Association of Ideas with Dreams

Early in his work, Freud found that if he allowed his patients to talk freely, one idea led to another and they would uncover the origin of their neurosis. Freud himself suffered bouts of deep anxiety, and it was partly this which led him to explore the connection between association of ideas and dreams. In 1897 he wrote to his friend Wilhelm Fliess:-

‘No matter what I start with, I always find myself back again with the neuroses and the psychical apparatus. Inside me there is a seething ferment, and I am only waiting for the next surge forward. I have felt impelled to start writing about dreams, with which I feel on firm ground.’

This move toward dreams may have come about because in allowing his patients freedom to talk and explore the associations that arose – free association – Freud noticed that patients would often find a connection between the direction of their associations and a dream they had experienced. The more he allowed his patients to go in their own direction, the more frequently they mentioned their dreams. Also, talking about the dream often enabled the patient to discover a new and productive chain of associations and memories.

Freud began to take note of his own dreams and explore the associations they aroused. In doing so he was the first person to consciously and consistently explore a dream into its depths through uncovering and following obvious and hidden associations and emotions connected with the dream imagery and drama. He did this to deal with his own neurosis, and says of this period, ‘I have been through some kind of neurotic experience, with odd states of mind not intelligible to consciousness, cloudy thoughts and veiled doubts, with barely here and there a ray of light.’

Using dreams for his self analysis, Freud discovered that previously unremembered details from his childhood were recaptured, along with feelings and states of mind which he had never met before. He wrote of this period, ‘Some sad secrets of life are being traced back to their first roots, the humble origins of much pride and precedence are being laid bare. …… I am now experiencing myself all the things that, as a third party, I have witnessed going on in my patients, days when I slink about depressed because I have understood nothing of the day’s dreams, fantasies, or moods.’

Norman MacKenzie believes that without this powerful and personal experience of working with his dreams, meeting emotions and fantasies welling up from the unconscious, Freud would not have so passionately believed in his theories regarding dreams and the unconscious.

Freud was not of course the first to recognise the connection between dream imagery and associated ideas. Artemidorus in the first century AD had already written about this. But even prior to this Aristotle (384-322) had written on how the mind uses association. He had listed four ways this happened – through similarity, difference and contiguity.

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

Associations are the real way to understand the language of dreams. Everything we see, read about or hear during the day we form feeling 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.

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.


-Ranveer Singh 2015-12-07 20:37:46

Thanks for such a nice article, I would like to share my OBE, I was having such type of experiences many years before when i was in school, at that time suddenly i use to wakeup from my deep sleep and felt very high energetic pressure increase in my body and I use to feel suddenly coming out of my body moving here and there like a spinning chakra or disc at a very fast speed, most of the times I use to find myself crossing the roof of my house and coming in sky wandering here and there with no control over my movements, initially I was getting very much afraid with it, but unable to do anything, then suddenly I found myself coming back in my body and some partcular type of vibrating sound in my head, I use to feel some vibrations coming back in my body through my legs and hands, I remained fully awaken try to move my hands but they remain like paralyzed but when all radiations came back I use to get control in my body to get up like fully awake. After several experiences which use to happen automatically during sleep I overcome my fear and tried to control my movement with my own will when I use to find myself out of body, I always found myself unsuccessful. No one use to take my experience seriously, when it happened first time I was very much afraid my friends took me to hospital, the doctor took it lightly and gave me some pills of sleep. This was continued for few years and use to happen once or twice a month. I was a spiritual seeker since my childhood, luckily I met a great yogi, he awakened my kundalini by shaktipat, but after that initiation these happenings suddenly stopped, it’s going to be more then 27 years, but since then it never happened but I don’t know why, though I want to have it now as I found myself more mature to do some experiment over it.

Ranveer Singh

    -Tony Crisp 2015-12-16 15:26:03

    Ranveer – I am going to quote some pieces of your description, starting with, “I use to feel some vibrations coming back in my body through my legs and hands, I remained fully awaken try to move my hands but they remain like paralyzed but when all radiations came back I use to get control in my body to get up like fully awake.”

    From your name and IP number I believe you were born in India. As such you are raised in a very old cultural background and terms like kundalini, Shaktipat and chakra are part of your background. As they were of mine, but to properly understand your vibrations and inner experiences I had to expand my views. So bear with me while I try to explain another view of your experiences – which by the way does not argued with your views but maybe helps your understanding.

    You remained paralyzed – the first clue. Many people in the west believe they are all there is; they can plan and control their fate and direct their lives. But in fact the you that you call yourself, with a name, is only a tiny thing. It is moved and tossed around by all manner of drives, ambitions, emotions, fears, temptations, worries, love and desire with its pains and hopes; it is something we take so seriously and get carried away into awful situations.
    But who among us can stop a sneeze, our dreams, our heart or our digestion?
    In life and sleep we have two powerful actions working in us. The first is our waking experience based on having a body, its limitations, vulnerabilities and a particular gender. Our second is the power that gave us life and continues to express as dreams, in our breathing and heartbeat – our life. This I have given the description as the Life Will. While we sleep our conscious self is largely or totally unconscious, and while we sleep and dream our voluntary muscles are paralysed – therefore another will or motivating force moves our body.

    This Life Will or motivator has been active for millions of years and we see it working all the time in animals. We are partly split in half because we are often opposed to what our Life Will in us wants. So the only way to express what is good for us is in dreams when our conscious will is largely passive or we are restricted by being tied down.

    Life Will created your body and pre-existed you as a person you know today. It was working in you prior to your ability to speak or know in the way you do now. But of course it has fantastic wisdom and skills, as can be seen in animals. But we have to remember that having a personality with self-awareness is a very new thing and has only existed for a short time. Before that we were like animals that lived only in the Life Will – what we usually call instincts. See

    It is this Life Will that took over your body while awake, and also caused the paralysis – for you were moved spontaneously by another will than your conscious will – the Life Will. It is the way the huge being that gave rise to you expresses when you are ready to receive, as happened to you at school.

    So we are in a situation in which we have only a limited awareness instead of the amazing wider world of the unconscious – the Life Will. We are in general very small creatures, and when we begin to meet the enormous world that we left during our evolution we meet it with human personality, and it often frightens us or we cannot understand it. So we must not think of ourselves as masters of ourselves, our body or our fate. Better to think of ourselves as extensions of our huge being who has projected us into an experimental situation for you – your limited personality – to slowly grow by meeting the varied experiences of life in a limited body. The aim is tp gradually lead the personality toward including more of the Hugeness. See

    Vibration is movement, and movement is one of the main signs of life. Life and growth are interwoven, and one of the first signs of massive personal growth or change is shaking or vibration in the body or pelvis arising from the Life Will.

    Your experiences of apparently leaving the body was a form of initiation into the immense potential we all have. Having had it myself ( I suggest you read which will explain some of the phenomena in a different way. See

    There is so much more to explain, but I feel that having the OBE’s was waking you up, but when you were initiated into Shaktipat you entered a new phase – but I wonder what you experienced in Shaktipat. Was it anything like what is described in

    Also see


-M 2015-06-06 20:47:15

I have this dream, I saw men sitting crossed legs on a blood stained floor, somehow infront of them I saw a huge snake that looks like a phyton, wriggling to be released from binding. . And somehow it does manage to free and escape. . It goes to gushing river and find its way to a cave, my mother is holding a spear and pursue it . . And then I saw my father who already deceased served the cooked meat in a platter of the snake and I eat it, and I asked him how does he manage to catch the snake and he said he put a prize over it’s captivity by 50,000..

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