To illustrate the technique of free association, which is the basic technique of Psychoanalysis, I will transcribe below the session that took place on October 12, 1924 in the office of Edward Scripture, charter member of the New York Psychoanalytic Society. Scripture has just received a new patient in his consulting room. After the appropriate greetings, each one occupies its respective place in the psychoanalytic stage. Scripture gives the patient instructions on how to proceed with the technique of free association of ideas. It is, he says, a kind of long chain that leads to the past and in which he, Scripture, is going to string the first link: “I will mention a word, and immediately you will respond with another word with which you relate it. Do you understand?”

Patient: Yes

Doctor: If I mention the word “vacation”, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?

Patient: An aircraft carrier

Doctor: Interesting. Have you spent a vacation on an aircraft carrier?

The patient laughed.

Patient: Are you kidding?

Doctor: In that case, why have you associated the word “vacation” with an aircraft carrier?

Patient: Well, it’s the first thing that came to my mind. You said that…

Doctor: Okay, okay. I will mention another word. But this time you are going to reflect a moment before answering. Think of something that evokes that word and summarize that evocation in a single word. Ready?

Patient: Shoot

Doctor: “Ocean”

The patient remains silent for a moment and then exclaims: “Hammer!”

Doctor: What have you said?

Patient: Hammer. A tool with a metal head…

Doctor: Yes, I know what a hammer is. What intrigues me is what a hammer has to do with an ocean. I don’t…

Patient: Well, it depends on what ocean. Are you referring to the Atlantic or the Pacific?

Doctor: I still don’t see what one thing has to do with the other.

Patient: Well, say another word

Doctor: No, no, that wouldn’t be scientific. We will try to find out why your subconscious has put these two terms in relation. Close your eyes and think of a scene in your life involving a hammer and an ocean.

After reflecting for a while, the patient explains that once, years ago, he hung a picture on the wall by means of a hammer, and that picture represented an ocean where a vessel sailed.

Doctor: Aha. We are getting closer

Patient: Closer to what?

Doctor: To your subconscious. Go on. Keep deepening into that memory. Was it your house where you were hanging the picture?

Patient: No. It was actually the house of … I’m sorry, I can’t say it.

Doctor: Aha! We are getting closer. Go on, go on! What’s that you can’t say?

Patient: Who the house was.

Doctor: And why can’t you say it, if I may ask?

Patient: Because it can’t be known. Look, I propose one thing: let’s get back to the aircraft carrier

Doctor: Forget about the aircraft carrier! It is not the aircraft carrier that your subconscious is trying to reveal to us.

Patient: How do you know that my subconscious is trying to reveal something?

Doctor: Because it’s trying to hide it from us!

Patient: Well, which is it? Is it trying to reveal something or is trying to hide it?

Doctor: Look, your subconscious is like a girl you’ve asked out. She is willing to say yes, but does not want to look like an easy girl, so she says no. What would you do in such a case?

Patient: Well, I would look for another girl who would say yes. Maybe if we went back to the aircraft carrier …

Doctor: Forget about the aircraft carrier!!

Patient: Maybe the carrier is an easier girl

Doctor: You are not interested in easy girls! You are looking for your Soul Mate, and your Soul Mate is the girl in the painting!

Patient: I remind you that the painting is not the portrait of a girl. It’s an ocean.

Doctor: But the house where the painting hangs belongs to a girl, right?!

Patient: How do you know? I didn’t tell you!

Doctor: Your subconscious has told me!

Patient: Damn subconscious snitch!

Doctor: Okay, now that we know there’s a girl involved, what do you have to tell me about that girl?

Patient: Ask my subconscious. I am not a damn snitch

Doctor: It’s to your subconscious that I’m asking!

Patient: Sorry. I thought you were asking me

Doctor: Who is that girl?

Patient: Don’t tell him

Doctor: What? Who are you talking to?

Patient: I told my subconscious. I didn’t talk to you

It’s at this point in the session when Scripture had a mental breakdown that kept him out of action for a while. As you can see, this is just an example of the mechanism that makes the technique of free association so effective in Psychoanalysis. And if I have chosen this case, it is to show you that, apart from being effective, it is a technique that can be extremely stressful for the psychoanalyst in charge. After all, nobody said that the profession of psychoanalyst was a cinch!

This is a non-profit blog whose purpose is to raise funds for children in need. So if you want to make a donation in exchange for this story, click on this link to UNICEF. I really appreciate it!

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