Every day, one thinks hundreds of thoughts, from the recent to the archaic past. In principle, it never will be possible to isolate these thoughts in the brain, on a neurochemical basis. However, it’s still interesting to trace their progression. In particular, what are the differentiating characteristics of any particular thought, that cause you to jump to it, from some other – what are the associational pathways, why any particular thought, instead of any other. Is their some feature of the associated thought (if so, what) that compels it to present itself? Or, is the entire process simply chaotic (it certainly isn’t “random”).
Most analyses of “dreaming” are implausible. Dreams may be free-associated, but they certainly aren’t a reliable guide to, or predictor of, suggested courses of action. Cultures that thought they were (e.g., ancient Greeks), or that relied on oracles to interpret them, were completely misled. Why would anybody think that something so fantastical might be the best thing to do? The same objection applies to e.g. Freud, who viewed them as a gateway to the “unconscious” (whatever that is). They don’t go to anywhere, except, perhaps), cul-de-sacs. Francis Crick theorized dreams simply were a discharge of static mental electricity, accumulated as we engage with the world. “The function of dream sleep is to remove certain undesirable modes of interaction in networks of cells in the cerebral cortex.” As a result of this “reverse learning mechanism,” “the trace in the brain of the unconscious dream is weakened, rather than strengthened, by the dream.” This is much more persuasive.
Association is a different process altogether. Although not “cognitive,” or the precipitate of any deliberate “thought” undertaken by a “mind” that lives in a “self,” it still has a connectedness to it, that dreams don’t. Phenomenologically, we link things together, in peculiar ways, excavating deep mental furniture that we no more could “recollect” than sprout wings and fly. Even though they occurred as part of a process, or an activity, we recall past events in brief, self-contained bursts. They do not unfold like a movie in the Cartesian Theater of the mind. Rather, they’re more like a film strip, or a series of colored slides. Each recollection is a single frame; it isolates an instant from the process or activity; and it is fundamentally static.
Freud theorized the pathways of association, as well as their substantive contents, reveal hidden truths about repressed instincts lurking in the “id”, which is a structural feature of the unconscious. As with his theory of dreams, whether this is so depends on the presence of a vibrant, robust counterpart “ego” that is being repressed. The interesting question, though, is not so much “what” association reveals. Rather, it is discerning the mechanism of how these steps are linked.
An example is Episode 18 of James Joyce’s Ulysses, where Molly Bloom engages in a fantastical soliloquy implicating every aspect of her imaginative existence. The entire chapter comprises only eight sentences, without punctuation. Why does she seque from Bloom to Boylan to D’Arcy to Gardner, to metempsychosis to trains to Gibraltar to photography, then to the nature of matriarchal societies and flowers? These transitions reveal nothing about id or ego. If they do, one would be hard-pressed to say exactly what. The project I have in mind would be to discern the nature of those connections, if they exist. If they don’t, then Crick’s analysis of dreaming also may apply to the process of association. Crick’s research into REM sleep and neural networks is a significant challenge to Freud’s entire theory of subconscious drives.
Closely related to association is uncovering the steps of routine behavior – deconstructing non-conscious experience, explicating the steps of everyday experience. What you do as you interact with the world, again, completely non-consciously and transparently. Almost as though you were writing code, to instruct a computer, what to do next. A complete specification of this is impossible in principle, because any rule you come up with would be context-sensitive, and you would need more rules to govern the application of that rule, and so forth. But it certainly is possible on a less-granular level.
We are constrained by the world, and prompted by its solicitudes to respond to it, non-consciously. The door, for example, invites you to open it, if the room tells us it’s too hot. So we do so, without thinking about it. No “mental images,” “mental representations,” cognitive processes, or intentional acts are involved. These engagements with objects well might prompt an associational sequence, in ways that would be interesting to uncover. What happens when we are frustrated or surprised (the door won’t open, or we open it and confront something unexpected) also surely plays a role.
To illustrate, here’s a simple thought experiment. Think of something, or someone, or some memory, from your (reasonably) distant pass. Then write down everything you can recall about it. Here are the rules.
1. Spend no more than 15 minutes. If you can’t think of it then, it doesn’t count. This also may force a prioritizing of recollections, in ways that would be interesting to understand.
2. List in order of which they were thought. What governs this sequence?
3. Describe only to the extent first apprehended, no fair elaborating later.
4. You can’t go back and edit an entry, once written down (though you can proof-read your work at the end). This isn’t about interpreting recollection “A” in light of recollection “B” (itself not disinteresting). Rather, it’s about what can be recalled, and why, and the nature of the step from “A” to “B,” and why “B” (rather than, e.g., “P” or “Q”).
You might find it enjoyable to ask a friend to do the same thing, then compare and contrast. Obviously, you can’t share your list in advance. No objections will be entertained to what the other has written. There is no criterion of “true or “false.” The only requirement is that the recollection has some connection, however tenuous, with what might have happened. Enough, at least, to provoke the assent of the other person, if queried.