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In free association, psychoanalytic patients are invited to relate whatever comes into their minds during the analytic session, and not to censor their thoughts. This technique is intended to help the patient learn more about what he or she thinks and feels, in an atmosphere of non-judgmental curiosity and acceptance. Psychoanalysis assumes that people are often conflicted between their need to learn about themselves, and their (conscious or unconscious) fears of and defenses against change and self-exposure. The method of free association has no linear or preplanned agenda, but works by intuitive leaps and linkages which may lead to new personal insights and meanings. When used in this spirit, free association is a technique in which neither therapist nor patient knows in advance exactly where the conversation will lead, but it tends to lead to material that matters very much to the patient. Its goal is not to unearth specific answers or memories, but to instigate a journey of co-discovery which can enhance the patient's integration of thought, feeling, agency, and selfhood.
Suggested influences in the development of this technique include Husserl's version of epoche and the work of Sir Francis Galton. Free association also shares some features with the idea of stream of consciousness, employed by writers such as Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust. Freud developed the technique as an alternative to hypnosis, both because of its perceived fallibility and because he found that patients could recover and comprehend crucial memories while fully conscious. However, Freud found that despite a subject's effort to remember, a certain resistance kept him or her from the most painful and important memories. He eventually came to the view that certain items were completely repressed, and off-limits, to the conscious realm of the mind.
Freud's eventual practice of psychoanalysis focused not so much on the recall of these memories as on the internal mental conflicts which kept them buried deep within the mind, though the technique of free association still plays a role today in therapeutic practice and in the study of the mind.
The use of free association was intended to help discover notions that a patient had developed, initially, at a subconscious level, including:
- Transference - unwittingly transferring feelings about one person to become applied to another person;
- Projection - projecting internal feelings or motives as being ascribed, instead, to other things or people;
- Resistance - holding a mental block against remembering or accepting some events or ideas.
The mental conflicts were analyzed from the viewpoint that the patients, initially, did not understand how such feelings were occurring at a subconscious level, hidden inside their minds. For example, some might not realize they were highly attracted to people reminiscent of childhood friends or relatives, or they were accusing others of doing, or thinking, what they secretly wished they themselves could have done. In addition, some people who think "Freud was wrong" might be experiencing resistance to accepting their subconscious motives, such as not accepting that their "soul mate" closely resembles someone else from their childhood.
- Association of Ideas
- Bohm dialogue
- Jungian psychology
- Internal monologue
- Psychoanalytic theory
- Stream of consciousness writing
- Stream of consciousness
- Unconscious (personality factors)
- Peter Koestenbaum, Introductory essay to The Paris Lectures by Husserl, 1998
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