by Sonia Neves Langlands


"Insight" , which means "to see within" is a word borrowed from the area of the sensorial.Here we shall use a "model" borrowed from the same area to better explain what insight means to Bion. We do this by providing a correlation between the "stereoscopic view of a stereogram" - a phenomenon from the sensorial field - and insight - a phenomenon from the area of understanding.

"Stereoscopic vision" covers all techniques that use the binocular visual mechanism of the human being to create a sensation of depth out of two or more bi-dimensional images of the same object shown from different angles. Stereoscopy, from the Greek "stereos" (relief) and "scopein" (to see) means "sight in relief", therefore, the image seen as three dimensional.

An auto-stereogram, which is the type of stereogram we refer to in this paper - magic eye - requires no special equipment to be seen, only a "correct seeing technique". Its peculiar aspect is that, when observed superficially, it seems to be a composite of patterns that have been assembled merely by chance and without any sense. The three-dimensional image is only identified by a special observation that will lend it a meaning.

However, for this stereoscopic vision to be achieved, certain conditions are necessary.

The first is to be able to "relax". Relax in the way of not offering any resistence and submitting oneself to the experience - "to dream" your way into the stereogram and wait for all to be revealed. Also relaxing the eye-ball so as to be able to "look at ease ".This implies "not trying to see" and "not focusing on anything". If the seeing is not out of focus the three-dimensional image will not appear. It requires a "blank stare" or an "empty gaze", the secret being to relax and to look into the vacuum, and the image will come to you. One must also try to maintain a "uniform clarity" in the whole image without creating shadows. This means giving preference to no particular thing and not dwelling on the details. One cannot "want to see". The more one wants to see, the less one manages. In fact, what is essential is to be able to "look through".

The second condition is "patience". If one can wait and stand the image being out of focus, one will eventually see that another image will overlap the first, conveying the idea of depth. This fusion of partial images unables one to see not only a fresh image one did not see before but also this new image in a third dimension. Then one's eyes become fixed and begin to feel secure. At this moment it is amazing how comfortable and clear the image becomes.

Bion, in elaborating his concept of binocular vision, also sets out from a sensorial model. His point of departure is the idea, in Physics, that each eye sees an object from a "vertex" and that it is only when an "optimum distance" exists between these two vertices that they can converge on the same image, giving it a vision of depth. So it is necessary to see with both eyes - binocular view - in order to have the notion of depth and distancing.

Bion transposes this model to the field of psychoanalysis. This is what takes place in "insight" where one has a view not only of either the conscious or the unconscious but rather a "binocular view". He means that in this way one enjoys a view of depth that does not occur on the spatial level but rather on the level of the analogous. He says: "The use in psychoanalysis of conscious and unconscious in viewing a psychoanalytic object is analogous to the use of the eyes in ocular observation of an object sensitive to light"..."when the two eyes operate in binocular view to correlate two views of the same object".

The concept of binocular vision thus, presuposes the idea of vertex, which, in this context, refers to the point of view, angle, or perspective from which an attempt is made to understand a certain experience.

Bion uses the term vertices with the purpose of creating a dimension beyond the sensorial. Whenever the vertices change, as in a kaleidoscope, so does the configuration, although the elements stay the same.

In the analytic experience, analyst and analysand each has his own way of attempting to understand the experience they are undergoing. Here, too, it is only when a "useful distance" between these two vertices can be achieved - not too near, not too far - that the possibility arises of a correlation and confrontation between them, allowing for a binocular view of the problem at hand.

This correlation of two different vertices can also take place within the same person and lead to either states of confusion or to binocular view, depending on the distance between the two vertices. If these are very far apart they will fail to relate to one another. If they are too close they will mix with one another but fail to merge. This "merging" is only possible within an "optimum distance".

Thus, Bion's concept of "binocular view" encompasses the junctions of the vertices of the conscious and the unconscious, of the adult and the child, of the analyst and the analysand, etc. However, Bion's interest lends particular emphasis to the ways in which unconscious and conscious inter-relate and communicate with one another. In order to explain this interaction he creates the concept of the "contact barrier". This hypothetical barrier is made of "alpha elements" that place a necessary delimitation between the conscious and unconscious levels. It concerns both contact - what should pass - as separation - what should not pass.

Bion stresses the fact that in neurotic patients (patients where neurotic parts of personality predominate), the conscious elements have the same value as the unconscious and that both have to be correlated and seen in their real significance within the context of the analytic process in order to provide a binocular view, and make insight possible. For this also certain conditions are necessary.

