Association of Ideas and Dreams

Associations are the real way to understand the language of dreams. Everything we see during the day we form associations with – even the association of disinterest. When I was working on the new site design, the designer said to me, “What’s the point of dreams – they don’t mean anything do they”. I noticed he had a T-shirt on that looked as if had been used quite a lot. So I said to him, “What about that T-shirt? If you dreamt of it what would you think it meant?”

He said it wouldn’t mean anything. So then I asked he where he had got it and what memories were attached to it. He said he had got it in America, but when pressed to explain his memories he refused to answer, looking embarrassed. I felt he associated and hid T shirt with a relationship he had experienced while in America. So any object or thing can represent anything you associate with it.

Prior to the publication of Freud’s book The Interpretation of Dreams David Hartley had written his work on psychology titled Observations on Man – 1749, and James Mill had written Analysis of the Mind – 1829, both of which examined association and set the foundations for modern psychology in the Associationist movement.

In 1899, Edouard Von Hartmann published Philosophy of the Unconscious in which he stated that there were three layers to the unconscious discoverable by the observation of association of ideas, of the use of language, wit and ones emotions. In the same period the Marquis Hervey de Saint-Denys – a French professor of ethnography who taught Chinese and Tartar-Manchu – anonymously published a book titled Les Reves et les Moyens and Les Diriger – Dreams and How to Guide Them – in 1867. Saint-Denys had observed and recorded his dreams from the age of thirteen. From his observations he argued that ‘The moving panorama of our visions corresponds exactly with the train of ideas arising in our mind.’ In connection with the association of ideas he gives the example of a dream from his childhood in which he was dining with his family. But also at the table was the bishop of his diocese and two mythological divinities. The association of ideas Saint-Denys discovered between his dream and his experience was that while he was translating a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which divinities appeared, he was asked to change the dirty jacket he had on for a cleaner one as the bishop of the diocese had arrived and was going to dine with the family.

Many thinkers and observers of dreams felt that it was not enough to say dreams could be understood through the association of ideas. This could mean that association explains the whole phenomena of dreaming. Through their work Freud and Jung showed the wealth of information and experience that can be uncovered within a dream’s imagery and drama. Henry Maudsley, the British doctor after whom the Maudsley Day Hospital and school of psychiatry in London was named, wrote – “We are dealing with … an actual constructive agency’ in dreams ‘whereby ideas are not merely brought together only, but new products are formed out of them.” He says elsewhere that he is struck by “the extraordinary creations of dreams,” and that a study of dreams would be “full of promise of abundant fruit.”

If we are going to use association in exploring dreams, it is helpful to recognise the difference between free association, and looking for associations with a dream’s contents. Jung points out that with free association the starting point can be anywhere – dreams, ink-blots, clouds, shapes of landscape, a prayer wheel or rosary. He gives the example of a colleague who described to him a long train journey in Russia. Not knowing the language he found himself wondering what the strange shapes of the Cyrillic characters meant. Relaxing he began to imagine all sorts of meanings for them. One image and feeling led to another until, to his annoyance he found that long buried memories and difficult emotions had become stirred up.


The point Jung makes in connection with dreams is that if one took a dream image and ‘free associated’ with it, this could certainly lead to an uncovering of ones complexes or neuroses, but what one arrived at might have little or nothing to do with integral links with the dream. For instance the dream of the divinities and the bishop mentioned above, might, in free association, lead to a remembrance of a traumatic bullying at school, which had nothing to do with the feelings and links invested in the dream.

