Free Association

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Free association (considered the "fundamental rule") is the method used in psychoanalytic treatment. In free association the patient says whatever comes to mind without exercising any selectivity or censorship. It is based on Freud's deterministic concept of psychic phenomena: "We start, as you see, on the assumption, which he does not share in the least, that these spontaneous thoughts will not be arbitrarily chosen but will be determined by their relation to his secretto his 'complex'and may, as it were, be regarded as derivatives of that complex" (1906c, p. 108-109). The origin of this new method of therapy can be dated from Emmy von N's irritation with Freud for interrupting her when she spoke. The method was not codified until later and would become the keystone of the technique of psychoanalytic treatment. There is no mention of this in the Studies on Hysteria. At that time a pressure on the forehead was intended to bring forth an idea or an image with the help of which the cathartic method could be exercised.

The first mention of the fact that redirecting the patient's attention can allow connections to emerge between a forgotten word and repressed ideas appears in the analysis of the forgetting of "Signorelli's" name (1898b). But it is in the chapter on "The Method of Interpreting Dreams" (1900a) that the process is described in detail: "We . . . tell him that the success of the psycho-analysis depends on his noticing and reporting whatever comes into his head and not being misled, for instance, into suppressing an idea because it stikes him as unimportant or irrelevant or because it seems to him meaningless" (p. 101). The technique was used in the analysis of Dora and Freud specifies that he managed to "the pure metal of valuable unconscious thoughts can be extracted from the raw material of the patient's associations" (1905e, p. 112). For example, "It is a rule of psycho-analytic technique that an internal connection which is still undisclosed will announce its presence by means of a contiguitya temporal proximity of associations; just as in writing, if 'a' and 'b' are put side by side, it means that the syllable 'ab' is to be formed out of them (p. 39) . . . in a line of association, ambiguous words . . . act like a point at a junction (p. 65n) . . . I am in the habit of regarding associations such as this, which bring forward something that agrees with the content of an assertion of mine, as a confirmation from the unconscious of what I have said (p. 57) . . . [the unwillingness on Dora's part to follow the rules of dream-interpretation] coupled with the hesitancy and meagreness of her associations with the jewel-case, showed me that we were here dealing with material which had been very intensely repressed" (p. 69n).

It is in "On Beginning the Treatment" (1913c) that Freud made these ideas explicit: "One more thing before you start. What you tell me must differ in one respect from an ordinary conversation. Ordinarily you rightly try to keep a connecting thread running through your remarks and you exclude any intrusive ideas that may occur to you and any side-issues, so as not to wander too far from the point. But in this case you must proceed differently. You will notice that as you relate things various thoughts will occur to you which you would like to put aside on the ground of certain criticisms and objections. You will be tempted to say to yourself that this or that is irrelevant here, or is quite up important, or nonsensical, so that there is no need to say it. You must never give in to these criticisms, but must say it in spite of themindeed, you must say it precisely because you feel an aversion to doing so. Later on you will find out and learn to understand the reason for this injunction, which is really the only one you have to follow. So say whatever goes through your mind. Act as though, for instance, you were a traveler sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing views which you see outside. Finally, never forget that you have promised to be absolutely honest, and never leave anything out because, for some reason or other, it is unpleasant to tell it" (p. 135).

This method of free association was often confused with the association experiments involving stimulus words that Eugen Bleuler and Carl Gustav Jung were doing at the same time at the Burghölzli clinic. Even though he referred to the method in "Psycho-Analysis and Establishment of Facts in Legal Proceedings" (1906c), Freud was careful to differentiate his own work from it and, on February 26, 1908, referred to this technique as a "coarse method, to which psychoanalysis is far superior" (Nunberg and Federn, 1962-1975, p. 335). But for years commentators, especially in France, have attributed its use to him.

In 1920, in "A Note on the Prehistory of the Technique of Analysis," Freud recognized the "cryptamnesia" that led to his claiming to be the inventor of a method, a description of which he had read when he was fourteen in a text by Ludwig Börne, entitled, "The Art of Becoming an Original Writer in Three Days." In it he stated that the best way for the writer to banish inhibitions and censorship was to write down everything that came to mind for a period of three days.

Once again we see how an isolated idea that circulates in the popular mind is inadequate on its own and what developments are needed for it to be integrated within a body of thought that transcends it. The method of free association, by freeing speech in its search for a hidden truth, has become the principal method of producing the material for analysis, even if, through overproduction, the freedom it offers sometimes becomes a form of resistance to any form of interpretation.

Alain de Mijolla

See also: Active imagination (analytical psychology); Complex; Evenly-suspended attention; Framework of the psychoanalytic cure; Hermeneutics; Technique with adults, psychoanalytic; Sudden involuntary idea; Word association (analytic psychology).


Freud, Sigmund. (1906c). Psycho-analysis and the establishment of facts in legal proceedings. SE, 9: 103-114.

Nunberg Hermann, and Federn, Ernst. (1962-1975). Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. New York: International Universities Press

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Free association

One of the basic techniques of classic psychoanalysis in which the patient says everything that comes to mind without editing or censoring.

The use of free association was pioneered by Sigmund Freud , the founder of psychoanalysis , after he became dissatisfied with the hypnosis-based "cathartic" treatment of hysterical symptoms practiced by his colleague Josef Breuer (1842-1925), through which patients were able to recall traumatic experiences while under hypnosis and express the original emotions that had been repressed and forgotten. Freud found the limitations of hypnosis unsatisfactory and began the task of finding another similarly cathartic treatment method. By the late 1890s, he had worked out the essential components of his system of psychoanalysis, including the use of free association as a method of exploring the unconscious , identifying repressed memories and the reasons for their repression, and enabling patients to know themselves more fully. The patient, relaxed on a couch in his office, was directed to engage in a free association of ideas that could yield useful insights and to reveal frankly whatever came to mind. Freud, seated behind the patient, would listen to and interpret these associations.

For free association to be effective, it is important for the patient to share his or her thoughts freely without regard to whether they are logical, consistent, or socially appropriate. Even thoughts that seem trivial, bizarre, or embarrassing should be reported without hesitation. Initially, free association can be difficult, because people are accustomed to editing their thoughts, presenting them in a logical, linear fashion, and leaving out potentially embarrassing material. However, the technique becomes more comfortable with practice and with encouragement by the therapist. The more closely the patient can replicate his or her stream of consciousness , the more likely it is that defenses will be lowered and repressed material brought to light. Besides the content of the thoughts themselves, the connections between them may also offer important information to the therapist.

Further Reading

Freud, Sigmund. An Outline of Psychoanalysis. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.

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free association (free) n. (in psychoanalysis) a technique in which the patient is encouraged to pursue a particular train of ideas as they enter his or her consciousness. See also association of ideas.

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free association See PSYCHOANALYSIS.

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