associated network theory

Generating play in Adults through primary process thinking

I recently held an event that aimed to put into practice some of the key concepts that have informed my research. The main focus of the event was to see whether it was possible to encourage primary process thinking in adults through play, and to gain insights into any affect that this could have on basic measurements of creativity.

Below is the supporting video documentation showing the environment, structure and feedback of the event, the write up that follows explains the aims and methodology of the session. The writing is a brief outline of the main paper in which the literature review, limitations, outcomes and further areas of development are explained in greater detail.


Research by Dansky and Silverman (1973) suggests that fantasy play in children encourages associative thinking, and appears to encourage a state of affect that is beneficial creativity (using the term as defined by research lab tests). The question I wanted to ask was whether play in adults could facilitate a similarly creative benefit, the first step was to see if this style of play could be encouraged within adults, and if so how. Therefore my approach for the session was to reverse the methodology outlined by Dansky and Silverman and so see whether encouraging associative thinking could be used to trigger determinants of fantasy play within adults. Fantasy play is defined as the style of play in which a child can adopt more than one role at a time, i.e. supplying narrative for both the princess, and at the same time, the prince. In this instance I chose to encourage fantasy play through the use of loose and undefined narratives. This was not based on any previous research studies I had uncovered but was devised as a method which I felt might be accepted by adults, and was a way of leading participants into continuing an open ended story and thus assuming new roles or viewpoints.


At the beginning of the event participants were invited to engage in a series of short exercises that I had put together with the intention of encouraging primary process thinking. The exercises required participants to form associations between photographs of various objects, as the exercises progressed they grew increasingly difficult as the objects became ever more unrelated (such as birds, household objects, and modes of transport). It was hoped that increasing the difficulty of the exercises would encourage participants to make further and more random leaps of association in order to complete them. The overall aim of this part of the session was not to test or measure the creativity of participants but simply to “prime” the associative network process through primary process thinking (both processes are described in earlier blog post) and to see what affect this would have on the following part of the session.

Following the association exercises there was a short break before the second “play” section of the event. This entailed an unstructured period of time during which the participants were invited to freely engage with a selection of props in any way they wanted, there were no prompts or instructions, the props were simply laid out onto the table. The props fell into three categories, first were items that had been chosen in order to free any social constraints of adults in relation to play and to encourage group interaction, these were on the whole dressing up items and included a British pith helmet, a Russian Ushanka, a child’s pirate eye-patch, and a Maasai blanket. Second were items intended to trigger interest or enquiry through physical interaction or reflection upon the nature, age, and characteristics of the object, these items included: a vintage pair of binoculars, fossils, antique coral, an African spear, a magnifying glass, and Victorian era coins from the early 1900’s.

 Finally there were items which were intended to act like small time capsules, collections of mementos from travels and adventures; these were vintage boxes and tins into which were placed period coins, pieces of ribbon and several stock photos that had been printed and distressed in order to resemble antiquated photographs. The images in these containers were intended to relate back to the association tests the participants had undertaken in the earlier stages of the workshop, and it was hoped they would act either as primers or reminders of the tests in which the associative network (and hopefully the primary process) had been triggered, therefore the images appeared related to one another by means of an undefined narrative.

After around twenty minuets of free play a second set of exercises were handed out to participants. These consisted of images relating to travel and history and were loosely linked to the items used during the free play session. There were no prompts, instructions or requirements to complete all or any of the exercises, they were a mix of both drawing and writing exercises. All of the participants engaged in, and completed, every single exercise in what was the quietest and apparently most focused part of the session.

After the feedback session the event ended with a game of lucky dip called “Poundshop Roulette.” The game was intended both as a way of thanking participants and as a closing mechanism that maintained the feeling of fun and play. The items in the game were stuffed toys, a mechanical penguin slide, an antique dart firing pirate gun, a “make your own stunt kite” book, Roald Dahl books, and a Donny Osmond record (nobody “won” the Donny Osmond record and I still own this).


As previously stated my intention was not to test, or measure the participants themselves but was focused on recording their feedback concerning their thoughts and feelings on the process; this feedback will be used to gain insights into development for the final stage of the project.