Finding ones memories and feelings associated with the dream however, leads to a clear realisation of how our own mental and emotional experience and structure have formed the dream. In one of my own dreams in which I was in my father’s shop attending to a man who had been shot in the arm, exploring the associations led me to uncover massive feelings to do with my relationship with my father. I felt for the first time in my life, how his lack of praise and support had led to an injury to my self confidence. In just the way my left arm supports the action of my creative right arm, and its injury would mean I could not be so effective with my right arm, so this lack of confidence had undermined my outward expression, something I was trying to attend to at that time. Working in this way, where the dream is honoured as something important instead of simply a starting point to lead elsewhere, was a turning point for Jung. He says he came to believe the dream ‘expressed something specific that the unconscious was trying to say.’ Therefore, after each excursion into associations, Jung would return to the dream and continue checking against its structure and content.

Working With Associations

That is one way of finding the associations, but you can also use Talking As or Being the Person or Thing – An example can be heard by clicking  Dream Exploration



Associations – How to Work With Them

Here is an easy way to find ones own associations with a dream and its imagery, a number of different approaches can be used. But there are different types of association – the lanes of association are classed as Association by Contiguity, as when lightning suggests the idea of thunder, and Association by Similarity, as when one person’s features make us think of another person whom he resembles.

Listing The Symbols: Having written down the dream as fully and fluently as you can, note the different objects and characters that appear, and write them as a list in order of appearance.

Example: I was in the High Street of my birth town. I was standing where the path goes from the road into the churchyard. When I was a child this area was quite spacious, and was not taken up with the remembrance gardens. In the dream the area is covered in snow that has melted slightly and frozen again. I scuff the snow with my shoe to make sure there is ice underneath. Then I run and skate over the surface. I continue to skate in lovely curving sweeps over the area.

From the above dream a list would include

1) High Street. 2) Birth town. 3) Area between road and churchyard. 4) Snow. 5) Scuffing the snow. 6) Skating.

In writing the list give yourself space to write down comments. Then beside each entry write down A) Any connections with recent events or experiences. In the dream about my father’s shop mentioned above, the man’s name was Pete, a person I knew. I had met him about two days before the dream in a particular circumstance. So noting such things is important.

B) Any connections with past events, even those from ones childhood. In the dream above, the dreamer learned to skate as a young teenager, and as can be seen from the description of the dream itself, the place connects with childhood of an earlier period.

C) It is particularly important to look for or be aware of any feelings connected with place, person or thing in the dream.

As well as the associations we also need to consider what the actual dream imagery or events add to or comment on any associations we have. As an example of writing up ones dream associations and how they connect with the dream events, the above dream could be written up in the following way.

1) HIGH STREET – My first thoughts about the High Street, or at least the part of it I am standing in during the dream, are masses of childhood memories during the war years in the UK. There were a line of small shops there, and they provided a constant source of interest and pleasure in one way or another – comics, caps, occasional sweets. It was also the place where I crossed the main road to get from the street in which I lived, to the school. In my very earliest times of doing it alone, the crossing had been a point of danger or difficulty. Later in life I helped my own children cross the road there, either for walks or to get to school. So when I imagine standing at that spot I am flooded with feelings and memories. I am aware of the changes that have gone on over the many years I have stood in that place.

In the dream I am standing looking around, taking in the fact everything is frozen. So from what I have said, this part of the dream is about what used to be a difficult point of crossing, of change. It is no longer difficult, and anyway I have made the crossing and am taking in my situation.

2) BIRTH TOWN – This is all the background of family, experience, opinion and culture from which my present life has developed. I am back in an environment I know well and am suited to. I know my way around it. I associate this – or I make the connection – with the fact that I have been living abroad and have recently returned ‘home’, so feel I am amidst the familiar again. But I am in a new environment as far as relationship and work is concerned, and so am faced by great uncertainty.

3) AREA BETWEEN ROAD AND CHURCHYARD. In my childhood this was a safe area, with a very wide pavement. Parents weren’t so watchful here, so there was more freedom and time to play. This area was also used by a yearly fair, or as a place to stand out of the way of passers by. I suppose I feel it is what the dream depicts it as, a place to wait or watch. I often think of this in connection with my life at the moment – that I have to watch for opportunities that might appear, or to see the direction of events and what part I might play in them.

