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  How Associations Wear Out
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  You Can't Go Home Again


The concept of association is a simple one: you see (hear, smell, etc.) one thing and are reminded of another. Although simple to describe, association is something the mind does so often, and so well, that it is also very important.

Mostly one hears about association as free association, as in The Sixth Sense, but it's not free association I'm interested in, just the mechanism of association, regardless of whether it's free or constrained. I've heard the phrase “associative memory” somewhere, and that's very much in the right direction.

As an example of association, and also as an example of how to work with your mind rather than against it (see Don't Fight Your Mind), I'll describe the way I use associative memory to remember things I'm supposed to do.

If I have, say, a videotape I need to return, I leave it by the front door. Then, when I see it on my way out the door, I am instantly reminded that it needs to be returned. This kind of association seems trivial, but that's only because we're so familiar with it—a computer vision system might be able to recognize the object as a videotape, but without associative memory, it would just see a videotape, and not realize it needed to be returned.

By the way, promptness is key, here. If I don't return the videotape the very next time I go out, I'll start to accumulate a pile of clutter, and once the tape is buried in clutter, I won't see it, and so won't make the association.

It's probably obvious, but this method can be applied to more than just things that need to be returned—for example, it's also good for things that need to be taken to work.

Another way the method can be varied is by changing the location where the things are put. If there's something I'm supposed to do that requires driving in the car, and I don't want to be reminded of it every time I go out the front door, I'll leave the object of association on the driver's seat of the car instead. (The passenger's seat works, too, but is a little risky because I might not notice the object.)

When I was growing up, my whole family used to apply the same method to things that needed to be taken upstairs—we'd just leave the objects on the stairs. The method worked particularly well for us because there was a banister up one side of the stairs, and the spaces between the posts acted as a series of pigeonholes all at a convenient height for putting objects in. It also helped that the stairs were carpeted, so the objects wouldn't slip out.

Anyway, that's almost certainly how I first learned to make use of association, even though I didn't realize at the time that that's what I was doing. It makes me wonder many things. Where did the meme come from, originally? Was it spontaneously generated, or did one of my parents bring it with them from their family? How many other people do the same thing?

As an aside, it's very strange to say that I didn't realize what I was doing. Of course I realized what I was doing—I was putting things on the stairs so someone would take them upstairs later. The difference, now, is that I can use another set of words to describe the same events, or, since words are ideas, another set of ideas. Why does it matter? Well, I think the new set of ideas makes it easier to invent new uses for association. Or, to put it another way, what I've done is separate out the concept of association from the specific use we made of it. This reminds me of coding, of how one can produce good, flexible code by factoring a single monolithic function into several smaller functions. Clearly, there is something very interesting going on here, and, equally clearly, I don't understand it yet, so I will save it for later.

As another aside, there's something else interesting about how my family used the stairs for association. Sometimes, one of us would leave an object on the stairs so that someone else would see the object, make the association, and act on it. It's a bit of an overstatement, but this seems to me like one person finishing another's thought, or like the beginning of a kind of collective intelligence.

As a final aside, here's another point for future thought. The design of the stairs accidentally helped us to use association well, that is, to think efficiently, or even cooperatively. What if a whole house was designed that way intentionally?

By now you, like me, may have lost track of what all these asides were aside from. Association, remember? I was describing the method I use for remembering things I'm supposed to do, plus some variants of the same method. Well, it turns out I nearly forgot the classic example of how to use a physical object as a reminder of a task: tying a string around your finger. Anyone who's ever actually tried this method, though, knows it has a serious flaw. Because there's no natural association from the string to the task, you remember you're supposed to do something, but you forget what, exactly, you're supposed to do.

There's another variant with the same flaw (and others, too) that I occasionally find useful because it doesn't require a physical object. Suppose you need to pick up a videotape instead of returning one. What you can do is create an association from scratch, by just sitting for a few seconds and thinking of the things to be associated: the act of opening the front door, and the videotape. I find that it works best if the trigger is an action and the association is a physical object. Trying to associate to the abstract idea of picking up a videotape just doesn't do it for me.

Mostly, though, if you've reached the point where you have to try creating associations from scratch, you'd be better off just making a list on paper, or on the electronic gadget of your choice. (If it's not already completely obvious, yes, I am one of those people that make lists.)

Here's a final, useful variant on the same method. The cue that triggers the association doesn't have to be the location of the object, it can also be the state of the object. This can lead to silliness such as turning one's shoes upside down, but it can also be very practical. For example, when I notice that I need to go by the bank to get more cash, I like to leave a bill hanging out of my wallet, so that the next time I pick it up I'll be reminded of cash.


  See Also

  Associative Hooks
  Classification of Functions
  Environment Free of Distraction
  Footnote (Antiviral Memes)
  Monthly Tasks
  On Handkerchiefs
  Personality Types
  Story of My Room, The

@ May (2000)
  June (2000)