Free association is a method of psychological analysis in which a patient speaks or writes all of the thoughts that come into his or her mind; the thoughts may be related or not, but one leads in some way to the next. It may or may not be possible to follow a pattern of thinking when practicing free association, which is ultimately the point of the practice. Generally, this method of analysis will begin with a word, phrase, or question, and the person will allow all the thoughts regarding that original word to come to the surface without censoring or analyzing them.
This type of psychoanalysis was developed by Sigmund Freud and his colleague Josef Breuer. It was intended to be used as an alternative to hypnosis, and to allow people to make connections in the awake, conscious mind that were previously difficult to access, or only available through hypnosis in the unconscious mind. Freud found that this process of free association often allowed people to make discoveries and uncover repressions without fear of judgment.
This technique is sometimes still used in psychological treatment today, though it is somewhat less common. Some people practice free association on their own, such as through journaling. This may be similar to stream of consciousness writing, in which one writes anything and everything that comes to mind, whether it seems to be related or not. This differs from the psychological technique in that it usually does not begin from a specific question or phrase.
Writing thoughts down when attempting this practice can be very helpful, because a person can then go back and read over the process at a later date. It may then be possible to learn even more from the associations that were made, once they can be considered more deeply. Some people find it possible to visualize the connections they make when free associating, and to see how some things might be related, while others require the help of a trained psychologist to make the connections.
Regardless of the method chosen, free association can be a helpful technique for those who are feeling stuck in a similar thought pattern. Beginning with this process in psychotherapy can make it easier to share information with a therapist as the process goes on. It can also be a way to discover hidden feelings or beliefs that a person was not even aware he or she had.