Free Association

Our last two posts have been looking at Freud’s early neural theories, which he developed before going on to be a psychoanalyst. Through Freud’s observation of the brains of fish, he suggested a notion that is now universally accepted within neuroscience, namely that the brain is made of cells and that the nerve cells in the brain are physically separated from one another. It is this physical separation between neurons—the space between the cells—that allows for a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. (We discussed neuroplasticity in our two earlier posts ‘From Localizationism to Neuroplasticity’ and ‘The Adaptive Brain’.) 

One of the corollaries to Freud’s early appreciation of brain plasticity was his understanding that neurological associations between different parts of the brain are formed through simultaneity. In an interview with ABC radio, Dr. Norman Doidge described the significance of this:

“In the 1880s [Freud] was one of the very first people to propose that when we think and learn we change the connections between nerve cells. He was very, very prescient on this point and modern day neuroplasticians, which is a term I have for people who have helped further our understanding of neuroplasticity, often talk about a basic law of plasticity that states neurons that fire together, wire together and neurons that fire apart wire apart. This is a very monumental discovery. This is how connections are formed in the brain. Sometimes they attributed that to a Canadian, an American who became a Canadian, Donald Hebb, and called it Hebbian plasticity. But in fact Freud proposed that idea in the 1880s and 90s and he called it the law of association by simultaneity—it’s beautifully named and it just meant that when you put two things together in consciousness they get associated in the neuronal connections in the brain.”

Dr. Doidge then went on to explain how Freud’s early theories of the brain became seminal to the insights he went on to develop in the field of psychoanalysis, in particular his idea of free association. This is crucial to being able to answer those who falsely imagine that psychoanalysis is little more than speculation and idle theorizing. Back to Dr. Doidge:

“And if you hear the word ‘association’ with respect to Freud you think of free association and you know saying everything that comes to mind and Freud’s emphasis that you could find important links and in fact it was related to his work as a neurologist. You know he was never a psychiatrist, he was a neuroscience researcher before he turned to treating patients. Psychoanalysis grew out of these neuroplastic insights, and many of the other therapies that have grown out of psychoanalysis bear that heritage. And one of the most exciting and important things about this work is people have often thought that real treatments are always biological and involve drugs etc, and that talk therapy is just that—just talk, mere talk. But we now have really important work of psychoanalytic therapies, cognitive behaviour therapy, inter-personal therapy which kind of grows out of psychoanalytic therapy which shows that patients come in with brains in certain states of wiring and after these interventions their brains are rewired.”

“So psychotherapy is every bit as biological as the use of medicines and I would say in a certain respect more precise at times.”

Despite its therapeutic limitations or possible misuses, Freud’s theory of free association was key in helping psychotherapy to become what it has today. As Pamela Thurschwell put it in her book Sigmund Freud, “The importance of free association is that the patients spoke for themselves, rather than repeating the ideas of the analyst; they work through their own material, rather than parroting another’s suggestions.”

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