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Bellak, L. (1961). Free Association: Conceptual and Clinical Aspects. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 42:9-20.

(1961). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 42:9-20

Free Association: Conceptual and Clinical Aspects

Leopold Bellak


Free association, known as the Fundamental Rule, is the cornerstone of psycho-analytic technique and research. Yet there has been little systematic consideration of it.

The historical roots of the concept go back to Aristotle, and particularly to the English school of sensualism and associationism, with Hobbes, Locke, Hume, James and John Stuart Mill, Hartley, Bain, Spencer, Brentano, Galton, Herbart, Lipps, on to Wundt and Freud, and then to nearly all of modern psychology.

Jones, Zilboorg, and Wyss have particularly discussed the roots of Freud's interest in the concept and his development of it. Freud knew Brentano, probably read Galton's account of his experiment in free association, and was seemingly influenced by Boerne's essay on writing without conscious control. The free association method evolved between 1892 and 1895; the technique of closing the eyes was given up only in 1904.

The concept of association was tied to the early topological model, as a means of making the unconscious conscious, and was firmly anchored to a mechanistic concept of determinism. The concept has not been brought up to date with the more complex techniques of modern psycho-analysis and with the different conceptions of causal relationship. Some unnecessary difficulties have resulted from this failure.

'Free association' assumes freedom from any but intrapsychic determinants. We now

know that any number of particularly preconsciously perceived data and mental sets have, clinically, an organizing effect. It is suggested that the analyst conveys implicitly different rules for associating at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the analytic process, and that 'controlled' association and 'mental sets' of act psychology play a major role. Specifically, the patient who associates well probably maintains a preconscious set related to his being ill, as compared to the patient who is not successful in associating. Making explicit some of the clinical facts of association will lead to an improvement in technique.

Associating as a process is best understood as predicated upon the oscillating function of the ego, based on Kris' and Hartmann's concept of the self-exclusion of the ego in its own service, but with an emphasis on relative reduction of cognitive, etc., ego functions. Relative ego participation in the first phase is more pronounced in associating than in the dream, hypnagogic events, and preconcious fantasy, but less than in some daydreams, responses to projective tests, purposive planning. The second phase shows an increased acuity and synthesis of new Gestalten. Topological as well as structural, dynamic, genetic and energetic metapsychological problems are involved, and also formal aspects of thought.

The disturbances of association can be schematized as relating specifically to the first phase of oscillation, such as the obsessive's rigid clinging to a 'travelogue' of real events. Hysterics and schizophrenics usually do well on the first phase of oscillation but poorly on the second: they are either too passive to muster the activity necessary or their cognitive function is poor, or they lack the necessary synthetic function to achieve new, stable configurations. Some obsessives and schizophrenics suffer from concrete thinking which makes the abstract symbolic operations of the second phase impossible. 'Courtesy associations', 'narcissistic reverie', and disturbances by the mental set involved in transference resistance are also discussed.

Disturbances in association could also be classified by the type of defences involved, or more broadly by any list of ego functions and their contribution, if disturbed.

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