Technique a Week:Associations

by Robin Cooper-Stone 1996

NOTE: If you use this technique Please let Robin know how effective it was - include a copy of your dream and translation and it might just end up in a forthcoming book by Robin!

Dream Associations

Personal associations with dream images have become a staple of dreamwork. Most dream psychologists incorporate some form of associations into their dreamworking techniques; for this reason, I decided to give the subject its own chapter.

Association simply means writing down the image and then listing as many things as you can which the image reminds you of. Free association, invented by Sigmund Freud, involves a chain of associations from one word to another. For example, if you dreamed about a cow, the first word that comes to mind might be "milk." From "milk", you might think of "mother", from "mother", "father", etc. The idea of free association is to access less conscious ideas while minimizing interference caused by the dreamer's defenses and preconceptions. Generally, Freudian free association isn't used in most dreamwork anymore; it's easy to see how easily a dreamer strays from the image itself.

Jung recognized the shortcomings of free association and encouraged direct associations instead. In direct association, generally one stays much closer to the dream image itself. Most dreamworkers now favor direct association over free association,

Direct Association

In direct association, the dreamer writes down the image or dream element, usually in the center of a piece of paper, then writes down whatever words, ideas, or brief phrases come to mind, always returning to the original image before making the next association. Using the cow from the Freudian example, I might think of "milk." Then, instead of associating to "milk", I would return to the word "cow." My next association might be "beef", not "mother", or it might be a memory of a cow like that from my childhood.


On paper, the most popular format for making direct associations is called webbing or ballooning. Write the dream element on a sheet of paper, circle it, then make your associations around it. As you make each association, circle it and draw a line connecting back to the central image. Occasionally, you might free associate a little. If you feel compelled to do so, don't reign yourself in too quickly; however, don't stray too far either. If you find yourself free associating, circle each association and draw the connecting line back to the balloon you associated from. In this way, you can track how far removed from the image itself you're getting. After you have made your associations, one or more may resonate with you. Sometimes you might see 2 or 3 root ideas repeating, which would make them good candidates for the dream element's meaning. However, it's important to place all associations within the context of the dream. Some associations will no longer make sense within the dream's context. Also, don't forget that dreams often carry multiple levels of meaning.


Another method used for associations is called branching. Write the element down on the center of a piece of paper. The first association you make becomes a branch, a long line drawn from the element to the edge of the page. Write your association along the branch. As you think of more things that would fall under this same idea, draw perpendicular lines extending from the branch-- like rungs of a ladder-- and write the words or ideas on them. When you make the next association to the image that falls into a separate idea, draw another long branch from the central image. When you're finished, branching looks like a wheel with feathers extending from it. Try to work as quickly as possible to take advantage of your intuitive sense of organization. Don't sit and ponder whether an association should have its own branch or not... just do it. This method is excellent for catching repeated themes or motifs around the image which might not have been evident otherwise.

Of course, you don't have to use either of these methods. You can simply list the elements and write whatever comes to mind beside or under them like notes. Doing so enables you to write in sentences and thus, to gather more information; the pitfall is a tendency to ramble and stray far from the image or context without realizing it. Another potential problem is that you'll write the same things you already know without breaking through to anything less consciously associated. Webbing and branching are designed for speed, to access intuition.

You can make associations to anything and everything in a dream; however, it's more useful to be selective. For example, a red car doesn't have the same connotations as a brown car, so it might be useful to keep the color and object together when making associations. The selective use of direct association can further clarify meaning or open new levels of meaning even when the dreamer uses an alternative approach to interpretation.

...Return to Dream Home Page...