A b s t r a c t

The paper deals with Freud's old dream of unifying brain and mind and therefore with the emergence of thinking. Bion, inspired by Freud, went further with his own creativity. Certain aspects of Bion's theorisation are juxtaposed with some recent findings of neuroscience particularly those of Edelman regarding the embodiment of the mind. Bion's idea of the mental digestion of the emotional experience is examined; it is a concept at the very center of Bion's theory of thinking which describe the transformation from corporeity to humanisation. It is suggested that Bion's intuitive ideas about thinking may provide a linkage from Freud's instinct theory and old dream to modern neurosciences. This linkage should encourage cooperative efforts between psychoanalysis and neuroscience to investigate the very beginnings of hominisation an urgent task recommended to us by Bion in order to better comprehend the woes and discontents of our times.



"It is a matter of the greatest possible urgency that the human animal should discover what sort of animal he is before he has blown himself off the earth" (Bion, 1978, p. 10)


Freud's old dream that one day brain and mind will be unified is expressed as late as 1926: "We may look forward to a day when paths of knowledge... will be opened up leading from organic biology and chemistry to the field of neurotic phenomena" (1926, p. 231).

My intention is to remind you briefly of some of the freudian concepts about the emergence of thinking, concepts which, I feel, have inspired Bion; secondly to juxtapose ideas of Edelman and Bion about the enbodiment of the mind, memory and consciousness; thirdly, to relate Bion's 'digestive model' with its usefulness in the clinical situation and with recent findings of neuroscience about the enteric nervous system (ENS).


Three works of Freud, have particularly influenced Bion's theory of thinking: the Project, the seventh chapter of the Book of Dreams and the 1911 "Two Principles on mental functionning". In these three works, Freud returns to the account of the "experience of satisfaction" (1895, p. 318). In it, Freud came closest to formulating the part played by objects' relations on the emergence of thinking, that is in the transformation of a somatic animal into a thinking human-being. Indeed the screaming of the infant not only expresses primarily the discharge of an instinctual impulse due to the sensations of pain and hunger but, to quote Freud: "when the attention of an experienced person is drawn to the child's state, this path of discharge acquires a secondary function of the highest importance, that of communication."

I suggest that it may have been this remark of Freud along with his own work with psychotics which prompted Bion, by imprinting his own creativity, to modify Mrs. Klein's idea of pathological projective identification into a normal way for the infant (or the psychotic) to communicate his distress to the experienced person.(*) Clearly for Bion thinking emerges from bodily events (beta elements) and the experience of satisfaction is the matrix of new mentation.

Here we are sent back to Chapter 12 of Learning in which Bion elaborated on the emergence of thinking in the absence of the realisation of the breast: "if there is no 'thing', is 'no thing' a thought and is it by virtue, of the fact that there is 'no thing' that we recognize that 'it' must be thought". Therefore, that all new nascent thought in the clinical situation would follow a similar pattern from its prototype in the experience of the "hungry baby" (Freud, 1900, p. 565).

In his New Lectures (1933), p. 96) Freud went even further suggesting a progressive transformation from body to mind stating "the source of an instinctual impulse is a state of excitation in the body, its aim is the removal of that excitation; on its path from its source in the body to its aim [which is satisfaction by the appropriate object] the instinct becomes operative psychically". Something somatic and sensory will progressively become operative psychically through the satisfaction of its aim by an object.

Here again, inspired by Freud, Bion took also a leaf from Klein in recognizing the importance in the epistemophilic impulse of the emotional link with the object. But he went further than Freud and Klein by establishing the basis of his theory of thinking on the centrality of the "digestion" of emotional experience, with the assistance of the rêverie in the mind of the object, therefore uniting a physiological process to a psychological process.

III. BION AND EDELMAN: The Embodiment of the Mind and the question of memory and consciousness

Just as Freud who referred to "the great Darwin", (1901, p. 148) both Bion and Edelman have been inspired by the evolution theory and the passage from animality to hominization. Edelman whole book (1992) dedicated to both Darwin and Freud is an attempt to answer the question "How is the mind embodied" (p. 265). And no other analytic theory of mentation is more embodied than Bion's theory. Edelman's theory is strongly inspired by Darwin's work on evolution and natural selection and Bion's theory proposes many philogenetic and ontogenetic connections: protomental apparatus, prenatal parts of the personality, basic assumptions derived from primitive groupings, etc...

