This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 13 table of contents.

Free Association

Carl Jung sometimes achieved insight into patients' emotional problems by asking them to make free associations to a list of words. The rules of free association are simple. The patient is supposed to say the first thing that pops into his or her head, without censorship, regardless of how silly or strange it might seem.

How does free association work?

Sometimes a person doing a free association test will pause longer than is normal, or will blink or swallow. This might indicate the person is censoring the first reaction that came to mind. If the therapist says "mother" and "witch" pops into the patient's head, the patient is unlikely to say it right away. Instead the patient might pause. The trained therapist will encourage the patient to go ahead and report the first association, no matter how strange it seems. Unusual associations, or the inability to come up with an association, might point to a problem in the patient's life that could be discussed with the therapist.

What did Jung write about word association?

Jung employed free association in his psychiatric practice around 1900. He wrote that his experiences with free association were what drew him to Freud's concept of repression, because Jung had frequently encountered repressions in his patient's attempts to do word association.

In response to certain stimulus words the patient either had no associative answer or was unduly slow in his reaction time. As was later discovered, such a disturbance occurred each time the stimulus word had touched upon a psychic lesion or conflict. In most cases the patient was unconscious of this. (Jaffe and Jung, 1965, p.147)

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