Grey Room

Editor’s Introduction: What Bound the Double Bind?

Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan

Gregory Bateson addressing the camera in unedited footage shot for The Nature of Play: Part 1, River Otters, dir. Gregory Bateson and Weldon Kees, 1954. Bateson Collection at the Don D. Jackson Archive, University of Louisiana at Monroe. Reproduced with permission of the Bateson Idea Group.


In 1952 the anthropologist Gregory Bateson successfully applied to the Rockefeller Foundation for a two-year, $30,000 grant to convene a team at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Hospital for the study of “problems on the borderline between anthropology, psychiatry and cybernetics.” The project members formed the core of what became known as the Palo Alto Group, best known for founding an approach to psychotherapy based on the identification and treatment of “double binds.” They defined double binds as logical paradoxes in patterns of family communication that compelled a single family member— the person labeled mentally ill—to devise aberrant modes of interaction that bridged seemingly irreconcilable injunctions from the family. For example, they argued that conflation of literal and metaphorical language by schizophrenic patients embodied the case of an individual resolving logical contradictions between the messages communicated by the words and the actions of family members. Adapting Bertrand Russell’s theory of logical types, which treated the problem of discontinuity between a class and its members, Bateson and his colleagues termed schizophrenics’ characteristic mixing of discursive levels “type confusion.” Psychotherapists, the hypothesis suggested, could enter into this communication network to help unbind these pathological patterns of interaction. Although the group’s hypothesis appeared in print in the 1956 article “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia,” exactly what led to the double-bind hypothesis has never quite been clear. The dossier presented in this issue of Grey Room offers an answer: Media made the double bind.