Thursday, September 21, 2017

Free Association as a Method of Self-Observation in Relation to Other Methodological Principles of Psychoanalysis - Savo Spacal, M.D.

Summary and Critique by Oddinigwe Onyemenem


Spacal addresses the obscurity in the meaning of the term “psychoanalysis” with regards to the original use by Freud. Freud describes psychoanalysis as a psychological theory, an investigative method, and a therapeutic procedure. The article points out that creates methodological and conceptual ambiguities in this field of study. The method of free association may be viewed as a useful criterion for distinguishing among various clinical approaches to psychoanalysis, particularly in its state of self-observation. 

As clinical approaches to clinical psychoanalysis change over time in the way they are practiced, the article notes that the emphasis on existing approaches are based on addressing basic operational concepts such as free association, interpretation, and the mental disposition of the analyst. According to the article, Freud primarily instituted the method of free association as an introspective modality, rather than a communicative one, or one producing material to be interpreted. The free association methodology has its origins from Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams”, which is where most of the modifications have occurred.

The article points out the differences in the methodologies adapted by Freud and Breuer. The methodological innovation which brought Breuer to a much more dynamic understanding of hysterical mental processes than the prevailing psychiatric notions allowed consisted of giving his patient the opportunity to freely express and structuring the environment in the way he thought most conductive to this end. He concluded that a patient suffering from hysterical symptoms can understand the latent meanings of his or her own symptoms and behavior, if he or she is left free to investigate his or her own inner world. On the other hand, Freud's innovation consisted of instructing the patient to express herself freely in a mental state not altered by traditional hypnotic procedures. In this formulation, the emphasis is not on the presence or absence of the hypnotic state, but rather on the element common to both cases, which was that of organizing the therapeutic situation so that the patient could express herself as freely as possible.

The investigative effectiveness of Freud’s methods is due to the following characteristics:
·       The mental organization of the self-observing subject is similar to that "before falling asleep" or to "hypnosis";
·       This permits the formal regression of thought and the appearance of "involuntary ideas";
·       The subject's discourse tends to become more expressive because of the modified "distribution of psychical energy," and aspects to do with emotions and drives become more prominent;
·       “The psychical energy thus saved" enhances the self-observing subject's capacity for "attentively following the involuntary thoughts"; and
·       The concurrence of attentive self-observation with the appearance of "involuntary ideas" creates a situation in which "involuntary ideas are transformed into voluntary ones."

Various psychoanalytical procedures have emerged over the time as they continue to evolve. They are usually categorized into investigative method, which involves self-observation by free association and therapeutic method. Spacal explains that Freud’s approach of not hypnotizing his patients, provided the patients more autonomy in expressions while dispelling any form of coercion or acting subconsciously or unconsciously.


The article properly addresses psychoanalysis and the methods that are used in that field of study. Spacal thoroughly examined the evolution of psychoanalytic methods and provided a history of how psychoanalytic methods have evolved and the variations that existed between Breuer and Freud. Freud’s variation of the free association methodology was more natural by allowing patients to participate in the exercise more freely and aware compared to being hypnotized. It is an effective methodology by allowing the patient through self-observation to reveal the root cause of any issues. The patient has the autonomy of divulging thoughts, dreams, past events, etc. in a bid to uncover any suppressed thoughts or feelings that may have led to neurosis.

Spacal, Savo. "Free association as a method of self-observation in relation to other methodological principles of psychoanalysis." Psychoanal. Q 59.3 (1990): 420-436.


  1. Although this technique was primarily developed to treat patient who had mental block against remembering or accepting some events or ideas. It has out grown it's applicability in many industries. I don't see any community or profession who can't use them in one way or the other.

  2. I am in agreement with Praveen. Free association has indeed evolved from its therapeutic roots. It has evolved into a problem-solving technique that can be utilized to spark ideas to lead an individual or group to a desired solution.

  3. Free association helps produce a mental model in which forms little nodes and when you start connecting them you receive a full picture of what you are striving for. Though this method may give you an understanding, however, it may not give the full scope of the problem or produce a model absolutely nothing to do with the overall objective.

  4. I'm in agreement with Michael that even though it can add beneficially to the intelligence process it has severe limitations mainly to collections and developing mental models for problems. The benefits must be stressed with extreme caution to not be used outside its intended purpose as it might impact the integrity on an analysis.