The link between memory and creativity

man-thinkingCreativity is a trait that is widely sought in a whole range of roles as organizations attempt to adapt to the ever changing world we operate in.  Creating the right environment for creativity is often far from easy however.

A recent Harvard study found that our memory plays a crucial role in our creative capabilities.  It revealed that when we reminisce about something we’ve experienced about in the past, it utilizes something known as episodic memory.  This in turn helps to trigger divergent, or creative, thinking.

“Episodic memory supports ‘mental time travel’ into the future as well as the past, and indeed, numerous recent studies have provided evidence that episodic memory contributes importantly to imagining or simulating possible future experiences,” the researchers write.

Memories and creativity

In essence, it emerged that when we hone in on specific details of our past, we prime our brain to think in the kind of vivid tones required to think of creative ideas for the future.

The researchers proved their hypothesis by asking volunteers to devise a number of creative ideas having reminisced about a past experience.

For instance, a group of volunteers were asked to watch a video of people performing various tasks.  The group was then split in two, with one half asked general questions about the video, such as whether they enjoyed it.  The other half however, were asked to recall specific details about the video, with these based on the Cognitive Interview protocol that is used in eyewitness situations.

Afterwards, each group was required to complete an assignment that was designed to measure their creativity and level of divergent thinking.

It emerged that the group who were asked to recall specific details about the video performed significantly better than their peers in the other group.

Convergent benefits

Interestingly, a second experiment found that this approach didn’t appear to have any benefits for convergent thinking, which is when we are required to come up with a single best solution to a problem.

Participants were put through the same process as before, but this time the creativity task was designed to measure convergent thinking as well as divergent thinking.

Whilst the specific memory group saw a boost to their scores on the divergent thinking test, they showed no improvement at all on the convergent thinking task.

The authors suspect this is because when we try and recall specific details from the past may affect our performance in divergent thinking tasks because both tasks involve mental scenarios that involve details.

If you want to be more creative therefore, it seems that thinking deeply about your past may be a good way to get your brain into the right mood for it.


4 thoughts on “The link between memory and creativity

  1. I'm always leery of "creativity". It's one of those attributes that people seem to covet but with little understanding of what it really is. For example, when I am being most creative, people think I'm just crazy. Conversely, when I'm acting crazy, they excuse me as just being creative. Confusing, isn't it? However, this article was interesting and I can see the truth in it. It seems that the storytellers I've known, the good ones that is, seem to possess both an excellent memory as well as a healthy imagination. Maybe they do go hand-in-hand as this study purports…

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