Let’s begin with a definition. “Free Association” is a very basic technique used by psychoanalysts who ask their patients to say everything that comes to mind without censoring themselves or editing anything.
Freud pioneered the practice after becoming frustrated with his colleague, Josef Bruer. Bruer employed hypnosis to treat “hysterical” symptoms of his patients. Under hypnosis, these patients could recall traumatic experiences and some could recall emotional memories that had been repressed (and thus, forgotten). Freud, however, found hypnosis unsatisfactory and began trying other methods of catharsis. Free association was one of those techniques. By the 1890s, he was using free association to help his patients explore their unconscious minds. By doing so, these patients could access their repressed memories and become more aware of their full identities.
Freud would ask the patient to lie down on a couch in his office. He then directed them to reflect on a word or concept that he introduced, and, as he listened intently from behind them, would write down anything and everything the patient uttered. He would then offer his interpretation of these freely associated words.
Here is an example of free association:
Well, this morning I woke up and had coffee…On my drive to work I listened to the radio…What is it with the radio, anyway? So many ads all the time…I really hate my work…Did you know that beavers can hold their breath for more than ten minutes? That was on the radio too…God, I wish I were a beaver so I didn’t have to go to work.”
In order for free association to be useful and effective, the patient must not attempt to edit or sensor himself, even, or perhaps especially, when those words seem strange, illogical or socially inappropriate. Nothing that comes to mind is unimportant, even the words are embarrassing or bizarre. At first, this can be very difficult; humans are used to continually monitoring their audible thoughts; but with practice and a level of comfort established between the therapist and patient, the practice becomes less onerous and more useful. The connections that the therapist is able to make between these seemingly random thought can often offer valuable information for the therapist, who then helps the patient identify those connections, know his problems and successes, and therefore, become a more fully realized individual.
Source: Encyclopedia of Psychology, ©2005 Gale Cengage
Free association is commonly practiced in psychology today; however, the technique has evolved over time to the point where it probably would not be recognizable to late 19th century psychoanalytically trained physicians. Modern-day clinicians employ free association in a much more dynamic, interactive, conversational way than did 19th century psychoanalysts.
The question of whether free association is effective within the context of psycho-therapeutic counseling is difficult to answer conclusively. There are myriad problems trying to isolate the effect of one particular technique or tool that a therapist may employ. Free association is not something that occurs in isolation. Rather, it is dynamically interwoven into the therapeutic hour. In fact, the question starkly demonstrates a few inherent problems researchers face when attempting to do “scientific” research within the field of psychotherapy.
The research paradigm of the natural sciences works requires: strong identification and isolation of variables, unbiased observation, certain types of description (most notably mathematical, schematic descriptions), and controlled experimental manipulation. These processes are difficult and even the concepts can be somewhat constraining when applied to the field of psychotherapy. The difficulties are so great that many question whether psychotherapy can rightly be called a science at all. Some suggest that the field is better understood as an art; its creative, interpretive, and humanistic elements appear central.