Friday, September 22, 2017

Free Association and the Fundamental Rule - Lynn Cunningham, PhD LICSW

Summary and Critique by Evan Garfield


Free association is a psycho analysis method of exploring a person's unconscious by eliciting words, thoughts, and memories. Patients are invited to relate whatever comes into their minds during the analytic session, and not to censor their thoughts. This is known as the "fundamental rule." 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. The method  has no planned agenda and seeks to draw out linkages which may lead to new personal insights and meanings. 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 self-hood.

According to the author, some analysts question whether the fundamental rule currently reflects the evolving nature of psychoanalysis or if it is still essential to the psychoanalytic process. The author examines and discusses the Scientific Meetings presentation by Shierry Nicholson, PhD. Nicholson reviewed "the sometimes polemical pluralism of the contemporary psychoanalytic landscape and discovered how different psychoanalysts thought about the patient's associate activity." According to Nicholson, Freud elaborated on what interfered with the patient's associate activity, such as transference, resistance, the repetition compulsion, and the death instinct. Busch highlights the rule's emphasis on overcoming patient resistances, rather than analyzing them. Furthermore, Bush points to how the rule promotes passivity rather than strengthening the ego for future analysis.

Shierry claims the concept of "free" in free association requires further reexamination. Of course the patient's thoughts may roam freely, but the unconscious selects what is spoken and thus, revealed. Furthermore, while the analyst's reverie is experienced as free, "an interpretation may be constrained by tact, timing, ambiguity, and not-knowing."Andre Green claims a breaking off of free association is actually a psychic impulse that often occurs in patients when ego is threatened with traumatic effect.When conflict arises between representation and the impulse of avoidance, the analyst must become more receptive to a complex network of connections. Shierry concludes that the fundamental rule  may be less direct than Freud imagined. However, she still sees its benefit in helping analysts understand and handle the difficulties that patients and the analytic process may present. I

The author does a good job discussing the fundamental rule of free association and the evolving nature of the psychoanalytic process. I agree with her point that the concept of free in free association is not actually entirely free. Patients may roam through their thoughts freely, but it is their unconscious that selects what is spoken. Analysts must understand their interpretation of patients may be constrained or influenced by tact, timing, or ambiguity of the process. Furthermore, analysts must recognize that a breaking off of free association within the patient is a psychic impulse to be expected when patients feel their ego is threatened. Analysts, thus, must be prepared to be more receptive.

I personally think analysts must take a balanced approach with the free association method. It is not as direct or straightforward as Freud may have initially seen. I share Jean-Luc Donnet's opinion:

"The fundamental rule is a safeguard between theory and clinical practice:to ensure that theory does not subordinate what is actually happening in the room; but also to ensure that there is indeed a game that is being played, a game that has rules."



  1. If free association was used in an intelligence analysis situation, what do you think the effect of previous information would be on the analyst's thought process?

    1. An analyst's questions would certainly be influenced by knowledge of prior information on the patient. Although this may contradict the concept of "free" in free association, I do believe it would lead to better analysis. It would allow the analyst to foresee patient resistances and better ways to analyze/overcome them.

  2. I think that it is possible to communicate with the unconscious identity of someone. For example, nightmares or dreams are a manifestation of your unconscious self. Therefore, do you believe that a method like hypnosis is more appropriate while applying the method, keeping in mind that hypnosis is equated with deep sleep in this instance.

    1. that's interesting question Kevin. Freud acknowledges that patient resistance may become an interference in the process. I believe a method like hypnosis would certainly help the analyst overcome patient resistances,providing more insight for the analyst into a patient's thoughts or memories. However, it may negate the effect of self-discovery for the patient while contradicting Freud's fundamental rule

  3. Given all the information provided, would free association be a useful method of recognizing and conquering cognitive bias? Not the learned biases, but our own preconceived notions?