Sudden Involuntary Idea

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Sudden involuntary ideas (Einfälle ) appear at the borderline between images and words; they come to mind without apparent relation to what preceded them and have a quality of certainty linked to their immediacy.

This notion appears several times in Sigmund Freud's writings. It refers to preconscious thought activity as it is found in free association, jokes, or poetic creation that escapes critical reason, allowing the outcome of an earlier development to emerge into consciousness.

In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), Freud gave Einfälle a status analogous to that of "involuntary ideas" (p. 102) that are transformed into visual or auditory images. Divided diffuse attention is responsible for these representations, as they are found in a semi-sleeping state or under hypnosis. In this work Freud discussed the associationist hypotheses of Eduard von Hartmann, saying that although Einfälle appear when there has been a renunciation of purposive ideas, this does not mean that they are arbitrary; rather, there are other, unconscious purposive ideas that take over and determine the course of involuntary ideas. The work of analysis thus relies on Einfälle, but attempts to guide them back into the realm of the interpretable and eliminate their "sudden" and "involuntary" quality, which is a result of repression.

Einfälle are particularly important in creative thought in general, whether in the discovery of unconscious contents in psychoanalysis, the punch line in a joke, poetic creation, or invention in theoretical or abstract thinking (cf. Archimedes's "Eureka!"). Nevertheless, their origin, unknown because it is repressed, has something troubling about ithence Freud's inclusion, in The Interpretation of Dreams, of the following quotation by Friedrich von Schiller: "'[W]here there is a creative mind, Reasonor so it seems to merelaxes its watch upon the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it look them through and examine them in a mass.You critics, or whatever else you may call yourselves, are ashamed or frightened of the momentary and transient extravagances which are to be found in all truly creative minds and whose longer or shorter duration distinguishes the artist from the dreamer. You complain of your unfruitfulness because you reject too soon and discriminate too severely'" (p. 103).

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Free association; Interpretation of Dreams, The ; Jokes.


Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5: 1-625.

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. Le Plaisir de pensée. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1992.

Further Reading

Epstein, A. (1995). Dreaming and other involuntary mentation. An essay in neuropsychiatry. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.