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Caccia, O. (1984). Container and Contained: Analysis of Two Ten Year Old Boys. J. Child Psychother., 10(1):57-69.

(1984). Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 10(1):57-69

Container and Contained: Analysis of Two Ten Year Old Boys

Ornella Caccia


This paper is an attempt to illustrate Bion's concept of container-contained, his ideas of maternal reverie, alpha and beta elements and alpha function: all concepts he left deliberately empty to be filled with meaning by others using them in clinical work.

Bion's theoretical assumption is that an infant at the beginning of his life does not have a mental apparatus for “thinking” — for making sense of the different sensual experiences that impinge on him both from within and from outside himself. When his experiences become unpleasant he can only evacuate them into the mother, whose first function is to contain them and thereby to relieve the baby of his discomfort. These unpleasant, at times frightening, and yet meaningless bodily feelings that get dumped into mother, Bion calls “beta elements”. It is on these meaningless elements that the mother exercises her capacity for reverie — that is, she tries to make sense of them, to give them a meaning in order to understand her baby and so find an answer to his distress. This work that mother (the container) does on the infant's projections (the contained) Bion calls “alpha function”. Through this function the meaningless elements become thoughts which are given back with mother's voice and behaviour to the baby and help him to tolerate and slowly to understand his experience.

When this interchange between mother and baby is successful it leads to mutual joy and enrichment — a good “commensal relationship” as Bion calls it.

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