• Psychoanalysis > Techniques

About the Free Associations Method

By J Jones

Freud adopted the method of free associations during 1892-1898, starting from several criteria. The method was to replace the use of hypnosis in the exploration of neurotic antecedents in his patients. It relied on Freud's belief in psychic determinism. According to that perspective, psychic activity is not subordinated to free choice. All our mind produces has an unconscious root we can reach by means of free associations, following the model provided by the adage "all roads lead to Rome".

The theory of psychic determinism is amply debated upon in Freud's work The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. It is in the same place that we find plenty of instances of free associations related to various faulty and symptomatic acts (Freudian slips and mistakes), proving that involuntary psychic acts too are determined by specific causes.

Returning to free associations, we have to say that this method is the golden rule of the psychoanalytic therapy. Let us see how it works.

Lying on a couch (a position imposing a certain state of relaxation), the patient speaks freely of anything that may cross his/her mind, without searching for some specific subject or topic. The flow of his/her thoughts is free, and followed with no voluntary intervention. The important thing is that the critical mind does not intervene to censor spontaneous thoughts. We truly have the drive to censure the products of our thinking, starting from various criteria: moral, ethic, narcissistic, cultural, spiritual. The method of free associations demands us to temporarily give up intellectual censorship and freely speak about any thought.

What is the result of this involuntary talk? Later analysis of thoughts produced by means of the above-mentioned method reveals certain repetitive topics indicative of psychic complexes of emotional charge. These complexes are unconscious. They are autonomously activated by chance verbal associations, and influence conscious psychic life in a frequently dramatic manner. The task of psychoanalysis is to bring such complexes to the surface of conscious mind, and integrate them into the patient's life.

Example of free associations

Lying on a couch, in dim light and in a peaceful room, the patient produces the following free associations:

I am thinking of the fluffy clouds I seem to see with my very eyes. They are white and pearly. The sky is full of clouds but a few azure patches can still be seen here and there...

Clouds keep changing their shapes. They are fluid because they are condensed water particles...

I am thinking I may have an obsession about this water. The doctor has told me I am dehydrated; there's not enough water in my body. He suggested I should drink 2-3 liters of water every day. Mineral water or tea!

I thought there is a connection between my need to add salt to my food and thirst. My body has found itself a pretext - salty food - to make me drink more water. I have a lot of thoughts about the manifestations of my body, which seem logical and aim at inner balance. Everybody has in fact got an inner physician in oneself. What need is there of an outside doctor then? If you allow yourself lie at the will of your free inclinations, with no assumptions whatsoever, you will have the intuition of making things that may surprise you, nevertheless useful to your body and securing your health and high spirits.

I read somewhere that one can be one's own doctor... Everybody can be one's own doctor.

  • Interpretation

We put a stop here to the flow of our patient's associations. We may notice these are indirectly related to the relationship with her therapist. Her associations related to the spontaneous medicine of her body lead to the idea that no physician is in fact necessary. The patient thinks the psychoanalyst has in fact no contribution to her well being, that she could very well do without one.

We must admit the series of free associations produced by the patient are somehow related to her present circumstances, including a recent reality: her psychoanalytic therapy. The novelty of the therapy, the relationship with the psychoanalyst, automatically induces thoughts, remarks, more or less recent memories. The fact that, during her therapy, the patient alludes to a doctor, who had in fact done nothing to help her, is no mere chance. This memory can be related to the present circumstance and it may be translated in the patient's skepticism concerning the utility of this analytic therapy.

Nevertheless, this skepticism has an even older history, bringing to the fore the patient's relationship to her mother, when still a child, and dependent on her parents'support.

Freud had used the method of free associations in his
self-analysis, in dream interpretation.

In his Studies on Hysteria (1895), the emphasis increasingly lay on the patient's spontaneous expression. Freud remembers Emmy von M., his patient who, on his urge to find the root of a certain symptom, had given the following answer: "he should not keep asking about the origin of this or the other, but allow her talk to him about anything that crosses her mind". Freud also remarked that: "Her accounts are not as unintentional as they seem; rather, they quite closely reproduce her memories, and new impressions, since our latest meeting and often, quite unexpectedly, spread from the pathogenic reminiscences she spontaneously discharges herself of through words."

Translation by Mihaela Cristea


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