Being Creative with Associative Thinking

Side View of the Brain

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

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.”

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Synergistic Thinking

3D image of black and white swirls.

Synergistic thinking makes a synthesis of linear and non-linear thinking. In other words, it blends logic and association.  (Image: public domain)

Creative thinking requires the skilful blending of linear and non-linear thinking. In more commonly used language, this means we must combine logical thinking with associative thinking. Before we go on, let us be clear that associative thinking is not the same as intuition. Associative thinking brings related ideas and events together in imagination or memory in ways that are not necessarily logical. Association may link a red barn with a red car (because they are both red) even though there is no logical reason to connect them. The associative connection may not be rigorously logical, but it is definite and understandable. Intuition is more emotional, more vague, a mere feeling or inarticulate hunch.

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Remembering a Falling Leaf

Tree by Varadi Zsolt

On a still autumn evening I could hear withered leaves slithering to the ground. My unconscious mind began making associations…
(Image: public domain.)

I have kept a diary on and off for over twenty years. The other day, while glancing through some pages, I came across an unusual entry from November 16, 1997. At that time, Carl Jung’s ideas about the unconscious mind had taken over as my primary interest. His notions of archetypes, the anima / animus, and the collective unconscious intrigued me. I had begun to notice the little clues the unconscious always leaves for those who are paying attention.

Some Christians believe that to be close to the unconscious is to be close to God. I am not religious, but I do understand why they might feel that way. In 1997, I was living in the country on a heavily wooded five-acre hillside lot. Young cottonwood trees surrounded the house. Deer grazed clover at my back door. Cougars, following the deer herd, left huge paw prints on the driveway’s soft sandy edges. In that wilderness setting, one remarkably calm autumn evening in November, I experienced a particularly charming example of unconscious magic.

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