Free association in psychology? (The Complete Guide)

Free association in psychology? (The Complete Guide)

In this article, we will see what exactly free association is psychology consists of and on what theoretical assumptions it is based. Free association is one of the methods most closely linked to the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and his followers. 

At the time, this strategy served to replace hypnosis and the cathartic method in the clinical practice of the time, and today it continues to be widely used in the various psychology schools related to the psychodynamic trend.

What is free association in psychology?

In psychology, free association is a method of making certain aspects of ideas and memories that are too traumatic to be accessible by consciousness (understood within the theoretical framework of psychoanalysis) can be indirectly revealed through language.

Viewed superficially, free association can be summed up in one sentence: “tell me everything that comes to your mind”; an activity seen from outside Freudian theory seems idle and lacks a clear purpose. However, it is also a fundamental rule of psychoanalysis.

In some way, Sigmund Freud argued that free association was a way to circumvent the mechanisms of repression and blocking of traumatic and anxiety-generating mental contents. In this way, by having a patient play with the language in an improvised way, the psychoanalyst would be able to reach a deeper level of understanding about that person’s inhibited problems. This all comes under the Psychodynamic perspective of psychology.

Free association in psychology? (The Complete Guide)

The birth of the concept

The free association was born in a historical context in which it was necessary to treat many patients with neurotic-type mental disorders, a very broad diagnostic category that served to encompass actions and ways of thinking related to sudden changes in mood and degree of mental activation.

Just before beginning to formulate the foundations of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud was greatly influenced by Jean-Martin Charcot, a French neurologist who used hypnosis and the cathartic method to cure cases of hysteria. Freud decided to use hypnosis to explore the ailments of neurotic patients, although it took little time to reach a very different conclusion about how the disorders should be treated.

Freud began to think of the idea that mental problems could actually be manifestations of traumatic ideas and memories that are so stressful that they must be “isolated” and kept out of the reach of consciousness. 

The organism is able to maintain a certain balance between the contents that really circulate through consciousness and those that remain in the unconscious, but it is not capable of making the latter disappear, it just keeps them blocked. However, sometimes the content to be repressed is so powerful that it generates the symptoms of the disorders by struggling to seep into consciousness.

Hypnosis would be a way of making the mechanisms of blocking these hidden mental contents relaxed, making it possible for them to express themselves more clearly (although always indirectly). Something similar would happen with dreams: Freud interpreted them as hypothetical manifestations of the unconscious and repressed, passed through a filter of symbolism.

But free association would allow knowing and working with the contents of the unconscious more effectively. Let’s see why.

Free association in psychology? (The Complete Guide)

Releasing the contents of the unconscious

As we have seen, the free association method is based on these assumptions:

  • There is at least one conscious part of the psyche and another part that is unconscious.
  • The contents of the unconscious part struggle to emerge into consciousness, but can never be directly examined.
  • Many mental disorders are the result of the clash between the contents of the unconscious that the rest of the psyche wants to occupy and the conscious part that tries to prevent this.
  • It is possible to create situations in which the content blocking mechanisms of the unconscious are relaxed.

With this in mind, the psychoanalyst uses free association to allow contents of the unconscious that may be behind the appearance of a mental disorder to be expressed indirectly, in order to influence them through language mechanisms.

In this way, the patient is allowed to say everything that comes to mind, without imposing conditions or choosing topics; in this way, their self-censorship mechanisms are relaxed. When creating a context in which the use of language can be chaotic, it is assumed that it is the unconscious part of the psyche that is responsible for chaining words and themes together.

The logic behind what is said becomes the logic of the unconscious, something that must be discovered by the psychoanalyst, who takes note of regularities in the use of symbols, topics that seem important but those who are never spoken directly and who seem to act as the centre of a whirlwind of sentences

These ideas and hidden meanings are raised by the psychoanalyst, who gives an interpretation of what he has just heard. These new meanings will have to be faced by the patient once the therapist offers an interpretation of what he has said that fits in with what he himself is unable to express directly in words.

According to Freud, this method was much more useful than hypnosis and the use of catharsis, because it could be used in a larger number of people and allowed reworking discourses of the unconscious instead of simply waiting for the patient to find a way to reconcile with the contents of the unconscious by reviving them.

Free association in psychology? (The Complete Guide)

Overcoming self-censorship

For Freud, exposing the resistances and then analyzing them is absolutely essential to carry out the cure; which in turn is only achieved through free association. In this way, free association, the interpretation of dreams and the analysis of failed acts become the three essential techniques of the analytical clinic. 

Free association was essential, so much so that for Freud it is precisely the technique that most separates the psychoanalytic approach from other forms of therapeutic approach.

Self-censorship is a key theme in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Due to the barriers society places on us, we are unable to access our most unconscious thoughts. We are repressing them until they are lost in the unconscious. For this reason, Freud attached so much importance to dreams. According to him, in dreams, we overcome the barrier of self-censorship and the mind expresses what we repress.

How is free association carried out?

Free association can arise spontaneously or be induced from a dream, fantasy or any other thought. However, for this to take place and for the true free association to occur, the transfer (trust) with the analyst must have been consolidated. 

