Beta elements and alpha elements are conceptual categories to help label and understand various processes involved with thinking. The categories beta element and alpha element were created by Indian-born, British-educated psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion.
Bion studied group dynamics psychoanalytically, theorizing a model of group dynamics based on the works of Sigmund Freud. In particular, he examined the ways in which groups might be governed by some of the same unconscious forces that Freud had suggested rule individual behavior.
Bion also theorized a model of mind and thought. He suggested that the mind held two kinds of information. The first was raw sensory data and emotional experience. He identified these bits of information as beta elements.
Bion suggested that within the mind there existed some process by which beta elements entered a persons conscious awareness. He called this process the alpha function.
He argued that since we are conscious of our beta elements (i.e. we are aware of having been happy or sad, or having seem a building or a ballon) there must be some process transforming our raw sensory input into thoughts, memories, experiences, and words. Bion called these processed bits of information alpha elements. Alpha elements were the aspects of experience one could talk about, think about, and contemplate.
Though Bion's model may appear simplistic in comparison to contemporary models of mind and thought, his schema proved a valuable resource to psychoanalytic theorists of his day. He and his contemporaries used the model to grapple with some of the most pressing questions in psychoanalytic theory and treatment. Bion's work made a lasting contribution to the field.