Intuition and the internal world

The vehicle of direct communication between peoples’ unconscious internal worlds is the non-semantic (song-and-dance) aspects of language. While we communicate about the physical world using conscious symbolic thought and the semantic aspects of language, communication between unconscious internal worlds takes place on the register of song-and-dance.

The power of music and dance to both express and elicit visceral emotion— emotion felt in the body—is a part of everyone’s experience; the dance response of infants to the music of speech suggests that we tune in from birth to song-and-dance directly with our bodies. Bodily experiences are the earliest and, throughout life, most fundamental locus of Klein’s unconscious internal world.

While we can detect the inanimate physical world, and the behaviour of others, with our sensory apparatus, awareness of another person’s internal state requires the apparatus of intuition.3 Intuition is, therefore, a kind of music appreciation, tuned in to the major mode of unconscious communication, the register of song-and-dance.

The logically rigorous symbolic language of science is adequate for the description of the world of external (physical) phenomena, but so far has not proven adequate for the description of the phenomenology of the unconscious mind. For that, one seems to need the older language of bodily and musical expression, with its psychological and emotional vitality and paradoxical coexistence of opposites. The psychoanalyst’s task is to express the music of unconscious phenomena using the lexical language of the conscious mind. How to do this, short of becoming a poet, is a challenging question. Over a long period, however, psychoanalyst and patient do seem to develop a language that is known to both and is more or less up to the task. Perhaps the slow development of this private language is one reason an analysis takes as long as it does and cannot be hurried.

Song-and-dance and the internal world

Song-and-dance communicates animate, unconscious internal realities directly from one person to another. These realities are intuited rather than being processed symbolically; their significance is felt in the body rather than being decoded by the intellect (that is, their effect, like that of music, is immediate, emotional, and non-verbal). The impact of song-and-dance on the minds of those involved bypasses critical discrimination and reasoning; it has an immediate effect on one’s unconscious internal world and consequently one’s conscious state of mind. This earliest form of communication between people starts at birth and is vital for mental development.

The deep levels of unconscious internal world, located on the border between bodily sensation and mental experience, are the source of emotionality. The origins of emotionality in bodily sensation are evident in the language we use to describe emotional states. “My heart sank”, “that made me ill”, “I’ve got the weight of the world on my shoulders”, “that really burned me”, “my heart’s in my throat”, “his heart leapt for joy”, “she gives me a headache”, “heartwarming”, “I’ve had a belly full”, “I have a gut feeling”, and so on.

The music and dance of Condon’s “shared organization” conveys emotional experience directly and unconsciously. Observations of infants strongly indicate that this kind of communication plays a vital role of the development of the infant’s and young child’s mind. If conscious communication means exchanging discreet and deliberate messages with one another, unconscious communication means seeping insensibly, involuntarily and unwittingly into each other’s minds.

It is likely that the internal world is formed by something like this insensible mutual seeping between the mind of the infant and the minds of those it is in contact with. Two elements seem to be needed for the infant’s internal world to develop. The first is the state of mind of the external person with whom the infant is in contact, for example, a mother’s love for the infant, conveyed through the song-and-dance, non-semantic communication between mother and infant. The second is the infant’s capacity to recognize this love—his possession of a “receptor” in his internal world that enables him to intuit it, so to speak. This receptor turns out to be the infant’s own love for its mother. Both of these elements are communicated by song-and-dance.

The importance for psychological development of the infant’s having a wellfunctioning receptor for its mother’s love may be seen by considering the consequences of failing to develop one. In his book Learning from Experience (1962), Bion describes a patient whose thought processes lacked the qualities of depth, resonance, and evocativeness that one associates with the human mind, and so seemed to be the product not of a mind, but of a machine. From the data of the patient’s analysis, he draws a picture of the mental “organ” whose impairment resulted in this state of affairs, and reconstructs how it might have gotten that way. This reconstruction is worth recounting in some detail.

He begins by taking seriously the commonplace that, just as infants need physical care and comfort, they must also receive love. From this it follows that an infant must have the capacity to perceive love—a “sense organ” for love— much as it has sense organs for perceiving food and warmth.

He considers what might happen if something interfered with the infant’s ability to take in those of its mother’s states of mind that constitute its emotional sustenance. This could occur if, for example, the infant were unable to bear the emotional strain of realizing that its well-being—and even its survival—depended on something as intangible as its mother’s love. In its horror of needing what is intangible, and therefore not possessable, the infant blinds itself to these needs and to the love, solace and understanding that would remind it of them. Starved of the requirements for mental and emotional growth, but unable to grasp them, it redoubles its desperate efforts to obtain what it can still perceive: material satisfactions divorced from emotional gratification.

In consequence, the infant grows into an adult like Bion’s patient, who greedily pursued every form of material comfort in a vain effort to supply himself with the non-material comfort he lacked but could not recognize. He eventually comes to live in a perceptual world composed only of material objects, and inevitably becomes like a material object himself, a state of affairs reflected in his machine-like thought processes. To Bion, this represents a “breakdown in the patient’s equipment for thinking” about emotional realities, which leaves him living in a universe populated by emotionless objects that Bion calls inanimate: “the breakdown in animism affects the capacity of the individual to transform sense impressions into material suitable for use in dream-thoughts [that is, thinking]” (Bion, 1992, pp. 133—134). In Bion’s view, creation of such unpersonified, meaningless, psychologically dead internal objects destroys the ability to think in other than a machine-like way.

A person incapable of recognizing (intuiting) the emotional valence of interpersonal events (that is, incapable of operating in the register of song-and-dance) is a person unable to think like a person.


  • 1 Observations such as Schlossman’s (1926) about hospitalism in infants suggest that song-and-dance interactions are essential to life. If the required interaction fails, the infant falls apart and, in many cases, dies. Physical sustenance can, at least in principle, be delivered mechanically, but the satisfaction of emotional needs is delivered through the music and dance of speech, holding, rocking, soothing, caressing, cooing, and so on. It cannot be provided by a machine, because a machine cannot establish emotional contact with an infant.
  • 2 D16, Melanic Klein Trust papers, Wellcome Library; quoted in Hinshelwood (1997, p. 885).
  • 3 The importance of intuitive knowledge of other people’s minds can be seen from the deficit of intuition present in clinical autism. Those suffering from it must simulate emotional contact by deducing qualities such as friendliness and hostility from behavior because they cannot intuit them directly. The disability associated with autistic states highlights the importance of direct emotional intuition.


Wilfred Bion. Experiences in Groups. Basic Books, New York, 1961.

Wilfred Bion. Learning from Experience. Heinemann, London, 1962. (also in: Seven Servants, Jason Aronson, New York, 1977).

Wilfred Bion. A theory of thinking. In Second Thoughts, 110—119. William Heinemann, London, 1967. Originally published in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 43, 1962.

Wilfred Bion. Cogitations. Karnac, London, 1992.

Sigmund Freud. The unconscious. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 14, 1915.

Sigmund Freud. New introductory' lectures on psycho-analysis. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 22:64—145, 1933.

R. D. Hinshelwood. The elusive concept of “internal objects”: Its role in the formation of the Klein group. The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 78(5): 877-897, 1997.

Donald Meltzer. The Kleinian Development. Clunie Press, Perthshire, UK, 1978.

F. E. Schlossman. Frage des hospitalismus im sauglingsaustalten. Zeitschrift fur Kinderheilkunde, Berlin, 1926.

Elizabeth Spillius and Edna O’Shaughnessey. Projective Identification: The Fate of a Concept. Routledge, Abingdon, 2012.

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