At the same time, it will have been understood that the analytical discourse is situated in a different framework from that which can be represented by a habitual conversation outside of consultation and that nothing that is said in session will be judged. Nothing is right or wrong; therefore everything that is said is valid.

The moment the patient lets himself be carried away by his thoughts and manages to express them openly to his analyst, he is allowing unconscious representations to emerge so that they can be analyzed, interpreted and worked on in this way. By gaining access to the unconscious material, you can consciously rework it: the goal of this crafting is to stop it being a source of discomfort or conflict.

Of course, free association will emerge more easily if the patient feels comfortable both in the analytic space and with his analyst, being as less stimulated as possible by the surrounding environment. Classically, the couch is used for this, where the patient lies down and the analyst is out of his visual field, thus avoiding that the patient feels observed, judged or evaluated and can fully concentrate on their associations.

Free association in psychology? (The Complete Guide)

In therapy

The statement that the analyst gives to the patient will be very simple, for example: “say anything” or “say everything that comes across as an image or any memory that comes your way“.

From there, the patient has absolute freedom to express everything that goes through his mind without having to worry about making an elaborate speech or pleasing his analyst. Finally, the practice of a good free association will allow a fruitful analysis and ultimately a subjective improvement of the patient’s condition.

With hypnosis it was possible to get to the unconscious material, the problem was that most of the time, when the patient left the hypnotic state, he was not aware of what he had said, so the resistors. It became the analyst’s word against the patient’s, thus blocking the game.

On the other hand, since free association was done in a state of full consciousness, the patient has no choice but to take charge of what he had said and what the analyst points out to him. Thus, although the unconscious material could be accessed under the hypnotic state, upon leaving it the resistances resumed their power, allowing the patient to doubt or reject what he had manifested in the hypnotic state. Thus hindering analytical work and jeopardizing the transfer.

The problem with free association

With this, we have already seen the basic aspects that characterize free association. However, all this explanation is only valid if we accept the theoretical framework of Freud’s psychoanalysis and the epistemology from which it starts.

This last component is what makes both free association and all psychoanalytic theory, in general, has been widely criticized, especially by philosophers of science such as Karl Popper; Basically, there is no way to set specific goals, implement a specific method, and assess whether it has worked or not, because it all depends on the interpretations.

In short, the interpretation made by a psychoanalyst from the torrent of words and phrases that the patient emits during free association will be valid to the extent that the patient considers it; but, at the same time, the patient is not trained to be a reliable expert on what is going on in his head, so he can always be questioned.

Furthermore, the assumption that there are conscious and unconscious entities in people’s mental lives acting on their own agenda is considered an entelechy, because it is something impossible to prove: the unconscious part will always manage not to be revealed.

Thus, in the practice of contemporary psychology, free association remains as one of the elements of the history of psychology, but it is not considered a scientifically valid tool.

Conclusions

In this article, we saw what exactly free association is psychology consists of and on what theoretical assumptions it is based. 

We remind you that in psychology, free association is a method of making certain aspects of ideas and memories that are too traumatic to be accessible by consciousness (understood within the theoretical framework of psychoanalysis) can be indirectly revealed through language.

At the time, this strategy served to replace hypnosis and the cathartic method in the clinical practice of the time, and today it continues to be widely used in the various psychology schools related to the psychodynamic trend.

If you have any questions or comments on the content, please let us know!

FAQ on free association psychology

What does free association mean in psychology?

In psychology, free association is a method of making certain aspects of ideas and memories that are too traumatic to be accessible by consciousness (understood within the theoretical framework of psychoanalysis) can be indirectly revealed through language.

What happens during free association?

During free association the patient is encouraged to speak his mind, to say what he feels or sees or remembers at that specific moment. From there, the practice of a good free association will allow a fruitful analysis and ultimately a subjective improvement of the patient’s condition.

Is free association still used today?

Free association is not used today as a scientific valid tool. With this method, there is no way to set specific goals, implement a specific method, and assess whether it has worked or not because it all depends on the interpretations.

What is the most serious problem with Freud’s theory?

One of the most serious problems with Freud’s theory is that it fails to predict certain traits or behaviours. It only offers an after the fact explanation. 

Further reading

Free Association: Method and Process, by Anton O. Kris

Introduction to the Practice of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, by Alessandra Lemma  

A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (Classics of World Literature), by Sigmund Freud  

Introduction to Key Concepts and Evolutions in Psychoanalysis: From Freud to Neuroscience, by Alexis A. Johnson

References

Allers, R. (1940). The successful error; a critical study of Freudian psychoanalysis. Sheed & Ward.

Jacoby, L. L., & Kelley, C. M. (1992). A Process-Dissociation Framework for Investigating Unconscious Influences: Freudian Slips, Projective Tests, Subliminal Perception, and Signal Detection Theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1(6), 174–179. 

Lewis Aron (1996) From Hypnotic Suggestion to Free Association: Freud as a Psychotherapist, circa 1892–1893, Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 32:1, 99-114

Free association in psychology? (The Complete Guide)

Nadejda Romanciuc

Nadejda Romanciuc holds a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and a diploma in Addiction studies. She is part of the Romanian Association of Integrative Psychotherapy as a psychotherapist under supervision. She's practicing online counselling for over two years and is a strong advocate for mental health.