Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Free Association: Not So Free

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 3, 2012

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Free association, according to Sigmund Freud, is the fundamental rule of psychoanalysis. This way of thinking, by Freud’s account, is like giving birth, in that psychoanalysis helps the individual enter into the world in a new way, a way in which he/she understands how his mind works and therefore has more agency over decision-making. In this way, one cannot set specific goals, as one is changing the gears of the brain, leaving the individual to then use those gears as he/she sees fit. Freud suggests beginning treatment with the question “please tell me what you know about yourself.” I love it. What a great way to introduce the notion that we are all on a life-long journey of self-exploration. Then, Freud addresses the issue of how long psychoanalysis takes, by saying, in essence, since I don’t know your speed, how can I tell you how long it will take? These ideas are all laid out in his 1913 paper entitled “Further Recommendations in the Technique of Psychoanalysis.” This paper, kicks off my “Technique Class” which begins tonight. This is a class, new to me, in which five psychoanalytic candidates and I (yes, predominantly female) will bat around ideas of how we can use our communication skills to help people, help themselves. Yes, I am excited about this eight week adventure. We will explore different ideas about exactly how the psychoanalyst, the psychotherapist, should respond to people in distress. There are always a multitude of choices about how to intervene when a person begins to share their internal and external experiences. How does one know when to wait for the person to finish their tale, versus interrupting the patient to get them back to understanding themselves better? Should the therapist respond to the content or to the affect? What about direct advice? Is this OK? Or, should the therapist stay neutral as the patient explores various ways of navigating his world? And what about that couch? Would having the patient lie down facilitate or hinder mental exploration? By reading and discussing papers, such as Freud’s 1913 essay, we have a springboard to an exciting exchange of ideas. Oh, and what about my “Play Class” you might wonder. That is not until Thursday. Oh wait, that is tomorrow. I better stop free associating and prepare. Stay tuned.


6 Responses to “Free Association: Not So Free”

  1. Shelly said

    But what about the patient who free associates the entire session long? When do you stop him or her? I speak about the one who gets side-tracked every time he opens his mouth and cannot stay on track. What is this caused by? Does the therapist pay attention to what causes this drifting, the content of his drifts, or his affects? I realize that I have not paid attention to the content of your blog at all, which you have described in joyous detail. How I wish I could be a fly on the wall and be a student in one of your classes! I bet I could learn a great deal!

    • Not staying on track is different than free association, although the distinction is hard to articulate. Free association refers to ideas which pop in to the mind which are tangentially related to the topic at hand, whereas losing track is often a way of distracting or avoiding the topic. The difference is subtle and sometimes difficult to distinguish. As for my students, I think their perspective on my classes would indeed be quite interesting. Maybe I can get a few of them to be guest bloggers. Stay tuned.

  2. Jon said

    Free association… Free assignation… Freedom of speech… Speak the speech… Speak your mind… Mind your manners… No matter, never mind… Spoke the Raven, Nevermore… Once upon a midnight dreary… Dreamy… Sleepy… Goodnight … Sleep tight…

    • Interesting that you bring in dreams into this discussion about free association because dreams, as Freud said, are the “royal road” to the unconscious. Both dreams and free association are attempts to get rid of the censor which shuts down our innermost thoughts and feelings which are often shrouded in shame and secrecy. Dreams and free association remove this censor and thereby give us greater insight into the deep recesses of our minds. Thanks.

  3. writingsfromthecouch said

    I have had two different histories with free association: the one before I became a patient or analysand on the couch, and the one since I had that initial session lying down. I had been in face-to-face therapy for years, I’d trained as a therapist, and I’d written in a free-associative manner for a long time. Then came that first hour on the couch. What I see as a sad reality is that it is not easy, for instance financially, or in terms of time commitment, to experience psychoanalysis. I am very fortunate that I am able to, and I recommend it to everyone, but I understand why people keep saying it is dying or even dead in this country. It is worth keeping in mind that psychoanalysis remains alive and well in Argentina and France, just to name the two I’ve read about.

    • Hello Writingsfromthecouch and thank you for your comments. Yes, internationally psychoanalysis is alive in many parts of the world, making it particularly curious as to why in the US the numbers seem to be dwindling. Thanks Again for your input.

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