Being Creative with Associative Thinking

The Unconscious Observes and Comments

In earlier posts, I have written about synergistic thinking, the deliberate combining of logical (linear) and associative (non-linear) thinking. Logic is a product of the conscious mind and as such it is a thinking tool we all, with varying degrees of skill, deliberately employ. Associative thinking is how the unconscious works and can be both hard to understand and elusive in its actual – often powerful – workings. As a result, in the last few decades, a great deal of confusing superstition has gathered around the unconscious. Here is a gem from page 39 of Susan Shaughnessy’s excellent book about writing, Walking on Alligators: “The only thing we know for sure about the unconscious is that it isn’t like us. It is different from the conscious mind. It looks through our eyes, but it sees differently. It uses other rules to organize what it sees. And then it passes along its conclusions in a tantalizingly inexplicit way.”

Side View of the Brain

The unconscious mind produces an associative running commentary on our thoughts and surroundings. (Image: public domain.)

First, it is a serious error to say the unconscious “isn’t like us.” This splits a person in two by predicating a double personality, one conscious (us) and the other unconscious (it). In fact, human beings are an integrated whole made up of a small conscious part and a large unconscious part. The reality that we are not fully aware of our other half, changes nothing. The unconscious mind is as much “us” as is the conscious mind. As I will show a bit later on, it is not hard to demonstrate the truth of this assertion.

Shaughnessy is correct when she talks about the unconscious mind’s “tantalizingly inexplicit” ways. Her statement sounds mysterious, yet is just another way of saying the unconscious portion of our minds uses associative thinking, a way of going about things that does not make much sense to our “logical” conscious portion. Associative thinking does not use declarative sentences. Instead, it “passes along” an assortment of items that link with what our conscious portion is thinking or with something in the environment around us of which we may not be consciously aware. We might think of this as a self-generated gloss or commentary on what we are doing and where we are.

Associative Thinking Can Hold a Tune

When I first studied associative thinking, I recorded a few personal examples in my diary. I have already used one of these in an earlier post titled “Remembering a Falling Leaf.” Here is another. What follows is a logical presentation of what was actually a non-logical process.

One evening, as I prepared and ate my supper of tasty Welsh rarebit, I found myself humming that little English tune that goes with the nursery rhyme about the bells of famous London churches. You know: the one where the bells are supposed to be saying things. “Oranges and Lemons” is the title.

Oranges and lemons”
Say the Bells of St. Clement’s

“You owe me five farthings,”
Say the Bells of St. Martin’s

“When will you pay me?”
Say the Bells of Old Bailey

“When I grow rich,”
Say the Bells of Shoreditch

“When will that be?”
Say the Bells of Stepney

“I do not know,”
Say the Great Bells of Bow

“Here comes a candle
To light you to bed

Here comes a chopper
To chop off your head

Chip chop chip chop —
The Last Man’s Dead.


Why, I wondered, was I humming this particular melody? I had not heard it recently. As I contentedly drank my customary after-supper pot of tea, I worked it out. I recalled that earlier in the day I had listened to a lovely performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (the “Eroica” or Heroic) by the Academy of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, the conductor being Sir Neville Marriner.

The connection is straightforward once you have seen it: St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields is one of the famous London churches the nursery rhyme mentions. Humming the tune was the result of an unconscious feat of memory. However, a critical characteristic of associative thinking is the way it always arises from a combination of links. I went looking for more.

I had spent the day working on the draft of chapter five of my novel in progress, and was unsure about whether it needed more material or if I should leave it and move on to drafting chapter six. I was still in two minds come suppertime. What is the connection? Well, I had just inserted three (the symphony number) extra chapters to build up the background of the story. Formerly, chapter six had been chapter three (the symphony number again).

There is still more. The title of chapter six is “Foreign Canvas,” a reference to square-rigged sailing ships. St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields church is in Trafalgar Square, thus tying in “square-rigged” and the famous sea battle fought with such vessels, the Battle of Trafalgar. Then there is the conductor’s name, Marriner, which is an old spelling of mariner or sailor. In addition, of course, a novel’s protagonist is more casually referred to as the “hero.” This fits with the symphony’s name, “Eroica,” or heroic.

I noted above that our surroundings are often included in associative thinking. While I was at the computer desk, my copy of David Walder’s biography of Lord Nelson was visible in a stack of books beside my CD player. Remember that St. Martin’s is in Trafalgar Square and Admiral Nelson commanded during the Battle of Trafalgar.

In honour of the link, I picked up the biography and began reading it that evening. More important, it dawned on me that I had – by means of associative thinking – the answer to my question about moving on to drafting chapter six. If you will recall, it had been chapter three. I moved on. The decision “felt” satisfyingly right.

Associative thinking is extremely long-winded when laid out using language and logic. Scroll back and see how much explication was required for what are, in reality, a few simple associations. Yet the unconscious mind does this sort of thing without our even being aware. It often does these things virtually instantly. This is why we have an unconscious mind!

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

12 thoughts on “Being Creative with Associative Thinking”

  1. The associative process is indeed a basis for inspiration. Most of the time we aren’t even aware of what’s happening. Things just “occur” to us in a way that we take for granted. Or more deliberately, we “sleep on it” and have an answer in the morning. I often end a writing session by typing up a set of questions about unresolved issues with plot details or character behaviour. The next time I open the file, I find that I have the answers – or decisions – I need.

  2. Nice example of a difficult to appreciate process we all experience as we create. It brings to mind (pardon the awful pun) something a character asks in God Bless the Dead as he’s staring at an EEG printout: “What we say, what we think, what we believe, what we remember, what we feel—where is all that?” Certainly one can ask the same question of the creative process.

  3. I have studied the creative process extensively, Evan. Researchers have discovered many intriguing things in the last couple of decades, and I have incorporated some of that new knowledge in my assorted posts on creativity. Much of the material has to do with motivation, emotional states, work habits, sources of material and inspiration, and so on. However, the actual moment by moment process of creating remains murky and elusive. I think the heavy reliance on associative thinking may account for this.

  4. I so agree with what you say above about those questions, motivations, etc, Thomas, and how suddenly the answers fall into place. Of course, the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ came to her in a dream, which may be instructive, too…

  5. A surprising number of writers have made us of dreams in their work. To name just a few: Graham Greene kept a dream diary that he drew on for several of his short stories. Robert Louis Stevenson literally dreamed up Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Jonathon Livingston Seagull lay incomplete for years before Richard Bach had a dream that enabled him to finish the book. William Styron claimed to have used dream elements in his novels.

    I think the associative nature of dreams allows them to present both striking contrasts and unusual unseen similarities. Creative people are used to recognizing the worth of associative thinking and are thus able to exploit dreams as a source of highly original material. Shelley’s novel was a ground breaker.

  6. Pingback: Syncreate
  7. Associative memory is involved in, heuristic (intuitive), pre-analytic thinking, where time/space distance information are united, in order, to form a novel (not existent/hypothetical) set. Analysis, which follows, evaluates this linearized set for deeper structure – to form an abstract idea. Creativity is related to broad activation through associative/heuristic networks, allowing seemingly unrelated information to be related. It is also related to psychological construal (construal level theory).

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