Why use stimuli like random words or tarot cards to solve problems?
Brainstorming with tarot cards

Whatever comes up: Associations and creativity

Music of mind: Rolffimages | Dreamstime.com

(This post was previously published on SynTAROTis.)

Would you associate traffic with magic?

Association is one of the basic techniques underlying many other problem-solving techniques. It helps you make intuitive leaps when analysis and logic are inadequate.

For this post, let’s pretend you have a problem with traffic congestion in the morning when you drive to work. You have a few ideas how to tackle the problem, but you want to increase your chances of finding a perfect solution.

It’s time to get creative.

What is association?

Association is linking things. For example, we associate libraries with books, reading, research, and silence. A table can be associated with chairs, plates, knives and forks, a table top, and ‘legs.’ Traffic can be associated with transport, roads, time, gridlock, and traffic police.

This type of association can be described as a star or a cluster, where all associations refer to a central concept.

In free association, instead of linking one element with several others, you let each element lead to the next, to form a chain of associations*. This technique is used in psychoanalysis to help the patient uncover material from the unconscious. Therapists encourage patients to mention whatever comes to mind, without censoring the thoughts, and to let each thought lead to the next. The technique lets conscious memories or thoughts ‘hook’ associated memories or thoughts in the unconscious, bringing them to the surface where they are then available for analysis.

What does association have to do with creativity?

Many experts believe that creativity is nothing more than putting things together until something new and useful emerges.

Television is a combination of radio and film. E-books combine print books with PDAs (palmtops, for the young ones among us). A poem combines familiar words and images in new and powerful ways. The earliest motorcars combined a horse-drawn carriage and steam technology.

Working with ‘star’ associations

As we noted, ‘traffic’ can be associated with, among others, ‘transport,’ ‘roads,’ and ‘time.’ If we use these as stimulus for ideas, we might get:

transport: you could investigate alternative transport—buses or trains might be faster

roads: you could investigate alternative routes

time: you could leave home at a different time

Creativity researchers found that close associations like these—using an element of the problem as basis for association (keyword ’traffic’)—can help you examine the problem thoroughly, and may lead to practical solutions. (Other ‘elements’ of a problem could be a part of a product that you want to improve, a step in a process you want to streamline, or a keyword from the problem statement.) With close associations, the focus usually remains on the problem and its various aspects.Think © Rolffimages | Dreamstime.com

You might feel, however, that you would like to explore the problem further.

If creativity is finding connections between unrelated elements, association can help you find the elements to connect.

Note that with the ‘star’ associations, our problem space remains closely connected with the problem (traffic).

Chain associations, while starting with the problem or product or process you want to improve, can veer off into unexpected directions.

Working with ‘chain’ associations

Starting with ‘traffic,’ a chain of associations might look like this:

Traffic is a problem. I worry most about being late for an important meeting. Mother is always late. I wonder whether she baked bread today. Hers is even better than that at my favourite restaurant. Mmm, remember who took me there last!”

Now we have more material to work with, and some unconventional combinations with ‘traffic.’ For example:

Traffic and bread: Maybe you can persuade your employer to let you work at home for an hour or so in the morning, then work late. In each case you might avoid the worst of the traffic.

Traffic and restaurant: What about leaving home earlier and have breakfast in the staff canteen?

Our problem space has now expanded to include both the starting point (home) and the destination (work) for possible solutions.

A well-known technique that uses chain association is brainstorming, where one idea can spark another.

Adding a random element

Suppose you want still more ideas for solving the traffic problem? You could generate more associations in a star or in a chain, or you can introduce an external element to the mix. This external element could be a random element, perhaps a word taken from the dictionary, or an image from a magazine. You would use the external element as basis for association rather than an element from the problem itself.

The random element can also be a Tarot card, of course. Let’s see where it leads us with our problem.

Let’s say we draw Trump I, the Magician.

The Magician, Rider-Waite Tarot

What do you associate with this card? Magic, wands, roses, robes, tricks, a magic show, concentration, intent, Fantasia, Harry Potter, James Randi, or Magic Johnson. You might even think the magician looks as if he is directing traffic!

Any, or all, of these can be used to spark ideas.

  • Start working on a design for a magic carpet. Or a flying car will be nice. (Okay, not serious!)
  • One lane is always kept ‘magically’ open for buses during peak traffic. Park the car where the traffic becomes thinner, and take the bus to get there?
  • Is there perhaps a bicycle lane open? Then you can skip gym after work!
  • Maybe you can negotiate flexible working hours with your employer?
  • Take a breakfast-in-a-bar and some coffee with you to have in the car.
  • Do some stretches or isotonic exercises in the car while you are stuck in traffic.
  • Read something or make that phone call you have been procrastinating on.
  • Use magic technology to bring your office to the car! Dictate documents to give to your assistant for typing; use text-to-speech technology to ‘read’ your email and other documents while you are on the road. Start planning a report, speech, or meeting.
  • Set up a daily or weekly cell-phone meeting with your boss, timed for when traffic is at its worst.
  • Use the time to practise mindfulness or do breathing exercises. You will be in a better mood when you get to work! Or listen to a comedy show.
  • Have a teleconference.
  • Read articles you have set aside for later.
  • Tweet, read Facebook posts, do all the social media stuff you never have time for.
  • Order roses for your Mother’s birthday. Or buy your groceries online.
  • Compose a poem or song on traffic.