Edelman's first work was in immunology. He studied the body's capacity at the cellular level to distinguish self from non-self. He went on to prove that the body produces a vast repertoire (perhaps millions) of antibody molecules. When a foreign antigen (non-self) from the environment enters the body (self), it selects only those specific molecules with which it has a "good enough" fit. Then the cells that produce these specific antibodies multiply rapidly giving the body the immune response that eliminates the intruder. In this way, he confirmed that the immune system functions by selection not by instruction, a theory of immunity now widely accepted and for which he obtained the Nobel Prize in 1972. Later, Edelman realized that the system of recognition in the immune system might be a model for what happens in the brain, where there exists an enormous diversity and therefore an open field for a process of selection. So he turned his attention to neuroscience and proposed that both brain and mind develop and function by selection, one of the conditions for selection being great diversity. This condition is well fulfilled in the brain which contains twelve billions neurones (Kandel commented recently that the total number may be as large as twenty-five billions) and each of these neurones may have several thousand synapses.

Metaphorically speaking, brain development sounds like a neuronal free-for-all in which the fittest neurones prevail. Indeed, it seems likely that the "fittest" neurones are the ones that are in the right place at the right time to be stimulated by both the internal and external environment. The others do not survive or do not develop synapses as a result of lack of stimulation. Therefore for Edelman, at the level of brain development, it is the stimulation of new experiences that makes a difference, just as well as for Bion, for whom the stimulation of new emotional experiences will make a difference in psychic growth.

To quote a friend of mine: "Edelman's theory of neuronal group selection is beautiful in its simplicity and awesome in its complexity; beautiful because it is simply an extension of Darwin's theory of natural selection; awesome because a thorough understanding of the theory of neuronal group selection (TNGS) demands more than a passing knowledge of evolution theory, molecular biology, immunology, genetics, neuroembryology, and philosophy" (Gibbard, B. 1995)

Edelman's concept of memory as categorization or recognition is very similar to a theory of memory that Freud proposed in a letter to Fliess (December 6, 1895) in which Freud mentionned that he has been working on the idea that memory traces are being subjected to a rearrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances, to a retranscription (Nachtraglichkeit); memory therefore would be present not once but several times over, then laid down in various kinds of indications. Edelman came to a similar conclusion: memory is not permanent, not isomorphic with experience.

"Memory in the nervous system is a dynamic property of populations of neuronal groups... Memory emerges from continual dynamic changes in the synaptic populations within global mappings... In such a system, recall is not stereotypic... [but] result from a process of continual recategorization... unlike computer-based memory" (p. 102) which is exactly repetitive. Memory is present not once but several times over; every time a memory is recalled, it is recalled differently. The degree of difference depends upon the context in which it is remembered. As memories change, so the past is changed.

Compare this now to some of Bion's ideas. For Bion, the development of the mind is also a complicated process which has to be structured every step of the way. Bion's concepts of the selected fact and of mental digestion are, it seems to me, at the very center of the question of memory and consciousness. As early as 1959, Bion wrote in his private notes published under the editorial care of Francesca Bion (1992, p. 52): "Obviously what is needed is to consider what <<digesting>> facts consists of in detail". Already he was embarking on a most important task.

For Bion, the 'undigested facts' or beta elements are stored in the form of bodily sensory traces. They are raw elements of sensuous and affective impressions in which psychic and physical are yet indistinguishable. As such they can only be dealt with by projective identification as a form of primitive communication. It has been one of his main contributions to remind us, that much of our lives is lived without thinking outside significant emotional experiences. And that we often busily go about our daily activities without thinking about it's meaning, surrounded by a mass of <<undigested facts>>, Bion insists: "It is important to distinguish between memories and 'undigested facts'" (1962, p. 7) Because they are not genuine memories, they are unavailable for thought and consciousness until they are transformed by alpha function that is by the interpretation of the <<selected fact>> in order to become <<recycled>> as genuine memories which can then acquire the possibility of retranscription and be forgotten or recalled. Learning from an emotional experience is indeed a retranscription so that "the mind builds itself, bit by bit, by <<digesting>> experiences" (Meltzer, 1984, p. 42) and the Grid will graphically describe the whole progressive process going from corporeity to levels of greater abstraction. But when the 'undigested facts' are not transformed (or metabolized), they remain in the words of Alvin Frank (1969) "The unrememberable and the unforgettable" and in the words of Edelman's the 'remembered present' (p. 120) characteristic of the 'primary order consciousness'.

