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9:40am on Tuesday, 14th August, 2007:

Word Disassociation


Think of five random and completely unrelated words, right now, off the top of your head.

Go on, do it!

Here are my five:


When I ask people to do this exercise out of the blue, what often happens is they start looking around for inspiration. Do it in a car and they'll say "tree"; do it in a restaurant and they'll say "light". I don't want that kind of word: I want words that are completely unrelated to the world, as well as to each other.


Go on, just pick them out from nowhere. There are thousands and thousands of words, it shouldn't be all that hard to list five that are nothing to do with one another or with your surroundings.

Don't cheat. Don't list the five random objects you have on your desk at work, or five random objects that all begin with A, or five words taken at random from a Shakespeare soliloquy you happen to have memorised. I want five totally random words.


You're not doing this to impress anyone. No-one but you is going to know those five words. You're doing it for yourself. You know whether there was a connection between the words; you know whether you saw a book with a cover showing a woman wearing a hat, so you thought of a different kind of hat and said "chapka&; you know whether they were truly random or not. What you're trying to do here is pull five words out of nothing but your imagination.


See how my lists don't just contain nouns? Lots of people just give nouns, but I wasn't asking for nouns in particular, just words. I do draw the line at proper nouns, though, such as names; foreign words are out, too. These have to be words that are acceptable to Scrabble. Oh, and you ought to know what they mean, too.


So what's all this about? Well, it's a test of the imagination. Although most people are familiar with the idea of word association, which psychologists occasionally use as a tool to access an individual's subconscious, this is the complete opposite. It's actually a lot harder: keep it up for any length of time and most people will start making associations whether they like it or not. With word association, creativity is easy; with word disassociation, it's much more difficult. It's also, if you have the right kind of mind, quite fun. I enjoy being able to reel off five unrelated words whenever I want — it shows I have my little creativity engine still buzzing away for me.

Anyone can do this. In order to do it, though, you need both to let loose your imagination and to trust it. You don't say a random word, then when you think of another random word wonder if there's some connection and, only when you've given it some thought and decided there isn't, then say it. You just say the first five words that come into your head, because you've told your imagination that you want random words and so that's what it's given you.

I do this word disassociation thing oh, maybe once a week, just to keep up with it. I also use it in practice if I need suggestions for ideas. When people are writing or speaking and they need to think of an analogy or a metaphor or an example, they'll often look around for inspiration (just as you may have done when I asked for five words at the start of this post). I do that, sure, but I can also pull random words out of my imagination and use those for inspiration. It's very handy.

Try it, as an exercise, once a day for the next few days. Once you get good at it, I'll maybe tell you a more advanced exercise you can do with it that's especially useful for writers and game designers.


Ah, gotta love it.

Referenced by You Can't Cage a Tree.

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Copyright © 2007 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).