May 15

The Power of Association

Many years ago, back in an earlier generation of Monster Animation, I introduced what I liked to call ‘Pizza Friday’. Basically, I liked pizza and by making it a thing and getting everyone else on board, I ensured I got to have it each and every week. Pizza Friday.

Around the same time we bought a huge box set of Muppets on VHS and, every Friday, we would eat pizza and watch The Muppet Show. If I remember correctly, we may have thrown Pizza Wednesday into the mix for a while too…

Pizza and Muppets. A wonderful combination.

Years later, when Pizza Friday was but a distant memory I found that, whenever I smelled pizza, I thought of Muppets. Whenever I saw Muppets, I smelled pizza. Actually right inside my nose – the real smell of pizza. Not just any pizza, but the exact pizza we got from that one pizza place. It was that strong.

Through basic repetition, my brain has been programmed to link Muppets and pizza. Just as I link The Smiths and George Takei (that’s a whole other story). One instantly leads to the other and it’s not a conscious thing. It’s sensory. Visual of Gonzo, smell of pizza. Instant.

Pretty amazing.

Our brains can make connections so easily. And those can be positive connections, negative connections or connections that don’t matter one way or another (like The Smiths making me picture Mr. Sulu). It is rarely conscious. I’m aware of the Muppets/pizza link but how many other associations have we made throughout our lives that we can’t pinpoint? And what effect are they having on our lives?

The obvious one that people mention is because so many of us share this is eating sweet things when feeling bad. A not-always-positive action which is often traced back to a childhood association of sugary treats rewarding good behaviour. But that’s just one example of many. We have so much to deal with in a creative life, so many doors to push open and often face so much resistance that we need to be our own champion. We can’t afford to sabotage ourselves. But what if a negative association is holding you back? What if failures or judgements in childhood or early adulthood have led to associations that prevent you from trying certain things? Or what if a misdirected positive association is causing you to repeat the same mistakes over and over again?

Trickier still, what if you don’t know what those associations are? What if they are so buried in your subconscious that they’re now impossible to identify?

For me, what I do is remember that pizza equals Muppets. And to make that association, one deep in my core on a sensory level, all it took was to put the two together on a regular basis for the period of one VHS box set.

It was that easy.

And if we can do that, surely we can replace or reprogramme any other association by working to create all-new ones. Ones that work for us rather than against us. If something is hard to do, or there’s something holding us back, a hesitation, we can put that task together with something we enjoy. We can reward the positive, the difficult and even the unpleasant but necessary with things that mean something personally to us – whether that is about treats, games, Muppets, pizza, Mr. Sulu or anything that can contribute to the buzz of satisfaction we get knowing we have achieved something worthwhile. Before long, we have a positive association. And at that point, we’ll just enjoy the doing.

As we work, we can create rewards and, with them, all-new associations. Sooner or later, we’ll begin to replace the old ones whether we knew they were there or not.

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