The power of unconscious associations

I attended a First Friday event tonight (my first!) with a friend. We had the opportunity to view works by a wide range of artists working in many art forms, styles, and media. We would stop and discuss our impressions and reactions to pieces as we moved slowly through the galleries.

In many cases, our impressions were quite similar. As we would explore our reactions and try to suss out the details in the piece of art that provoked those reactions, we shared many understandings of the visual cues. For example, dark colors prompted more somber or heavier emotional reactions. Bright colors prompted more upbeat and intense emotions. Muted colors prompted a sense of mystery or peace or wistfulness, depending on the hues and the subject.

Yet there was one painting in particular that prompted very different associations for us and, therefore, very different reactions. It was a modernistic piece filled with color, but no discernible depiction of discrete objects as subjects, so the colors were the primary thing for us to react to. The primary colors were a range of yellows, greens, and oranges with some patches of an off-white-ish overlay. As we described to each other the things that came to mind for us as we encountered those particular colors, our associations were quite different.

She thought of 70s era colors that had grown stale and faded. I thought of autumn leaves. My overall reaction to the painting was much more positive than hers was. Yet we were looking at the same painting with the same colors in the same light in the same setting. The only difference was our personal associations with those colors, and those associations only became apparent through our extended discussion and exploration of our initial (and immediate) reactions to the paintings.

As my friend noted, we have these idiosyncratic reactions all day long to the people, situations, and environments we encounter, but we very seldom take the time to analyze our reactions enough to even consciously be aware that they are there, much less the reasons why we have the reactions we do.

This was illustrated quite forcefully a bit later in the evening when she noted that I did not appear to like one of her friends. I hadn’t really stopped to think about my reaction to this person, but upon reflection realized that her friend reminded me of someone else I have known and disliked. There were certain ways this person acted that caused me to feel a bit wary because of my assumptions of how I could expect to be treated based on previous experience without someone else entirely. I did not dislike her friend, but I was obviously acting in ways that appeared that way without even registering my wariness, my being reminded of someone from my past, or even my impression of her friend’s behavior.

I was spending much time and effort exploring my reaction to the art surrounding me, but I was oblivious to my reaction to the person before me. Yet my actions still reflected my reaction even without me consciously noticing, considering, or exploring it.

I am sure I do this all the time when I lose focus on the present moment. It was a powerful reminder to me of the need to stay present in this moment, in my body, in this space to keep myself aware of those reactions to decide which ones to respond to and which ones need to be re-evaluated first because I’m reacting to some association that’s not even present.

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4 thoughts on “The power of unconscious associations

  1. KJ,

    It seems we are on auto pilot so much of the time that we often lose the moment and all that comes with it. I am sure we have all had a similar experience many times over. Thank you for sharing this experience. It reminds me to consciously be in the moment this weekend as I attend a meeting of sorts that has me a bit wary because of my past (not with this particular group).

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