Evenly-suspended attention describes the necessary state of the analyst's mind when listening to the patient during a psychoanalytic session. It is the mirror image of the method of free association required of the patient.
Freud set forth the notion of free-floating attention in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a) in connection with the secondary revision of the dream and the attitude the interpreter must take: "For the purposes of our interpretation it remains an essential rule invariably to leave out of account the ostensible continuity of a dream as being of suspect origin, and to follow the same path back to the material of the dream-thoughts, no matter whether the dream itself is clear or confused" (p. 500).
His technical prescription is found in "Recommendations to Physicians Practising Psycho-Analysis" (1912e): "[I]t rejects the use of any special expedient (even that of taking notes). It consists simply in not directing one's notice to anything in particular and in maintaining the same 'evenly-suspended attention' (as I have called it) in the face of all that one hears . . . . It will be seen that the rule of giving equal notice to everything is the necessary counterpart to the demand made on the patient that he should communicate everything that occurs to him without criticism or selection. If the doctor behaves otherwise, he is throwing away most of the advantage which results from the patient's obeying the 'fundamental rule of psychoanalysis.' The rule for the doctor may be expressed: 'He should withhold all conscious influences from his capacity to attend, and give himself over completely to his 'unconscious memory.' The doctor must put himself in a position to make use of everything he is told for the purposes of interpretation and of recognizing the concealed unconscious material without substituting a censorship of his own for the selection that the patient has forgone" (pp. 111-12). The psychoanalyst must be able to interpret everything he hears in order to discover everything that the unconscious disguises, and this without substituting his own censorship for the selectivity the patient has renounced.
In his 1923 encyclopedia article "Psycho-Analysis," Freud returned to the topic: "Experience soon showed that the attitude which the analytic physician could most advantageously adopt was to surrender himself to his own unconscious mental activity, in a state of evenly suspended attention, to avoid so far as possible reflection and the construction of conscious expectations, not to try to fix anything that he heard particularly in his memory, and by these means to catch the drift of the patient's unconscious with his own unconscious" (p. 239). Two years later, in a letter to Ludwig Binswanger dated February 22, 1925, he tempered the somewhat excessive aspect of this description: "In a more systematic formulation, unconscious must be replaced with preconscious" (2003, p. 179).
Some authors (notably James Strachey in the Standard Edition) have proposed as alternatives the terms evenly-suspended or evenly-hovering attention (in French, both attention également flottante and attention flottante are used). This prescribed attitude for the analyst has been considered one of the constitutive elements of the analytic setting. Associated with "neutrality," it has also been compared with Theodor Reik's notion of "listening with the third ear." Since it requires that the analyst suspend judgment and eliminate his or her internal resistances and all personal censorship, it is clear that only prior analysis of the analyst can ensure that this state is maintained. In this special state, identifications and projections must be able to float freely, but some authors have emphasized the risk of falling asleep if the analyst is too intent on conforming to it (Fenichel, 1941). This observation has incited other authors to see in free-floating attention a state of self-hypnosis parallel to that triggered in the patient by the analytic setting (François Roustang).
Contrary to the passivity and static aspect suggested by this description, Joseph Sandler has argued that the dynamic back-and-forth between this state and the return to a countertransferential analysis of what is perceived are conducive to "free-floating responsiveness" in the analyst (Sandler 1976, 1993).
Alain de Mijolla
See also: Framework of the psychoanalytic treatment; Free association; Fundamental rule; Psychoanalytic treatment; "Recommendations to Physicians Practising Psycho-Analysis."
Fenichel, Otto. (1941) Problems of psychoanalytic technique. (David Brunswick, Trans.). New York: The Psychoanalytic Quarterly.
Ornstein, Paul H. (1967). Selected problems in learning how to analyze. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 48, 448.
Sandler, Joseph. (1976). Counter-transference and role-responsiveness. International Review of Psycho-Analysis 3, 43-47.
——. (1993). On communication from patient to analyst: not everything is projective identification. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 74, 1097-1108.