Researchers have found that remote or distant associations like these (that is, using something unrelated to the problem to associate on) can generate more, and more original, ideas, but not necessarily practical ones; close associations can go deeper in the problem and result in useful—if not very imaginative—solutions**.

Associations can help you think wider around the problem, or give a fresh point of view to start from.

How does association work?

Idea tree landscape © Rolffimages | Dreamstime.comThe human brain is a pattern-seeking organ. It will look for—and often find—connections and associations between unrelated objects and ideas. Think how easy it is to ‘see’ faces in common objects such as wood whorls and stains on a wall, or in an inkblot.

This ability has evolutionary meaning: those best at connecting stripes, ears, and teeth to come up with “tiger!” had the best chance to survive.

Our capacity for finding connections reflects the way our brains organize information. Information is not stored sequentially or in a particularly ‘logical’ way. Rather, the brain organizes pieces of information nonlinearly, through associations.

That is why the smell of bread, for example, can conjure up memories of childhood, or a sensation can lead to a strong (and sometimes unexpected) emotion. Although we have many associations in common—in many cultures red is a sign of danger, for instance—we also have personal associations. Red might remind you of winter because your favourite jersey is red, or of a person whose favourite colour is red.

As we have seen, personal associations can add random elements to a problem-solving exercise. We have an immensely rich inner world. We can see some of that when we dream or daydream, or use our imagination as children do. We have an enormous amount of material available when we form associations and think up solutions.

Experience and expertise

Association depends on knowledge and experiences. Your brain is superfilled with abilities, knowledge, experiences, beliefs, and memories. When you receive a new piece of knowledge, your brain tries to make sense of it by associating it with what you already know. A new fact or idea or observation can hook something in your brain so that a vague idea suddenly makes sense. Sometimes pieces will combine in a solution, or an idea for a new gadget, or inspiration for a poem.

The preconscious

In psychoanalysis this collection of skills, knowledge, and memories is known as the preconscious. The preconscious contains material that you are not conscious of at the moment, yet is not repressed. Your senses take in much more information than you are consciously aware of. Just think of how you can become ‘deaf’ to background noise until something focuses your attention there. Or you might have ‘forgotten’ a piece of knowledge until you are made aware of it again.

Tacit knowledge is a form of preconscious knowledge. The term refers to skills and knowledge we have, things we “just know how to do” as a result of practising or learning.

Preconscious knowledge can be recalled relatively easily, but often needs a prompt. A prompt could be as simple as a request to draw on that knowledge (”do you remember?” or “please show me how you do that?”)

Preconscious knowledge can also be recalled through association. A song that you have associated with a particular person can remind you of her even if you hardly ever think of her.

Most material for creative problem solving will come from the preconscious and not the unconscious. Unconscious material is much harder to access, and is less likely to pop up during a problem-solving exercise.


Habits also depend on association. Habits are formed when we associate an action with another action or emotion: you wash your hands before eating; you brush your teeth before you go to bed; you crave something sweet after supper; you bite your nails when you feel anxious. When you get the cue, you act.

No guarantees!

Association is not a guaranteed way to find ideas and solutions. None of the creativity techniques will help you find a solution 100% of the time. What they will do is create a climate in which solutions are more easily found.


* The terms ‘star association’ and ‘cluster association’ come from Iris Levin. Levin and Arthur VanGundy both use the term ‘chain association.’ (See reading list below.)

** The field of research being what it is, there are researchers who argue the reverse: that close associations generate more original associations than remote associations.

Reading list

Benedek, M., Könen, T., & Neubauer, A. C. (2012). Associative abilities underlying creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6(3), 273-281. doi:10.1037/a0027059.

Coskun, H. (2011). Close associations and memory in brainwriting groups. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 45(1), 59–75.

Davidson, J. E., & Sternberg, R. J. (Eds.). (2003). The psychology of problem solving. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gianotti, L. R., Mohr, C., Pizzagalli, D., Lehmann, D., & Brugger, P. (2001). Associative processing and paranormal belief. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 55(6), 595–603.

Levin, I. (1978). Creativity and two modes of associative fluency: Chains and stars. Journal of Personality, 46(3), 426–437. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1978.tb01010.x

Malaga, R. A. (2000). The effect of stimulus modes and associative distance in individual creativity support systems. Decision Support Systems, 29(2), 125–141.

Mednick, S. A. The associative basis of the creative process. Psychological Review 69(3): 220–232.

Osborn, A. F. (1963). Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem-solving (3rd ed. rev.). New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Runco, M. A., & Pritzker, S. R. (Eds.). (2011). Encyclopedia of creativity (Vols. 1-2). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

VanGundy, A. B. (2005) 101 Activities for Teaching Creativity and Problem Solving. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

VanGundy, A. B. (1988). Techniques of structured problem solving (2nd ed.). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Ward, T. B., Finke, R. A., & Smith, S. M. (1995). Creativity and the mind: Discovering the genius within. New York and London: Plenum Press.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)