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Free Association

One of the basic techniques of classic psychoanalysis in which the patient says everything that comes to mind without editing or censoring.

The use of free association was pioneered by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, after he became dissatisfied with the hypnosis-based "cathartic" treatment of hysterical symptoms practiced by his colleague Josef Breuer (1842-1925), through which patients were able to recall traumatic experiences while under hypnosis and express the original emotions that had been repressed and forgotten. Freud found the limitations of hypnosis unsatisfactory and began the task of finding another similarly cathartic treatment method. By the late 1890s, he had worked out the essential components of his system of psychoanalysis, including the use of free association as a method of exploring the unconscious, identifying repressed memories and the reasons for their repression, and enabling patients to know themselves more fully. The patient, relaxed on a couch in his office, was directed to engage in a free association of ideas that could yield useful insights and to reveal frankly whatever came to mind. Freud, seated behind the patient, would listen to and interpret these associations.

For free association to be effective, it is important for the patient to share his or her thoughts freely without regard to whether they are logical, consistent, or socially appropriate. Even thoughts that seem trivial, bizarre, or embarrassing should be reported without hesitation. Initially, free association can be difficult, because people are accustomed to editing their thoughts, presenting them in a logical, linear fashion, and leaving out potentially embarrassing material. However, the technique becomes more comfortable with practice and with encouragement by the therapist. The more closely the patient can replicate his or her stream of consciousness, the more likely it is that defenses will be lowered and repressed material brought to light. Besides the content of the thoughts themselves, the connections between them may also offer important information to the therapist.

Further Reading

Freud, Sigmund. An Outline of Psychoanalysis. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Tests & Methods