

Two certifiably insane people       The psychotic behavior of the demonic cabal that now controls American political, economic, religious, and social structures is evident for the discerning observer to see. Part of the ongoing difficulty is that this cabal has so debased the minds of Americans--through destroying the educational system and through systematic propaganda--that most Americans are incapable of comprehending how social psychoses and neuroses are destroying our nation.

"There was no difficulty about detecting a common danger; neurotic extravagances of one sort and another perpetually endanger the work of the psychiatrist or of any institution set up to further treatment of neurotic disorders. The common danger in the training wing was the existence of neurosis as a disability of the community. I was now back at my starting-point--the need, in the treatment of a group, for displaying neurosis as a problem of the group. But thanks to my excursion into the problem of discipline, I had come back with two additions. Neurosis needs to be displayed as a danger to the group; and its display must somehow be made the common aim of the group."

      The Cooperative Commonwealth Communities enterprise had already experienced the destructive force of neurosis in the form of "emotional thinking" when it was forced to deal with the episode involving Julia Mercer.

      In his work with therapy groups, Bion discovered that untrained, random groupings evince the characteristics of futile chatter, mindlessness, and presumptuousness.

Note how most of the group participants pay no attention to what is happening.
"At the present stage I wish only to isolate two features of the group experience for inspection; one of these is the futility of the conversation in the group; judged by ordinary standards of social intercourse, the performance of the group is almost devoid of intellectual content. Furthermore, if we note how assumptions pass unchallenged as statements of fact, and are accepted as such, it seems clear that critical judgment is almost entirely absent."

     Bion identified several types of groups, including "dependent groups" that possess tendencies toward inertia and mindless hindrance.
"I begin to wonder whether the group approach to problems is really worth while when it affords so much opportunity for apathy and obstruction about which one can do nothing."

      But discerning study of groups, Bion recognized, also allows us to discover how to identify as well as to overcome negative elements in group dynamics.      

"It occurs to me, however, that if a group affords splendid opportunities for evasion and denial, it should afford splendid opportunities for observation of the way in which these evasions and denials are effected."

      I only wish to illustrate some of the positive elements in Bion's Experiences in Groups, not present an entire outline of his thought. The CCC enterprise has found it necessary to adapt the productive aspects of this work by Bion for use in its decision-making and dialectic sessions--knowledge which only members are privy to. I'll provide two final examples of how CCC groups make use of this work by Bion in their meetings and interchanges.

"At the appointed time members of the group begin to arrive; individuals engage each other in conversation for a short time, and then, when a certain number has collected, a silence falls on the group. After a while desultory conversation breaks out again, and then another silence falls. It becomes clear to me that I am, in some sense, the focus of attention in the group. Furthermore, I am aware of feeling uneasily that I am expected to do something. At this point I confide my anxieties to the group, remarking that, however mistaken my attitude might be, I feel just this.

"I soon find that my confidence is not very well received. Indeed, there is some indignation that I should express such feelings without seeming to appreciate that the group is entitled to expect something from me. I do not dispute this, but content myself with pointing out that clearly the group cannot be getting from me what they feel they are entitled to expect. I wonder what these expectations are, and what has aroused them."
    Bion here illustrates the "fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants" procedure required for creative group interchange. The leader knows that the primary goal is self-awareness on the part of group participants, so he does not push a formalized agenda just to make participants feel comfortable in a more recognizable discussion-group or therapy-group format.

    The leader shares his recognition that participants feel he should fulfill their expectations that he act in a way that a standard "leader" of a group acts.

    He invites group participants to examine their expectations and how they have allowed themselves to assume that these expectations are realistic.

   Bion came to understand that most groups tend to allow themselves to be controlled by the person with the most extreme paranoid tendencies, because they want someone to identify an enemy they can be against.

    Finding Bion ineffective, relative to their expectations, the group allows itself to become controlled by Mr. X, who identifies the group's immediate "enemy" as the pretend leader, Bion.

    Note that the group has almost totally acquiesced to this new leader and allows him to do whatever he decides. Mr. X gives the appearance of wanting to help relieve the group members' anxieties of being in a floundering group without an effective leader.

    The group atmosphere is more calm, now that the enemy (Bion) has been identified by this new fearless leader who is exhibiting his courage by confronting the enemy and asking him, point-blank, what his intentions are toward the group.

    Group participants eagerly answer the questions Mr. X asks them, giving the answers it's clear he wants them to supply.
      "In my experience most groups, not only patient groups, find a substitute that satisfies them very well. It is usually a man or woman with marked paranoid trends; perhaps if the presence of an enemy is not immediately obvious to the group, the next best thing is for the group to choose a leader to whom it is."

      "The first thing that strikes us is the improvement that has taken place in the atmosphere. Mr. X, who has a likeable personality, has taken charge of the group, and is already taking steps to repair the deplorable situation created by myself . . . Mr. X, who is anxious for the welfare of the group, quite rightly turns his attention to the source of the trouble, which, from his point of view, is myself. You can see that he has a very good idea of tackling at once those elements in his group which are destructive of morale and good fellowship. He therefore asked me directly what my object is, and why I cannot give a straightforward explanation of my behaviour. I can only apologize, and say that, beyond feeling that the statement that I want to study group tensions is probably a very inadequate description of my motives, I can throw no light on his problem; he has a good deal of sympathy from the group when he turns from this very unsatisfactory reply to question one or two others, who seem to be more co-operative and frank than myself. I think, however, I detect some unwillingness on the part of the group to follow his lead wholeheartedly."

      These illustrations of the productive elements in Bion's Experiences in Groups provide clear examples of the factors of group dynamics used by CCC groups. This explanation of the use of Bion's single book points up the necessity of selecting only those specific aspects of other people's ideas and techniques that can be effectively applied to CCC procedures.