The first is Bion's suggestion that the analyst should learn to work "without memory", "without desire" and "without the need to understand". This inner attitude refers only to the elements that "over-saturate" the analyst's mind and prevent it from remaining spatially open to new contents. What Bion suggests here is that the analyst should do his best to prevent his mind from remaining occupied with the memory of previous situations, personal desires or a compulsive anxiety to understand at once what is going on in the session. This concept bears close resemblance to Freud's "floating attention".

It is in this sense that Bion reinforces the advantages of "artificially blinding oneself" as also proposed by Freud, meaning that the analyst should avoid being influenced by his previous knowledge so that this does not contaminate his apprehension of what is going on in the 'here and now" of the session. This "illumination through blindness" inspired in "artificially blinding oneself" is described by Bion as "a penetrating torch of darkness" which is like a searchlight: the poetic image being that "the stars are only visible in the dark". Thus, memory, desire and the need to understand are "illuminations" that destroy the analyst's capacity to observe, just as light penetrating a camera destroys the value of the exposed film. Rather than "forgetting", Bion is advocating an attitude that by restraining activities of memory, desire and need to understand, will provide a mental state called "faith".

We are aware that both analysand and analyst fear the experience of the "unknown" , for this leads to what Bion refers to as "catastrophic change". Bion sees three possible means used to escape of this fear of the unknown: a) flight into the past: memory ; b) flight into the future: desire; c) flight into the present: intellectual understanding.

Nonetheless, a distinction must be made of two aspects of what is generally denominated as "memory" : 1) an "active memory" , a "wish to remember" that we could call "wilful memory" and 2) a memory "evoked" in us, a spontaneous recalling that we could call "non-wilful memory".

Likewise Bion differentiates two ways in which the analyst's memory may reveal itself in the analytic situation: i) obstructive memory - the aim of which is to control the very anxiety of the analyst with regard to the unknown - this has an adverse effect on the analytic search, and ii) evocation (evoked memory), which arises spontaneously with respect to what is going on in the session - this is essential to the analytic work.

This evoked memory is like a "dream-like memory", which can be compared with the substance of dreams, corresponding to 'psychic reality".It shares with dreams "the quality of being totally present or inexplicably and suddenly absent". This state of "dream" or "reverie" allows the analyst to have free access to his fantasies, day-dreaming and emotions and this is what makes it possible for the analyst to capture the emotional state of the analysand.

Bion calls the non-wilful memory evoked in the analyst "intuition" and/or "evolution" and claims that this is the base on which analytic work stands.

Intuition corresponds thus to this spontaneous appearance of facts in the analyst's mind that allows access to incognizable truths. Evolution implies an ability to join, through sudden intuition, a serious of incoherent and apparently unrelated phenomena that in this way acquire the coherence and meaning they were lacking.

Bion gives this state of "non-memory", "non-desire" and "non-understanding" the name of "negative capability", after Keats who defines it as "the quality possessed by a person who is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reasons".

The other condition that is necessary for insight is precisely the capacity to wait. Bion says that "negative capability" also refers to the analyst's minimum condition of "waiting" until insight - and consequently interpretation - becomes possible.

Interpretation demands of the analyst the basic condition of functioning as a "container" for the analysand's associations and projections. This "capacity to contain" implies both that the analyst is able "to deal with" his doubts, uncertainties and anxieties with regard to what he does not yet know how to signify to himself as well as being able "to wait for" the reception and elaboration of the material until an interpretation can be formulated. So the analyst has to be able to pass through a "state of patience" before reaching a "state of security". Bion feels that interpretations that appear after passing through these two emotional states are the true indications of an adequate analytic work.

For Bion, progress in analysis is inseparable from the need to bear mental pain. This holds both for analysand and analyst. The word "patience" comes from "pathos" that in Greek means "suffering". The analyst himself must learn how to be patient not only in the sense of managing to support the pain of his own mental growth but also, inevitably, in the sense of managing to bear the pain of waiting until the light appears. Here patience means an active process on the part of the analyst and is associated with a state of suffering and tolerance of frustration. Bion claims that we analysts are initially unaware of what is going on. However, "if we wait, if we don't run away, and if we go on observing our analysand, a pattern will emerge". Only in this way will we succeed in moving from the equivalent to a "paranoid-schizoid position" into a "depressive position".

Bion speaks of a constant oscillation between the two situations (Ps <-> D). He says that if the analyst tolerates the aspect of dispersion (Ps of the function) without strong anxieties, the appropiate term would be "patience". He proposes the term "security" for the emotional state experienced after the discovery of the "selected fact" in the "apparent chaos" of the analysand's communication. This selected fact, in turn, "is an emotion or an idea that will lend coherence to what is disperse by introducing order into disorder". The discovery of the selected fact leads to insight.

