The Formation of Concepts and Associations
This premise of association is extremely important for understanding how flash fiction works on a cognitive level because it is the knowledge and memories and, most importantly, the associations a person has in their brain that will form the tableau into which a piece of flash fiction will enter and start to work. To understand how this works, and to avoid the debate of empty or pre-loaded, a young girl of five will do the trick.
A young child and her mother are sitting in bed reading. On the page is a picture of a little girl, similar in age to the one reading, riding a bicycle. The text underneath the image reads, ‘Sally is riding her bicycle.’ The young girl has not yet learned how to read but understands ‘bicycle’ when her mother reads the sentence out to her and she is just as confident in her ability to point out the image while repeating the word back to her mother.
The mother is naturally proud and after telling her daughter so points out the word on the page that represents ‘bicycle’. The two of them say the word a couple times together, with the mother running her finger under the word every time. The little girl informs her mother that she too has a bicycle, which prompts, “That is right you do; a red one. Your daddy gave it to you because you are such a good little girl.”
This is how many children learn to read; by connecting written words with images; sometimes with previously known objects and sometimes with new concepts entirely. From a psychological point of view, this variety of encoding, visual, auditory and semantic, combine to increase the strength of the memory. This increase occurs because each of the different encoding methods requires its own firing of a neurotransmitter between the synapses involved with the concept ‘bicycle’. Meaning there will be at least three new connections forged for the concept ‘bicycle’ and thusly these multiple synaptic connections act to increase the likelihood of retaining the concept due to greater number of routes by which to access the memory.
Furthermore, the situation in which the young child is learning these new connections is also incorporated into her concept of ‘bicycle’. She feels comfortable and safe lying in bed with her mother, who is smiling and giving both the story and her little girl her complete attention. These elements contribute to a process called state-dependent learning which also effects encoding. The emotional states, both experienced and observed by the child, are not new to her but they will now become associated to the concept of ‘bicycle’. The dialogue between the child and her mother also contribute to the concept because it ‘bicycle’ has now been linked to the child’s memories of father, gift, reward, praise, good girl, etc. Of course, the strength of any one of these connections will depend on her personal history with the mentioned elements but the example does give evidence of a complex group of associations becoming connected to her concept of ‘bicycle’.
However, the story ends but the next morning the same young girl is riding her bicycle to school for the first time. This will bring in new connections to the concept ‘bicycle’ in her brain. Perhaps ideas of freedom, responsibility and punctuality will form associations with ‘bicycle’ and influence these new associations with the positive emotional state already established for ‘bicycle’. The same could be said for the ideas of school, learning and education because these too are possibilities facilitated by ‘bicycle’. This example illustrates the non-static property of a both a concept and associations, for through the little girl’s continuous exposure to new experiences and thoughts via her bicycle they will end up forming new and more complex associations to her original concept of ‘bicycle’.
Thus far, the examples have been positive; however, her concept of ‘bicycle’ could just as well develop negative associations. Perhaps after arriving at school, she is scolded, berated or embarrassed by her teacher or a classmate, then these negative associations to her concept of ‘school’ could override the previous positives, turning her concept of ‘bicycle’ into a facilitator of unwanted, negative states. This associative trail could then lead her back to the father, the impetus of all of this through him being the deliverer of the bicycle. Another possibility is that the two concepts of ‘bicycle’ and ‘school’ could lose their connectedness; the positive of the ‘bicycle’ existing independently from her negative concept of ‘school’. In fact, the permutations possible regarding the associations our young girl could make are infinite and will be unique to her. However, the point is not that these associations are reliably mappable but rather that they exist in a non-isolated state, they change and everyone is constantly reorganizing their own associations.