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Billow, R.M. (1999). LHK: The Basis of Emotion in Bion's Theory. Contemp. Psychoanal., 35(4):629-646.

(1999). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 35(4):629-646

LHK: The Basis of Emotion in Bion's Theory

Richard M. Billow, Ph.D.

WHILE BION'S WORK continues to inspire contemporary psycho-analysts, his ideas on human emotion get little attention and are not well known. Bion was not a systematic writer, and the scope of his thinking is not immediately or easily accessible. As he developed his own metapsychology, he often did not delineate when and how he was challenging or modifying the grand metapsychologies of Freud and Klein. He also introduced the Grid and a system of mathematical and alphabetical symbols, the latter exemplified by the subject of this essay: LHK (the basis of emotion). His intentions included offering a shorthand for his metapsychology, to make his ideas accessible, flexible, and practical for the working analyst.

Bion posited three primary emotions: the urge to love, the urge to hate, and the urge to seek knowledge (particularly emotional knowledge), notated, respectively, as “L,” “H,” and “K.” These rudimentary emotions are primitive psychic stimuli — the constitutional or instinctual givens — which the individual brings to his or her experience. The analyst may observe how both patient and analyst struggle with these emotions as they emerge within the psychoanalytic situation, often vaguely at first, and without coherence, to be transformed by mental functioning into symbols, nameable affects or feelings, and thoughts.

Bion (1967a) admonished the analyst to eschew “memory and desire,” to participate within each hour with a minimum of intellectual and emotional assumptions. He also advocated intellectual exercises however: introspective squiggle games played with signs and symbols rather than lines. The symbolic shorthand, LHK, could be used by the analyst to identify and think about the emerging emotions. Playing with Bion's metapsychological constructs could provide an antidote for such therapist-based


The author thanks Dr. Charles Raps for his clear thinking and editorial feedback regarding several versions of the manuscript.

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