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The Types Of Association

FUNDAMENTAL LAW OF ASSOCIATION.--Stated on the physiological side, the
law of habit as set forth in the definition of association in the
preceding section includes all the laws of association. In different
phrasing we may say: (1) Neurone groups accustomed to acting together
have the tendency to work in unison. (2) The more frequently such groups
act together the stronger will be the tendency for one to throw the
other into action. Also, (3) the more intense the excitement or tension
under which they act together the stronger will be the tendency for
activity in one to bring about activity in the other.

The corresponding facts may be expressed in psychological terms as
follows: (1) Facts accustomed to being associated together in the mind
have a tendency to reappear together. (2) The more frequently these
facts appear together the stronger the tendency for the presence of one
to insure the presence of the other. (3) The greater the tension,
excitement or concentration when these facts appear in conjunction with
each other, the more certain the presence of one is to cause the
presence of the other.

Several different types of association have been differentiated by
psychologists from Aristotle down. It is to be kept in mind, however,
that all association types go back to the elementary law of
habit-connections among the neurones for their explanation.

ASSOCIATION BY CONTIGUITY.--The recurrence in our minds of many of the
elements from our past experience is due to the fact that at some time,
possibly at many times, the recurring facts were contiguous in
consciousness with some other element or fact which happens now to be
again present. All have had the experience of meeting some person whom
we had not seen for several months or years, and having a whole series
of supposedly forgotten incidents or events connected with our former
associations flood into the mind. Things we did, topics we discussed,
trips we took, games we played, now recur at the renewal of our
acquaintance. For these are the things that were contiguous in our
consciousness with our sense of the personality and appearance of our
friend. And who has not in similar fashion had a whiff of perfume or the
strains of a song recall to him his childhood days! Contiguity is again
the explanation.

AT THE MERCY OF OUR ASSOCIATIONS.--Through the law thus operating we are
in a sense at the mercy of our associations, which may be bad as well as
good. We may form certain lines of interest to guide our thought, and
attention may in some degree direct it, but one's mental make-up is,
after all, largely dependent on the character of his associations. Evil
thoughts, evil memories, evil imaginations--these all come about through
the association of unworthy or impure images along with the good in our
stream of thought. We may try to forget the base deed and banish it
forever from our thinking, but lo! in an unguarded moment the nerve
current shoots into the old path, and the impure thought flashes into
the mind, unsought and unwelcomed. Every young man who thinks he must
indulge in a little sowing of wild oats before he settles down to a
correct life, and so deals in unworthy thoughts and deeds, is putting a
mortgage on his future; for he will find the inexorable machinery of his
nervous system grinding the hated images of such things back into his
mind as surely as the mill returns to the sack of the miller what he
feeds into the hopper. He may refuse to harbor these thoughts, but he
can no more hinder their seeking admission to his mind than he can
prevent the tramp from knocking at his door. He may drive such images
from his mind the moment they are discovered, and indeed is guilty if he
does not; but not taking offense at this rebuff, the unwelcome thought
again seeks admission.

The only protection against the return of the undesirable associations
is to choose lines of thought as little related to them as possible. But
even then, do the best we may, an occasional connection will be set
up, we know not how, and the unwelcome image stands staring us in the
face, as the corpse of Eugene Aram's victim confronted him at every
turn, though he thought it safely buried. A minister of my acquaintance
tells me that in the holiest moments of his most exalted thought, images
rise in his mind which he loathes, and from which he recoils in horror.
Not only does he drive them away at once, but he seeks to lock and bar
the door against them by firmly resolving that he will never think of
them again. But alas! that is beyond his control. The tares have been
sown among the wheat, and will persist along with it until the end. In
his boyhood these images were given into the keeping of his brain cells,
and they are only being faithful to their trust.

ASSOCIATION BY SIMILARITY AND CONTRAST.--All are familiar with the fact
that like tends to suggest like. One friend reminds us of another friend
when he manifests similar traits of character, shows the same tricks of
manner, or has the same peculiarities of speech or gesture. The telling
of a ghost or burglar story in a company will at once suggest a similar
story to every person of the group, and before we know it the
conversation has settled down to ghosts or burglars. One boastful boy is
enough to start the gang to recounting their real or imaginary exploits.
Good and beautiful thoughts tend to call up other good and beautiful
thoughts, while evil thoughts are likely to produce after their own
kind; like produces like.

Another form of relationship is, however, quite as common as similars in
our thinking. In certain directions we naturally think in opposites.
Black suggests white, good suggests bad, fat suggests lean, wealth
suggests poverty, happiness suggests sorrow, and so on.

The tendency of our thought thus to group in similars and opposites is
clear when we go back to the fundamental law of association. The fact is
that we more frequently assemble our thoughts in these ways than in
haphazard relations. We habitually group similars together, or compare
opposites in our thinking; hence these are the terms between which
associative bonds are formed.

PARTIAL, OR SELECTIVE, ASSOCIATION.--The past is never wholly reinstated
in present consciousness. Many elements, because they had formed fewer
associations, or because they find some obstacle to recall, are
permanently dropped out and forgotten. In other words, association is
always selective, favoring now this item of experience, now that,
above the rest.

It is well that this is so; for to be unable to escape from the great
mass of minutiae and unimportant detail in one's past would be
intolerable, and would so cumber the mind with useless rubbish as to
destroy its usefulness. We have surely all had some experience with the
type of persons whose associations are so complete and impartial that
all their conversation teems with unessential and irrelevant details.
They cannot recount the simplest incident in its essential points but,
slaves to literalness, make themselves insufferable bores by entering
upon every lane and by-path of circumstance that leads nowhere and
matters not the least in their story. Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot,
Shakespeare, and many other writers have seized upon such characters and
made use of them for their comic effect. James, in illustrating this
mental type, has quoted the following from Miss Austen's Emma:

'But where could you hear it?' cried Miss Bates. 'Where could you
possibly hear it, Mr. Knightley? For it is not five minutes since I
received Mrs. Cole's note--no, it cannot be more than five--or at least
ten--for I had got my bonnet and spencer on, just ready to come out--I
was only gone down to speak to Patty again about the pork--Jane was
standing in the passage--were not you, Jane?--for my mother was so
afraid that we had not any salting-pan large enough. So I said I would
go down and see, and Jane said: Shall I go down instead? for I think
you have a little cold, and Patty has been washing the kitchen. Oh, my
dear, said I--well, and just then came the note.'

THE REMEDY.--The remedy for such wearisome and fruitless methods of
association is, as a matter of theory, simple and easy. It is to
emphasize, intensify, and dwell upon the significant and essential in
our thinking. The person who listens to a story, who studies a lesson,
or who is a participant in any event must apply a sense of value,
recognizing and fixing the important and relegating the trivial and
unimportant to their proper level. Not to train one's self to think in
this discriminating way is much like learning to play a piano by
striking each key with equal force!

Next: Training In Association

Previous: The Nature Of Association

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