This primary consciousness may be at least 300 million years in evolution, a consciousness which we share with chimpanzees and most mammals. In this state of 'remembered present' even though the animal can act on long term memory, it is unable to be aware of that memory at the moment of its action and it cannot plan an extended future based on that memory. Edelman gives this example: "An animal with primary consciousness sees the room the way a beam of light illuminates it. Only that which is in the beam is explicitely in the remembered present; all else is darkness" (p. 122). This absence of a usable inscription in the temporality, this state in which the mind is not aware of past and of future is reminiscent of the clinical situation with borderline and psychotic patients and may correspond to Bion's 'psychotic part of the personality' present in all of us. Aren't we, at these moments, functionning at the level of Edelman's 'primary order consciousness'?

For Edelman, the tyranny of the 'remembered present' of primary consciousness will be broken by 'higher order consciousness' which arises from primary consciousness but does not replace it even though there may be oscillations philogenetically or ontogenetically. (these oscillations, in my opinion, are beginning to resemble Bion's SP<--->D).

The higher order consciousness will come from several developments of new neuronal maps and then mapping of the maps, mutually interacting and propelling one another. The end result will be:

a) An emerging consciousness of self and non-self in social communication. And then with the brain, mapping an awareness of its own processes, there will emerge the capacity for consciousness of being conscious, a momentus step in evolution comparable to the ontological development of the child beginning to think about thinking.

b) New forms of memory capable of modeling a past and a future and a brain repertoire in the frontal cortex stimulated by affective rewards for delayed responses enabling the capacity to wait for gratification. Here, we are reminded of Bion's statement: "The choice that matters to the psychoanalyst is one that lies between procedures designed to evade frustration and those designed to modify it. That is the critical decision" (Bion's italics, 1962, p. 29).

c) Evolution of the vocal tract and brain centers for articulated sounds and eventually language but before language, the capacity for metaphor which should not be overlooked by considering it only as a figure of speech. (this point has been elaborated by Arnold Model, 1995, and Edelman refers, in his book, to a discussion between them).

As we know metaphoric communication is not limited to words as it is ever present in gestures and mimetic actions. That metaphors are used to describe bodily sensations is well known to analysts. One familiar metaphor is that of the body as a container filled with affects, as if affects were a concrete substance within that container. Klein's (1946) "Memories in feelings" are experiences stored without verbal content and we know in our work how appropriate interpretation of Bion's 'selected fact' may act as a container of affect. The linkage here with Bion's container-contained is evident.

IV. BION'S THEORY OF THINKING: The digestive model, a metaphor, an analogy, or more?

In the analytic literature, it is possible to find before Bion hints of a digestive model for the thinking apparatus: Rado's (1926, p. 408) "alimentary orgasm" and Simmel's (1944, p. 129) "intestinalization of the process of thinking". But, it is Bion who for the first time in psychoanalysis has proposed an integrated theory for the construction of a thinking apparatus based on the alimentary system "as a model for demonstrating and comprehending the processes involved in thought... certain patients [being] influenced by the belief that they digest thoughts and that the consequences of doing so are similar to the digestion of food" (1962, p. 62).... "the mental component, as distinct from the somatic requires a process analogous to digestion" (1962, p. 35) and "the effect on the personality of such deprivation [of truth] is analogous to the effect of physical starvation on the physique" (1962, p. 56). Accordingly, the mind having constructed itself by the observation of the alimentary system, the model that the psyche would have of itself would be one of a gastro-intestinal-sensory-emotional-conceptual system. This system would have the task to digest that is to metabolize, to transform the "emotional experience" finding its sustenance in truth and having to recognize and to reject lies to avoid being potentially intoxicated by them.

To summarize: Bion's formulation about thinking is that thinking commences with the observation of the emotional experience and the emotional experience is right there in the body, it is absolutely apprehended first as a bodily event which may then be processed through symbol formation and becomes available in dreams and therefore may become available for transformation into thought and so on [See: the grid] ... We see it in the clinical situation, people first experience a somatic state and then it began to be apprehended as a conscious emotional experience. What alpha function works upon is in the body, there is no body-mind in this model of the mind. Emotional experiences that are not worked upon by alpha function are thus evacuated into the body. And this is Bion's theory of psychosomatic, the most clinically usable framework of reference for psychosomatic illness as well as somapsychotic manifestations.

a) Observations in clinical practice

In previous papers, (Da Silva, 1990, etc...) I have presented extensive reports and observations inside and outside the clinical situation which, in my opinion, sustain Bion's proposal that the mind may indeed have employed the digestive model as an analogy for its development. And I have became convinced that borborygmi (gurgling sounds) of both analysand and analyst at certain moments of the analytic session may be seen as markers of psychic work and witnesses to the transformation from soma to psyche; at these moments patients experience a fantasy and at times an hallucination of an alimentary gratification by a feeding object as if they were 'rewarded', so to speak, for their newly acquired capacity to tolerate the absence of the concrete gratification.

b) Observations from biology, embryology and the neurosciences

Ontogeny teaches us that the two most primitive layers of cells forming the embryonic plate will detach themselves, one the layer of endoblasts to form the endoderm from which the alimentary canal will be formed, the other, the layer of ectoblasts to form the ectoderm which will develop into the neural tube and the brain.

