The Freud Museum

Events Archive

20 October 2001

Free Association and the Unconscious

Conference Report

It is rare that a conference fundamentally alters the way one thinks about a particular topic. The best conferences produce brilliant papers that enrich our understanding. But for speakers working independently to effect a paradigm shift in a single day is unique in my experience. Yet that is precisely what happened at this conference.

Free Association is an essential aspect of psychoanalysis and one of the most difficult things to describe and theorise. How the patient experiences the analytic process, how free associations are produced - and how they are blocked - are questions of enduring interest to the practising psychoanalyst. Freud spoke of the analystís 'free-floating attention', tuning his unconscious to the unconscious of the patient. The analyst finds himself the medium of unexpected thoughts, intense emotions, or striking intuitions.

In her welcoming remarks, Jean Arundale, editor of the British Journal of Psychotherapy, offered two models of free association. Is it a sudden eruption into consciousness or an association of ideas? Both models are found in Freud's work. Chairman David Taylor questioned the assumption that free association was like a medical instrument, increasing the analyst's investigative powers. Rather than a technical rule, he saw it as an attitude of mind - of openmindedness. So even before the conference had started the 'basic dogma' of analytic practice was under heavy fire!

Paul Williams in his opening paper 'Un-Free Associations: Introductory Remarks', articulated two themes which were to recur throughout the day. Firstly that free associations are not really 'free', and secondly that many - perhaps most - patients are unable to engage in free association as a truly symbolic activity. Preoccupied with the management of overwhelming psychic tensions, such patients oscillate between neurotic and more primitive defence mechanisms, with the body being the primary locus of affective experience. This level of communication bypasses free association and requires what he called a 'dual transference' approach, responding to psychotic and neurotic dimensions in tandem.

In a paper rich with theoretical and clinical insight, Catalina Bronstein continued to focus on the constraints to which free association is subject. She pointed out that for Freud himself 'free associations' were not really free, the patient remains under the influence of the analytic situation and all that that implies as regards repetition in the transference. Elaborating the theme she asked 'What is the effect of a harsh critical superego on the free associative process?', and showed how in some cases the associations are not 'free' because the psychic reality itself is not free. In its assumption of moral superiority and the quest for absolute certainty and control, the harshly dominating superego leaves no room for curiosity. In fact such a structure in the mind is positively hostile to the possibility of any new psychic development at all. Hearing this in the context of recent world events it was impossible not to think of religious fundamentalism, or indeed of Freud's chillingly prophetic statement that the superego can become a 'pure culture of the death instinct' ('The ego and the id' SE 19, p53).

Caroline Garland's paper 'The open mind and some of its anxieties' continued the theme of freedom of thought and language. Focusing on a particular patient, she explored three metaphorical dimensions in which one can be said to have 'freedom of movement' - space, time and depth. She described the development of verbal communication from earlier forms of symbolisation and body states, emphasising the paucity of analytic language to describe the elusive qualities of 'mood' and 'atmosphere'. Patients can exude a state of mind that strenuously avoids capture in the net of language, and the process of symbolisation can get stuck because of an inability to come to terms with profound anxieties surrounding the Oedipal situation. The emergence of these anxieties and Oedipal phantasies is the path to freeing up the mind and re-establishing the capacity to use unconscious content as a creative resource.

Finally Chris Mawson brought the problems of free association back to the two person relationship in the analytic situation. Quoting Wilfred Bion he noted that there were some patients who wanted only an 'uninterupted validation of their daydreamed self', and he perceptively described some of the linguistic mannerisms that indicate the presence of this 'psuedo-free association'. "I was thinking about how...." says the patient, subtely establishing the distance of a pseudo-contact. Or successive associations would appear 'free', only to arrive not at some psychological truth but at what the patient thinks the analyst wants to hear. The analyst can easily fall in with these strategems and find himself conducting a kind of 'pseudo analysis' in the comfort zone of a mutually daydreamed relationship. To avoid this eventuality, Mawson argued, continual input from colleagues in clinical seminars was a practical necessity - the analytic situation cannot be taken for granted.

As befitted the subject matter, a long plenary session was devoted to discussion and comment. Ranging far beyond the specific issue of free association, we were left pondering the question of the language of psychoanalysis itself in all its various forms.

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