Free Word Association is an important part of many therapies in mental health. It is often used as a way of getting a patient in therapy to open up and talk about what is on their mind. It can help the therapist to see what problems their patient is facing.
Free word association was a key part of Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is a widescale theory that posited Freud’s thoughts on an array of subjects, including the mind and personality.
What is Free Word Association?
Free word association takes place in a therapeutic setting. It is best associated with the therapies Psychoanalytical Psychotherapy and Psychodynamic Psychotherapy. However, it can also be used in other types of talking therapy too.
Essentially, a therapist will ask their patient to freely speak their mind. If preferable, the patient may also write what comes to mind. The words written or spoken will often be incoherent or completely disorganised – but this is expected and very normal.
In some cases, especially in the early stages of therapy, the therapist may say a word or phrase themselves – which the patient is then asked to respond to. This allows the unconscious mind to become activated.
In both cases. the therapist will emphasise to the patient that they should voluntarily speak their mind – without thinking about what they are saying. This allows the therapist to try and notice patterns in their speech, which they can then use as a basis to try and identify problems that could be existing in the unconscious mind.
The idea is that in following this process, that a skilled therapist will be able to find consistent themes or patterns of thoughts, which can help a past trauma be identified. A person will also be able to understand their own thought process more, and see where harmful thoughts come from. This, along with the other techniques above, can help several elements of the unconscious mind to come to the fore.
This is a crucial aspect in therapy, as psychoanalysis-inspired therapies place belief in the idea that mental health problems can be linked to the unconscious mind. Therefore, any technique that is able to reach the unconscious mind is highly useful.
Free word association plays an important role in psychoanalysis. Freud believed that free word association was a way of a skilled therapist to interpret what could be happening in the unconscious mind of their patient.
Freud noted that free association allowed a patient to speak for themselves, rather than “repeating the ideas of the analyst” . This is an important aspect – as too often in talking therapy, the therapist will lead the discussion and potentially misinterpret what the patient is saying.
Freud suggested that everything must be mentioned, regardless of its supposed irrelevance or unimportance. This was referred to as a ‘fundamental’ rule by Freud, and one that had to be followed under all circumstances by a patient. As mentioned earlier, this should be emphasised to the patient.
When is Free Word Association used?
Free word association is most commonly used in the early stages of some talking therapies. Anytime that a therapist is looking for a deeper look into the psyche of their patient, they may find free word association to be useful.
Free word association is best associated with Psychoanalytical Psychotherapy and Psychodynamic Psychotherapy. But as mentioned, it can feasibly be used in any type of talking therapy.
Responses to Free Word Association
Freud’s finding that free word association was effective has been backed up by other prominent psychologists – including Carl Jung. Jung and Freud shared many ideas, with free word association proving popular for both.
But there have been some dissenting voices, with Sandor Ferenczi – a Hungarian psychologist – suggesting that word association and its insistence on free-associating does not cure a patient, with the opposite actually being true – the patient is cured when they can free-associate .
Free word association continues to be an area that is used in modern-day mental health treatment. It offers unrivalled access to a person’s true thoughts, and can therefore be a positive step in identifying problematic thought processes.
It is a part of psychoanalysis which has stood the test of time. This is a good example of Freud’s contributions to psychology – you can see more of his ideas by viewing our list of articles about Freud here.
- What Are The 4 Key Methods Used in Psychoanalysis?
- Freud and Free Word Association in Mental Health
- What is a Freudian Slip? Explaining the Freudian Slip Theory
- Freud’s Theory on the Importance of Dreams and Dream Analysis in Mental Health
- What is the Rorschach Test? Information on the Inkblot Test
- Overview of Sigmund Freud and His Theories
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 Thurschwell, P (2009). Sigmund Freud. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
 Freudfer, E (2000). The Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sandor Ferenczi: 1920-1933. 3rd ed. Boston: Harvard University Press.