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The Nature Of Association

We may define association, then, as the tendency among our thoughts to
form such a system of bonds with each other that the objects of
consciousness are vitally connected both (1) as they exist at any given
moment, and (2) as they occur in succession in the mental stream.

THE NEURAL BASIS OF ASSOCIATION.--The association of thoughts--ideas,
images, memory--or of a situation with its response, rests primarily on
a neural basis. Association is the result of habit working in neurone
groups. Its fundamental law is stated by James as follows: When two
elementary brain-processes have been active together or in immediate
succession, one of them, on recurring, tends to propagate its excitement
into the other. This is but a technical statement of the simple fact
that nerve currents flow most easily over the neurone connections that
they have already used.

It is hard to teach an old dog new tricks, because the old tricks employ
familiar, much-used neural paths, while new tricks require the
connecting up of groups of neurones not in the habit of working
together; and the flow of nerve energy is more easily accomplished in
the neurones accustomed to working together. One who learns to speak a
foreign language late in life never attains the facility and ease that
might have been reached at an earlier age. This is because the neural
paths for speech are already set for his mother-tongue, and, with the
lessened plasticity of age, the new paths are hard to establish.

The connections between the various brain areas, or groups of neurones,
are, as we have seen in an earlier chapter, accomplished by means of
association fibers. This function requires millions of neurones, which
unite every part of the cortex with every other part, thus making it
possible for a neural activity going on in any particular center to
extend to any other center whatsoever. In the relatively unripe brain of
the child, the association fibers have not yet set up most of their
connections. The age at which memory begins is determined chiefly by
the development of a sufficient number of association fibers to bring
about recall. The more complex reasoning, which requires many different
associative connections, is impossible prior to the existence of
adequate neural development. It is this fact that makes it futile to
attempt to teach young children the more complicated processes of
arithmetic, grammar, or other subjects. They are not yet equipped with
the requisite brain machinery to grasp the necessary associations.

stands for the visual, A for the auditory, G for the gustatory, M for
the motor, and T for the thought and feeling centers of the cortex.]

ASSOCIATION THE BASIS OF MEMORY.--Without the machinery and processes of
association we could have no memory. Let us see in a simple illustration
how association works in recall. Suppose you are passing an orchard and
see a tree loaded with tempting apples. You hesitate, then climb the
fence, pick an apple and eat it, hearing the owner's dog bark as you
leave the place. The accompanying diagram will illustrate roughly the
centers of the cortex which were involved in the act, and the
association fibers which connect them. (See Fig. 18.) Now let us see
how you may afterward remember the circumstance through association. Let
us suppose that a week later you are seated at your dining table, and
that you begin to eat an apple whose flavor reminds you of the one which
you plucked from the tree. From this start how may the entire
circumstance be recalled? Remember that the cortical centers connected
with the sight of the apple tree, with our thoughts about it, with our
movements in getting the apple, and with hearing the dog bark, were all
active together with the taste center, and hence tend to be thrown into
activity again from its activity. It is easy to see that we may (1) get
a visual image of the apple tree and its fruit from a current over the
gustatory-visual association fibers; (2) the thoughts, emotions, or
deliberations which we had on the former occasion may again recur to us
from a current over the gustatory-thought neurones; (3) we may get an
image of our movements in climbing the fence and picking the apple from
a current over the gustatory-motor fibers; or (4) we may get an auditory
image of the barking of the dog from a current over the
gustatory-auditory fibers. Indeed, we are sure to get some one or more
of these unless the paths are blocked in some way, or our attention
leads off in some other direction.

which of the images the taste percept calls to take its place as it
drops out of consciousness, will depend, other things being equal, on
which center was most keenly active in the original situation, and is at
the moment most permeable. If, at the time we were eating the stolen
fruit, our thoughts were keenly self-accusing for taking the apples
without permission, then the current will probably discharge through
the path gustatory-thought, and we shall recall these thoughts and their
accompanying feelings. But if it chances that the barking of the dog
frightened us badly, then more likely the discharge from the taste
center will be along the path gustatory-auditory, and we shall get the
auditory image of the dog's barking, which in turn may call up a visual
image of his savage appearance over the auditory-visual fibers. It is
clear, however, that, given any one of the elements of the entire
situation back, the rest are potentially possible to us, and any one may
serve as a cue to call up all the rest. Whether, given the starting
point, we get them all, depends solely on whether the paths are
sufficiently open between them for the current to discharge between
them, granting that the first experience made sufficient impression to
be retained.

Since this simple illustration may be made infinitely complex by means
of the millions of fibers which connect every center in the cortex with
every other center, and since, in passing from one experience to another
in the round of our daily activities, these various areas are all
involved in an endless chain of activities so intimately related that
each one can finally lead to all the others, we have here the machinery
both of retention and of recall--the mechanism by which our past may be
made to serve the present through being reproduced in the form of memory
images or ideas. Through this machinery we are unable to escape our
past, whether it be good or bad; for both the good and the bad alike are
brought back to us through its operations.

When the repetition of a series of acts has rendered habit secure, the
association is relatively certain. If I recite to you A-B-C-D, your
thought at once runs on to E, F, G. If I repeat, Tell me not in
mournful numbers, association leads you to follow with Life is but an
empty dream. Your neurone groups are accustomed to act in this way, so
the sequence follows. Memorizing anything from the multiplication table
to the most beautiful gems of poetic fervor consists, therefore, in the
setting up of the right associative connections in the brain.

ASSOCIATION IN THINKING.--All thinking proceeds by the discovery or
recognition of relations between the terms or objects of our thought.
The science of mathematics rests on the relations found to exist between
numbers and quantities. The principles and laws of natural science are
based on the relations established among the different forms of matter
and the energy that operates in this field. So also in the realm of
history, art, ethics, or any other field of human experience. Each fact
or event must be linked to other facts or events before it possesses
significance. Association therefore lies at the foundation of all
thinking, whether that of the original thinker who is creating our
sciences, planning and executing the events of history, evolving a
system of ethics, or whether one is only learning these fields as they
already exist by means of study. Other things being equal, he is the
best thinker who has his knowledge related part to part so that the
whole forms a unified and usable system.

ASSOCIATION AND ACTION.--Association plays an equally important part in
all our motor responses, the acts by which we carry on our daily lives,
do our work and our play, or whatever else may be necessary in meeting
and adapting ourselves to our environment. Some sensations are often
repeated, and demand practically the same response each time. In such
cases the associations soon become fixed, and the response certain and
automatic. For example, we sit at the table, and the response of eating
follows, with all its complex acts, as a matter of course. We lie down
in bed, and the response of sleep comes. We take our place at the piano,
and our fingers produce the accustomed music.

It is of course obvious that the influence of association extends to
moral action as well. In general, our conduct follows the trend of
established associations. We are likely to do in great moral crises
about as we are in the habit of doing in small ones.

Next: The Types Of Association

Previous: Problems For Observation And Introspection

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