Let the Associations Flow

When I read Emily’s reflection on comfort zone at the end of December, my first feeling was that of understanding.   As a parent of a now almost 2-year-old, I could relate to her story. Parenting really did force me to explore my comfort zone, learning zone, and definitely that panic zone too—although I try to avoid that as much as possible. Ironically, it was while operating in my learning zone as a parent—trying to keep myself ahead of the curve and away from that panic zone—that I came to another level of understanding of these zones through association.

I had just finished s book called “The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind” by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. (Aside: Strategically placing those parenting books that I may not have sought out on my own in the children’s section right where all the kids gather to play is smart design). On page 12 of the Whole-Brain Child is a very simple image that I found clever at first and have found extremely compelling the more I have thought about. The image depicts a woman happily floating down a river between the banks of chaos and rigidity. In the book, the authors are describing a state they call integration. They write:

SiegelRiverImagine a peaceful river running through the countryside. That’s your river of well-being. Whenever you’re in the water, peacefully floating in your canoe, you feel like you’re generally in a good relationship with the world around you. You have a clear understanding of yourself, other people, and your life. You can be flexible and adjust when situations change. You’re stable and at peace.

The authors go on to describe the troubles encountered as one approaches the two banks of the river, which represent opposites. Chaos is where there is lack control; imagine “tumultuous rapids.” By contrast, rigidity is where there is too much control, and as the authors describe, the “water smells stagnant.” The image, both literal and the one they conjured through their writing, was very powerful to me. I could vividly sense what integration means to them. It also made me think about how this clever image and analogy could relate to so many aspects of my work.

My first association with Emily’s post was this image because I could easily imagine the river as the learning zone. In this scenario, one bank of the river is the comfort zone—I see Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party … good food, wine, and company. By contrast, over in the panic zone, I am seeing Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa banked on shore—nothing I want to be anywhere near. But my mind quickly left my new art historical river of comfort / learning/ and panic zones, to jump onto a second association—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Kim Hermanson’s piece on flow experience in The Educational Role of the Museum (see “Intrinsic Motivation in Museums: Why Does One Want to Learn?”). And before I could get too transfixed reminiscing about how much I adored this article in grad school, then I was off thinking about how Siegel and Bryson’s analogy could be used to talk about the state required for innovation or creativity to happen.

Associations and associative thinking are so powerful. Sometimes they make you feel like you are taking a trip down memory lane. Other times it is like your own personal muse has arrived to show you new ways of looking at something. Anytime I am fortunate to have these moments, I am reminded to keep my mind and eyes open to what the world can show me (and how much is out there to know).

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