4) SNOW – I have never found snow to be something I resented. Sometimes its falling is an incredibly quiet thing, and the whole world becomes quiet because the traffic and people are slowed or stopped. Snow also covers things. In the dream the snow has melted and frozen again, and this could be dangerous or provide an exciting way of moving and expressing oneself, if one dares. Again this may relate to my present life situation, in that I have been out of work for some time. I feel as if many things in my life have ‘frozen’ – especially in my work area. So I may be feeling intuitively that nevertheless, there is a chance to move expressively. As I child, on that spot puddles would freeze, and I remember breaking the ice and eating it. I believe I broke one of my milk teeth that way.

5) SCUFFING THE SNOW. I am here testing the footing. I often do this even when it has rained. I push my feet along the pavement to find my grip, or discover what the grip is like. So I feel strongly that this is an expression of what I am doing at present. I have not only just returned to my home country, but I am looking for work, and am also am in a new relationship, so I am certainly testing the footing in many areas of my life.

6) SKATING. This felt wonderful in the dream. In fact it always felt good in everyday life when I learned to skate. Thinking about it I feel it is like taking something that is potentially dangerous – slipping and falling over – and turning it into an act of self expression and movement. So this has to do with learning skill in living.

Without in any way trying to interpret the dream, Ben’s notes against the dream images and situations have a certain theme. They mention pleasure and difficulty, danger and the overcoming of it, as well as the testing of ‘footing’. Ben is standing in what he calls a safe area, though in his waking life he says there is quite a lot of uncertainty. The place is also frozen and yet allows him to skate with great enjoyment. Put together these suggest a concern about difficulties which when examined turn out to be manageable. The dream suggests Ben has skills which enable him to deal with what might otherwise have been dangerous or cause for concern. In fact years have passed since that dream and Ben did deal creatively with the uncertainties of his situation of that time.

To work further with association of ideas, Ben could either ask himself certain questions to which he can respond in writing, or he can work with a friend who can ask and listen to his replies. The questions should be based on what is gathered from the notes put down already, and attempt to lead to the consideration of what comment the dream images and drama is making on what is found as everyday associations with the dream. Ben has said that he is in a very uncertain situation regarding work and relationship, even though he is back on ‘home ground’. So in encouraging Ben to consider and talk about this, the listening friend, or Ben himself, would need to ask or be asked, what the dream imagery has in it regarding his uncertainty.

Here is a summary of what Ben says –

“When I first arrived back from abroad I felt deeply uncertain about the relationship I had entered into. Every day I was filled with powerful emotions of distress and uncertainty obvious to other people through the way they influenced my behaviour and expression. It was at this time I had the dream. In many ways the dream encapsulates the different aspects of my situation – its slipperiness, the feelings of decision I am making, the way I am testing my footing in the new environment. What I found difficult to accept at the time of the dream was that it showed me confidently stepping out on to the ice and sliding gracefully around in sweeping curves. At the time I didn’t feel that confidence. I still felt I would ‘fall’ if I wasn’t careful and cautious. But as the weeks pass I see I can handle the situation, and many of my fears are inappropriate. I know I have the skill to move, in whatever direction is needed. So in this the dream was showing my emerging strength. In fact that skill or strength is still emerging, so the dream is a great strengthener for me, a great reminder of what I am capable.”

As you work in this way, a growing list of symbols will be dealt with and associations noted. Some symbols will be met again and again, perhaps in different dream settings. You can then look up what was said in past notes, and add a new dimension in connection with the latest dream. You will clarify how you deal with events and your own emotions, sexuality, creativity and potential. Perhaps you will discover how you deny many of your own possibilities, and discover ways of allowing yourself more scope. This will enormously speed up the learning and adapting process you face in your changing situations, relationships, and your movement through the different stages of your life. See: amplification method; peer dream work; Active Imagination; Being the Person or Thing; The Two Powers; A Master Course in Dreams.

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