On the the other hand, phylogeny indicates that there exists a remarkable similarity between primitive organisms and more advanced mammals in the chain of evolution in the form in which the alimentary canal traverses the interior of the body from mouth to anus; in certain organisms, for instance in the ascarid and in the earthworm, the alimentary canal, surrounded by a ring of nervous web, occupies most of the bodily space, as if this "tube" serving for the ingestion of food, the digestion and the elimination was the main if not the sole organ of survival. (Atlas de biologie, 1994, p. 127-128).

The modern neuroscientists have been so impressed by their recent findings that they have started to call the gastroenteric system a "third brain". In summary here are some of their findings:

a. Over the past ten years, many peptides (cholecystokinine; vasoactive intestinal polypeptide; insulin, glucagon, etc...) which were believed to have their sole origin at the level of the gastrointestinal tract, were found to have also their synthesis at the interior of the central nervous system in the vertebrates; these peptides seem to have a function of neurotransmission or neuromodulation at the synapses and a function of regulation of the homeostasis; at least fourteen gastrointestinal peptides are found in the central nervous system (CNS); the locus cereleus is one possible CNS area having both afferent and efferent connections to the gut that might constitute what Walker (1990) called a "missing link". In the invertebrates, before the development of an endocrine or a neural system, these peptides seem to serve as primitive elements for the intercellular communication. (Krieger, 1983)

b. The enteric nervous system (ENS) has been called the third division of the autonomic nervous system, structurally resembling the CNS more than the peripheral nervous system. It is unique: structurally, chemically and functionally. It has a blood-myenteric barrier analogous to the blood-thymic barrier and a blood-brain barrier. Like in the cortex it uses glial cells for support rather than Schwann cells.

c. It appears also that enteric neurons are the descendents of cells that emigrated from the neural crest and have migrated to colonize the bowel. It is likely that precursors able to give rise to each type of neurons found in the mature ENS are present among the earliest neural crest emigrés to reach the bowel (Gershom, 1983).

All these findings led these researchers to refer to Langlay's (1903) classic description of the ENS as a third separate autonomic division or even as a "third brain".


From the perspective of the TNGS, mind and brain compose a seamless web. If the TNGS is proven to be correct, Edelman will have succeeded in creating a monist theory of brain and mind and he would have succeeded where Freud failed no doubt because the necessary basic neuroscience was not known at the time and could not have been anticipated either during the last years of Bion's life. However, Bion called our attention to the necessity of investigating the prenatal parts of the personality and their lasting effects on human existence (1978, p. 26) and in "Memoir of the Future" he returned to his earlier interests in group life but exploring it within the individual person in whom the prenatal parts of the personality do their thinking with the body and obey laws closer to neurophysiology than to psychology.

We will not be able to advance in this investigation which entails the early beginnings of hominisation without the cooperative efforts of psychoanalysis and neuroscience. Both Bion's theory of the mind and Edelman's TNGS have put aside Descartes' dualism and replaced it by monism. As we have seen, Bion has intuitively suggested that the process of mentation develop by analogy to the process of digestion. Are these recent observations in neuroscience suggesting, at least in some ways, an homology of function if not of structure?

Obviously many questions remain and much work need to be done by psychoanalysis and by neuroscience now exploring the problem of intentionality and meaning. Will the gap ever be closed between natural science and human science? Whatever the course of events, Bion's theory is, in my opinion, the most interesting analytic theory as a link between the propositions of Darwin and Freud and the recent findings of modern neuroscience.

As I have indicated in exergue, Bion has summoned us to the urgent task of discovering what sort of animal we are, before we blow ourselves off the earth. This exhortation reminds me of another one made half-jokingly and half-seriously by Konrad Lorenz: "We should stop searching for the <<missing link>> between animality and humanity because we are the <<missing link>>"!!


(*) Experienced person: a term important in Bion's work (the experienced officer, the emotional experience, learning from experience) which should be taken in it's etymological meaning: "ex-perire", someone who has encountered a peril to his life, physical or mental, and has survived.


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