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About the Free Associations Method

By Jean Chiriac
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 associtaions 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.
Notes:
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."