What is “free association” in psychoanalysis?

Free association is one of the methods most closely related to psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and his disciples. At the time, this strategy was used to replace hypnosis and the cathartic method in the clinical consultation of the time, and today it is still widely used in the various schools of psychology related to current psychodynamics.

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

What is free association?

Seen superficially, free association can be summed up in one sentence: “say whatever comes to mind”; an activity which, seen from outside Freudian theory, seems idle and without a clear goal. however, it is also a fundamental rule of psychoanalysis.

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

In a way, Sigmund Freud argued that free association was a means of evading the mechanisms of repression and blocking of traumatic and highly anxiety-provoking mental contents. In this way, by having a patient play with language in an improvised way, the psychoanalyst would be able to reach a deeper level of understanding of that person’s inhibited problems.

The birth of the concept

Free association arose in a historical context where many patients with neurotic-type mental disorders had to be treated, a very broad diagnostic category that has served to encompass actions and thought patterns related to sudden changes in mood and of the degree of mental activation. .

Just before starting to formulate the foundations of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud he was greatly influenced by Jean-Martin Charcot, A French neurologist who used hypnosis and the cathartic method to treat cases of hysteria. Freud decided to use hypnosis to explore the diseases of neurotic patients, although it did not take long to come to a very different conclusion on how the disorders should be treated.

Freud began to think about the idea that mental problems could manifestations of traumatic thoughts and memories 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 which really circulate in the conscience and those which remain in the unconscious, but it does not manage to make the latter disappear, it only keeps them blocked. However, sometimes the content to be suppressed is so powerful that it generates symptoms of disturbance as one struggles to filter into consciousness.

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

But free association would make it possible to know and work more effectively with the content of the unconscious. Let’s see why.

Free the content of the unconscious

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

  1. There is at least a conscious part of the psyche and another which is unconscious.
  2. The content of the unconscious part struggles to emerge into consciousness, but can never be directly examined.
  3. Many mental disorders are the result of the clash between the content of the unconscious which wants to occupy the rest of the psyche and the conscious part which tries to prevent it.
  4. It is possible to create situations in which the content blocking mechanisms of the unconscious are relaxed.

In this perspective, the psychoanalyst uses free association to allow the content of the unconscious that may be at the origin of a mental disorder to express itself indirectly so as to be able to influence them by means of the mechanisms of language.

In this way, the patient is allowed to say whatever comes to mind, without imposing conditions or vetoing; in this way, their self-censorship mechanisms are relaxed. By creating a context in which the use of language can be chaotic, it is assumed that it is the unconscious part of the psyche which is responsible for the linking of words and subjects.

In this way, the logic behind what is said becomes the logic of the unconscious, which must be discovered by the psychoanalyst, who takes note of the regularities in the use of symbols, topics that seem important but that we never talk about directly and that they seem to act as the center of a whirlwind of sentences

These hidden ideas and meanings are posed by the psychoanalyst, who gives an interpretation of what he has just heard. These new meanings must be addressed by the patient once the therapist offers him an interpretation of what he said agrees 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 to rework the speeches of the unconscious instead of simply waiting for the patient finds a way to be reconciled. with the content of the unconscious by reviving it.

    The problems of free association

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

    This last element is what makes free association and all psychoanalytic theory in general much criticized, in particular by philosophers of science such as Karl Popper; essentially there is no way to set specific goals, implement a specific method and assess if 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 sentences that the patient emits during the free association will be valid insofar as the patient considers it; but at the same time, the patient is not trained to be a reliable connoisseur of what is going on in his head, so that he can always be questioned.

    Moreover, the assumption that in people’s mental life there are conscious and unconscious entities that act with their own agenda is considered an entelechy, because it is impossible to prove it: the unconscious part will always do so in order not to. not be revealed.

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

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