Clinical Material
(omitted here)


Whenever the analysand faces up to a new strong emotional experience that he is uncapable of handling and therefore cannot "think it" he looks for a means of making this possible. That is, he looks for a continent that may be able to contain whatever he is, at that moment, not able to contain by himself.

The function of continence on the part of the analyst is an active process. It has to do with the condition in which the analyst is capable of receiving the analysand's anguish for sufficient time in order to be able to decodify and process it within himself so that he can give it back to the analysand "detoxicated" (interpretation) in a way that the analysand can then take it back into his own personality in a tolerable form.

Therefore, through successful projective identification, the analysand is brought into contact with the analyst, as an object with a space for the distress which the analysand cannot yet tolerate, at the same time providing the analysand with an opportunity of internalising an analyst who has this capacity. This means that the analysand's dependence on the containment by the analyst will eventually be replaced by the containment of the analysand's own mind.

A successful analysis is then, one that propitiates the analysand to develop, progressively, in himself, this capacity of containment.

So the analyst receives what is being projected into him by the analysand in the form of free associations, slips, dreams, transferences,etc. Also, with the help of his own "reverie" and his ability and patience to cope with his "not knowing" of the situation, he will eventually be able to understand these emotions that are stirred up in him by the analysand - which are in fact the effects of what was provoked in him by the analysand - and give back to the analysand the result of such understanding - insight - in a manner that the analysand can then tolerate - interpretation .

Bion states that the operation "contain-containment" is analagous to that of the "alpha-function". So, what apparently appears to be a series of incoherent, inarticulated and disjointed associations on the part of the analysand are in fact, a communication designed to evoke from the analyst a state that will fullfill the function of a "selected fact" that will give coherence to the whole.


We shall conclude by stressing the equivalence between the "stereoscopic vision of a stereogram" and "psychoanalytic insight". "Stereoscopic vision" results from a binocular vision which creates a new image providing a vision of depth on the sensorial level. This requires a "correct seeing technique".

Similarly, "insight" results from a binocular vision coming from the junction of the vertices of conscious and unconscious residues which creates a new meaning by offering a vision of depth on the level of understanding. This also requires a "correct seeing technique", that is, a "basic attitude".

A "stereogram" has the peculiarity of appearing to be a "composite of patterns assembled merely by chance and without any meaning". The tri-dimensional image offered by this "special observation" is what lends it a "meaning". This presupposes two things. First, relaxation: being able to submit to the experience and to look out of focus. Not to try to see or look for anything.Above all, not "to want to see". Secondly, patience. Only when we can stand the image being "out of focus" can we see a new image in three dimensions which could not be seen before. Only then can we "fix" this image and "feel amazed" at how comfortable and clear the it becomes.

Likewise, the "special observation technique" that allows for "insight" presupposes two things. First, being able to submit to the experience "without memory", "without desire" and "without the need to understand at once". This is equivalent to "looking out of focus". Freud's "floating attention" seeks no object. One cannot "want to see". "Wanting to see" precludes any other possibility. Thus the non-focused look covers another area that can be seen when the directed field of vision is not operative. "Looking without wanting to see" enables something to become organized within a field where nothing is being sought. Something odd happens when memory, desire and the need to understand are held in suspension: a certain sense becomes predominant. This sense is not being "sought"; rather, it "reaches" us. There is an "illumination", that is ,something that was not being sought is "revealed". Second, having a "negative capability", the "patience" to wait. If we can bear what appears to be disperse, things that seem to have no correlation with one another, at a given moment a "field" will be organized by means of the "selected fact". "Insight" is the moment when this field is organized and takes on a "meaning". To reach this point the analyst must be able to bear an uncomfortable mental state, a state that is difficult to stand because things are felt to be unknown, a state of "suffering": the state of "patience". It is only after the analyst is able to stand this pain that he may reach an emotional state where understanding gains clarity and distinctness: the "state of security".

In the analytic field, insight can be achieved by either analyst or analysand , or both. Either component of the analytic dyad can enter the analytic moment with the necessary "negative capability" and make use of his own "reverie" in such a way as to allow for insight to be an experience that will come to him. Whoever reaches this moment first is likely to be the person who will make the idea public.

When this publication of the idea that results from insight allows for a "useful distance" between the vertices of analysand and analyst, there will exist a possibility of a correlation and confrontation between them and the result will be a "binocular view" of the emotional experience they are undergoing. However, whenever this is not possible, patience will again be required.

So, if the analyst alone has reached insight he must have the patience to wait until this can be an experience that he can also share with the analysand. We believe, we have faith in, that if it is indeed an insight , and the analyst is indeed an adequate continent, the chances are that the analysand will come to share this experience and will eventually come to internalise this function of containment.



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