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Creativity Is Memory

Coming up with new ideas requires retrieving those ideas from your memory.

Haragayato via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Haragayato via Wikimedia Commons

Do you remember the shock you had (perhaps as a teenager) when you realized that all of the characters in your dreams are part of your own memories? Even though, the things they say seem to come from someone else, they have to reflect information from your own memory and experiences.

There is a similar argument to be made about creativity. Often, when people are asked to be creative, they assume that they have to engage some new cognitive process that allows them to generate new ideas. As I argue in Smart Thinking, though, the only route to finding creative solutions to a problem is to find information in your memory that will help you to solve the problem in some way. The key is to find new memories that will relate to the problem you are trying to solve in some way.

This approach was demonstrated in a paper in the September, 2015 issue of Psychological Science by Kevin Madore, Donna Rose Addis, and Daniel Schachter.

These researchers explored the influence of a memory technique called the episodic-specificity induction. In this technique, participants watch a video. Later, they are asked to recall the video. To help them do that, participants are asked to close their eyes and to visualize the scenes and to describe each detail they see. Compared to a control condition in which participants think about the video in a general way before describing it, this technique leads to greater recall of the details of the video.

More importantly, the technique also affects what participants do next. For example, if participants are asked to imagine an event in the future, they describe more details of that event following the episodic-specificity induction than following the control condition.

In this paper, the researchers were interested in whether this induction might also affect a measure of divergent thinking called the Alternative Uses Test. Divergent thinking is the aspect of creativity in which you have to explore as many different options as possible. In the Alternative Uses Test, participants are asked to think about ways to use common objects like a brick or a safety pin. The more different uses people can come up with, the more divergent they are thinking.

In the first study, participants came to a lab twice a week apart. In one session, they watched a video and did the episodic-specificity induction. In another session, they did a control task. The order of the tasks was varied across participants. After the video, participants did the alternative uses task as well as another measure that was not expected to be influenced by the induction. In this second task, participants were asked to think of as many different objects as they could that are associated with a target object. For example, they might think of objects that are associated with a stapler.

Following the episodic-specificity induction, participants were able to come up with more alternative uses for objects than following the control task. The object association task was not affected by the video task. A second study replicated the basic finding that the episodic-specificity induction increases people’s ability to come up with alternative uses for an object.

Does this mean that the episodic-specificity induction increases creativity in general? No. In the second study, participants were also given the Remote Associates Test. In this task, participants see three words (CRACKER FLY FIGHTER) and they have to come up with a word that goes with each of those words (in this case, FIRE). This task is also a measure of creativity, but it measures the ability to find distant associations rather than divergent thinking. The Remote Associates Test was not affected by the episodic-specificity induction.

So, what is going on?

Creativity is driven by memory. That means that for any given creativity task, it is crucial to find memories that will help you to perform the task. For the Alternative Uses Task, it is important to think about specific settings in which objects could be used. The episodic-specificity induction gets people thinking about specific settings, and so it provides lots of memories that will help participants to see ways to use an object.

More broadly, whenever you are in a situation in which you need to solve a creative problem, you need to find ways to reach into your memory to find information that will be relevant to solving the problem. In Smart Thinking, for example, I focus on ways to use your knowledge about the way the world works to help you solve new problems. The most important thing to keep in mind, though, is that all creative work requires using your existing knowledge to help you to do new things.

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