In psychoanalytical research primary process thinking is defined by the displacement of ideas and images, here random association and ideation condensation lead to symbols and meanings becoming interchangeable (Arlow & Brenner, 1964); i.e. the association of objects by shape, colour and physical characteristics, can also result in one object becoming another through conceptualisation. The primary process is also commonly described as being a free running and subconscious process that relies on association and can therefore be seen as being random, instinctual, illogical, and child like. Throughout the exercises nearly all participants showed definite signs of primary process thinking, during the feedback stages six of the seven participants referred directly to aspects of this mode of thinking, albeit with apparently varying outcomes. The most surprising results were the fact that two participants appeared to have profound insights into their own thought processes by recognising recurring motifs of morbidity in one instance, and romance in another. In this regard further research (possibly in the field of expressive therapy) may be undertaken to identify whether this was as a result of engaging with narratives and asking to what extent accessing the primary process had on this form of engagement. Secondary insights were concerned with engagement, the role of the researcher, and issues relating to the stripping away of control or instructions and the resulting beneficial and detrimental factors this appeared to have on creativity.

The session seemed to suggest that adults can engage in primary process thinking and, from participant feedback, that it appears to change the mind set in relation to creative output; however the session was not set up to measure or test any benefit of this, merely to identify ways in which the thought process could be achieved. Further studies will look at fine-tuning the exercises to further encourage this process and will also look at the possibility of introducing a “before and after” creativity test as a measurement tool.


 Arlow, J, & Brenner, C, (1964). Psychoanalytic Concepts and Structural Theory. New York: International Universities Press.

Dansky, J. L. & Silverman I. W. (1973). Effects of Play on Associative Fluency in Preschool Aged Children. Developmental Psychology, 9, (1), 238-43.



If creativity is considered as a cognitive process then the mental operations involved in the scanning of stored memories, and their associative meanings, become an important starting point. Although there is certainly much more involved in generating creative output (motivation, environment, knowledge), this mental scanning is recognised as a significant factor; many creativity tests have been based on the ability to come up with alternative uses for objects, whilst many training techniques relate to the ability to make associations between words based on their associative physicality or concepts.

Research tests have confirmed that more creative individuals are likely to make a greater number of associations, and also to make further reaching or more remote connections that result in surprising or unexpected associations. This ability can be defined by Bower’s theory of associated network, which assumes that memory is organised as a semantic network; an object or an event is organised into a memory group consisting of all concepts, opinions and emotions which relate to that object or event. These memory groups are triggered by a node, a kind of beacon, which when activated initiates the retrieval of this stored information which radiates from the beacon like a ripple effect. Associations between two different objects or concepts can occur when the initial node triggers a smaller interim node, which is located within the initial memory group, this acts in a similar way and spreads its own associations which can then activate a chain of further nodes until a satisfactory goal is reached. In their paper exploring the relationship between creativity and associative memory, researchers Gruszka and Necka, found that subjects who were considered to have a higher level of creativity were more open to the possibility of associations and that these subjects spent longer time making their decision as to whether connections could be made. This led the researchers to conclude that these creative individuals were accessing larger reaching ripples of information and developing a longer, and more time consuming, chain of nodes than the less creative subjects.

model of associative network involved in the cognitive process of creativity.

The ability to make these conceptual associations seems particularly relevant to the fields of illustration or graphic design but as Bower’s theory of association also relates to emotion it could also be seen as significant to a wider field of artistic creativity such as fine art or poetry. Once the process is identified the obvious question to ask is whether a tool can be developed that can facilitate the development of the semantic network, to increase creative output. Exercises to develop associations are the basis of many concepts as outlined by De Bono, however he is often criticised for not providing a theory to justify his ideas or showing evidence for their benefit (one of my favourite literary criticism was penned by William Hartston writing on De Bono). However, Gruszka and Necka found that priming of the nodes resulted in a greater spread of activation and led to a greater acceptance of associations in a verbal test, which raises an interesting question of whether this process can be primed in a lab test based on another creative practice such as drawing, and one that would make a more grounded starting point of investigation.

Further reading:

Lab test.

Gruszka, A., & Necka, E. (2002). Priming and acceptance of Close and Remote Associations by Creative and Less Creative People. Creativity Research Journal. Vol 14, No 2, pp. 193-205.

Associative theory.

Mednick, S.A. (1962). The associative basis of the creative process. Psychological Review. 69, pp 220-232.

Creativity as a cognitive process.

Finke, R.A., Ward, T.B., & Smith, S.M. (1992). Creative Cognition: Theory, Research, and Applications. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.