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Arundale, J. (2004). Editorial. Brit. J. Psychother., 18(4):455-456.

(2004). British Journal of Psychotherapy, 18(4):455-456


Jean Arundale

Considering that Freud believed free association to be the ‘fundamental rule’ of psychoanalysis, he wrote very little about how it worked in practical terms. He stated simply that the patient is to say whatever comes involuntarily into his or her mind, and to be as honest as possible, not holding anything back. Then the analyst, listening with ‘free floating attention’ to every detail, makes connections, allowing a unique sort of dialogue to be set up which is different from ordinary conversation or purposeful intellectual tasks, and in which the unconscious of the patient and the analyst come as closely together as possible in the search for pathogenic influences in the patient's life.

This is not so easy as it sounds, as we know. Freud attributes the difficulty to dynamic forces in the mind at work in active opposition to one another. In his view, unruly unconscious infantile or primitive thoughts and emotions push upward to gain ascendancy, to have their way with the individual, which are strongly opposed by the civilized adult as unacceptable. Of course, with some patients, everything is right there ‘in our face’ waiting to be understood. But for most and for much of the time, the analytic therapist must find ways to lift repressions and to loosen resistances in order to dig into deeper levels, and the main tool is free association.

This technique developed by Freud for exploring the human mind grew out of hypnosis and has been proved to be practically fruitful by generations of psychoanalysts and psychotherapists. All the talking cures today originate from this ingenious notion. All well and good, but not quite so simple. Many unanswered questions arise when one looks closely. For example, Freud didn't indicate whether the function of free association is mainly to provide a baseline to which to return when conscious work dries up or whether the fundamental rule is to be applied strictly and systematically.

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