The First Guess: Free Association

The first "gush" is the information you get from the thought you want to know about simply by asking that thought for information. In psychological terms, this is a free association.

It is well-accepted in Freudian psychology that the free association can provide useful information which the subject/client is not necessarily aware of. For example, a Freudian analyst might say "mother" and then you would then say whatever came to mind. Your response would probably reveal information about what you thought about mothers.

The Information in a Free Association

Several factors influence your free associations, but one powerful influence is that associations will tend to resemble the stimulus. Trivially, if I say bird, you will first think of something like robin or eggs. If your response to 'mother' involves death and destruction, the Freudian analyst will think that your concept of mother includes death and destruction.

In an unpublished experiment by Wei Ouyang, subjects first paid attention to 24 strings of letters, such as GBHRTPK or ZBMXCLF. The second letter of each string was always the same. Most subjects could not report the pattern. The subjects who could not report the pattern were then asked to produce a letter string following the pattern. This is essentially free association. 65% of these subjects wrote a letter string with the proper letter in the second position.

Subjects never wrote a letter string they had actually seen. If subjects were reporting letters at random, the probability of getting the second letter correct is about 5%. Thus, the subjects' free association usually followed a pattern that they were not consciously aware of.

This study shows that free association extracts unconscious information.

The usual notion in Freudian psychology is that free association bypasses the patient's defenses. This is probably true -- if you have something about your mother you want to hide, your free associations to mother are liable to reveal information you would not have chosen to reveal. But the subjects in Wei's experiment had no defenses against reporting the second letter of the letter strings. That study showed that free association also taps into unconscious information, revealing information that the person is not even aware of.

Focusing and Free Association

Focusing exploits the principle that free associations provide information. Free association is used to make the first guess. You hold the felt sense in mind, then free associate to it. Your free association will tend to resemble your felt sense, which is to say, it will contain information about your felt sense that you might not even be aware of.

For example, one focuser had a feeling of urgency for a few days. He realized that there was a felt sense behind this feeling. He asked, "What is beneath this urgency?" This question elicited free associations.

Three thoughts appeared. The first was an image of his drinking buddies, who used to be his close friends. The second was 'not having to stretch to be appreciated.' This gave him a feeling of relief. Apparently, part of his "feeling of urgency" was a desire to be with his old friends who would just appreciate him just for who he was. He had been busy with other people and had not had a chance to go drinking with his old friends. He had thought -- logically -- that this was good, because his old friends were not productive and often were irresponsible. Now he could understand that there were good things about his old friends too. The third free association was an empty feeling. This too was probably part of his original feeling.