The Strange Power of Associations (& How They Impact Us)

The Strange Power of Associations


This story might seem a bit fluffy but stick with me, because what it’s really about is the mind, and the power the mind has to impact our world in very real ways.

Last week I completed an American right of passage: driving across country. I rented a room in Southern California for the short term to escape the crux of the East Coast winter and I decided to drive to allow for full flexibility. I filled my car with the appropriate amount of clothing and personal items, packing essentials like my guitar and hookah (we all have our vices). My pre-departure apprehension was strong; I had failed to recruit a road-trip companion and envisioned long stretches behind the wheel that would feel like endlessness. I prepared myself for some exploration mixed with spurts of intense boredom. But, luckily, the boredom was short-lived and evaporated in Louisiana, turning into an enjoyable stillness as I headed west.

Surprisingly, I did not think about much during the long drive, which spanned from Florida to California. I listened to music, which led to more feeling than thinking, because music has a way of quieting the intellectual mind and awakening the visceral parts of us. But one thing I did reflect on – because I couldn’t help but experience it firsthand – was the strange power of associations.

We have a tendency to associate certain places and objects with people or moments in time, and this creates emotional responses when we revisit those places later in life, even if the nostalgia has long since faded. As I drove East to West, I passed through cities that I had been only once before or places I had never been but where people of past significance resided. Walking Bourbon Street in the afternoon brought me back to 2003 – the first and only time I had visited New Orleans – and all of the harmless but cringe-worthy mischief that occurred on those streets. It was freshman year, we were young, and we had road-tripped from Gainesville for the UF-LSU football game on a bus arranged by our favorite fraternity. (Let your imagination go wild with that one.) Once I hit Texas – with all of its different pockets and the vast emptiness of the western part of the state – I couldn’t help but think of someone from my past and laughed, somewhat uncomfortably, each time I noticed just how much the quirks of the state matched his own. New Mexico and Arizona brought no significant associations and I was enthusiastic to experience both states with an objective lightness before reaching California, where the memory pot was stirred again. I stayed mostly unbothered by the ebb and flow, approaching the drive as an impartial observer.

A decade or so ago, I read a book called “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by an author named Milan Kundera. In the book, he writes, “The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.” This theme comes up later in the novel when he applies the same concept to relationships and age: “While people are fairly young and the musical composition of their lives is still in its opening bars, they can go about writing it together and sharing motifs […], but if they meet when they are older… their musical compositions are more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them.”

The above passage illustrates why two people can speak the same language yet misunderstand each other. Or experience the same event but have completely different emotional reactions to it (or lack thereof). Our pasts shape the way we view the world. We’ve formed associations, however subtle, that create personal meaning in places where others might not have meaning, or vice versa.

The way we form associations is idiosyncratic, and perhaps unhealthy at times, but very human of us. It is so human that we may not realize we are doing it. It’s about self-awareness, and knowing why we feel the way we do at any given time. Is the emotion coming from an external or internal place? Is it worth addressing or just letting it pass? Being self-aware allows us to manage our emotions and be better leaders, better friends, and better partners. If we pay attention, we will see why certain environments create certain emotional responses in us, or why we are set off when someone says something seemingly benign.

This stuff is important. How you manage yourself on the inside affects your entire human experience and perception of the world, and how you conduct yourself on the outside affects how others perceive you, and your relationships with them. We are all living in the same world, but it looks and feels vastly different to each person depending on the lenses they use to experience it. Knowing why you use the lenses you do (and understanding the lenses others use) is critical for approaching people and situations objectively, and communicating in the most effective way possible.

So while associations are a permanent and usually innocuous part of the human condition, we should still be aware of them, and be careful that we don’t give them more power than they deserve.

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