Memory and Creativity

What is the link between memory and creativity? Is there one? If so, how does it work? How does the ability to recall facts and situations impact on your ability to imagine new concepts?

I’ve heard a lot of opinions on this topic. Since I’m on a quest to understand and explore creativity, I decided to dig into these opinions and see where the facts lie.

Possibility 1: Memory and Creativity are Unrelated

I’m not sure how popular this opinion is. In my circles, this is a minority view. Even though memory and creativity seem, at first glance, like very different skills, most people I know suspect that there will be a connection between any two brain functions. Even if memory and creativity don’t directly influence each other, there are likely to be indirect effects. One will impact on something, which will tweak something, that will alter something else… until every aspect of the brain is affected.

It’s also hard to prove a negative. If there is no link at all, we will struggle to see that in the data. The only thing we can be sure of in neuroscience is that it is complex beyond our wildest dreams – we will likely see patterns even where none are there.

Still, let’s assume we can trust our data. We’ll put this possibility on the backburner and revisit it if none of the others fit.

Possibility 2: Poor Memory Fosters Strong Creativity

This is an interesting idea. I think it becomes more plausible if, like myself, you have a pretty poor memory.

Memory is a fiendishly complicated thing, so this will be an oversimplification. But imagine someone with excellent memory for details. If they wish to recall a fact, it usually comes easily to them. If they can’t recall something, chances are they can remember where to find the information. They consult some repository – a book, a colleague, a website – and are reacquainted with the information.

Contrast this with a bad memory. Details often slip through the mental cracks, leaving behind the gist of things (if that). If such a person tries to remember something, it is a struggle. Their brain digs deep and works hard, testing a range of memorised facts and concepts to see if any fit. Such a person is mentally equipped to deal with broad concepts (at the expense of details) and their mind is constantly churning unrelated information together. It sounds exactly like the creative process.

On some level, this feels right to me. As a creative individual with a poor memory, I can attest that this struggle to recall information is weirdly similar to the act of synthesis. After all, it is clear that even good memories don’t take perfect replications of what they experience – rather, each time you remember something, your brain is imagining it. This is why false memories are so common – your brain can’t distinguish between a memory and an imagined scenario.

On the other hand, something about this feels off. Although there are different types of intelligences, it seems counterintuitive that a mind that fails at something as fundamental as memory could excel at something as high-level as creativity. At best, this possibility seems… incomplete.

Possibility 3: Memory and Creativity Nurture Each Other

Have you ever tried to deconstruct your own creative process? If you have, you know it’s a difficult task. Self-analysis of any kind is hindered by your own brain tricking itself. Your mind wears blinders when it gazes upon its own inner workings.

Having said that, you probably understand your creative process enough to know this: ideas are not born in a vacuum. Every thought, no matter how unique or innovative, is built on others. Maybe it is taking two concepts and blending them to create a third. Maybe it’s taking the mental tools of one discipline and applying them to another. Maybe it’s taking an idea and tweaking it, then tweaking it again until it no longer resembles the original. Whether you are designing an engine or writing a novel, you are standing on the shoulders of giants and nothing is original.

Now, it seems a little late in the post to ask what we mean by ‘memory’. After all, the term covers many functions of the brain. But in this view of creativity as a process of modification rather than genesis, it doesn’t matter – all types of memory are useful:

  • Working memory – storing the words in this sentence and the details in your mind right now.
  • Short-term memory – storing what you had for breakfast and the gist of whatever you read before this.
  • Long-term memory – everything that the mind can draw on days or decades later.

We would expect the creative process to draw on all of this. A strong working memory holds the thoughts as they are mutated, mixed, tested and refined; a strong short-term memory adds useful recent acquisitions to the working memory frenzy; a strong long-term memory provides a vast library of resources and raw materials for you to work with.

The Verdict

The argument linking creativity and memory is compelling. But just because I convinced myself, it doesn’t mean the question is answered (remember what I said about the brain tricking itself)? When you can’t trust your own opinion, it helps to find others.

For example, there is this article from Psychology Today:

“…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 the article, Art Markman Ph.D. argues that creativity requires existing knowledge. This makes sense, as raw talent only gets you so far. Consider skilled chess players – chess is seemingly a game of pure calculation and analysis, but the best players have vast repertoires of moves stored in their mind. The right answer is as much remembered as deduced.

How about this quote from Brain Pickings?:

“… perhaps the most potent use of memory in the creative mind is the cross-pollination of accumulated ideas and the fusing together of seemingly unrelated concepts into novel configurations…”

I recommend reading the whole article. But while opinions are nice, does science back it up? Well, according to a paper titled Effects of an Episodic-Specificity Induction on Divergent Thinking published last year in Psychological Science:

“These experiments provide novel evidence that episodic memory is involved in divergent creative thinking.”

So it seems that a strong memory plays a role in creativity. Quite interesting, don’t you think? But there is more evidence of a link between these faculties, evidence which deepens this connection: memory nurtures creativity, yes, but creativity also nurtures memory.

How can creative thinking (the act of coming up with something new) help memory (the act of accurately storing information)? Talk to a mental athlete – you know, the people who competitively memorise decks of shuffled cards and random numbers. If, like me, you don’t know anyone matching that description, read Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer.

According to people who have trained themselves to have the best memories in the world, the trick is to take what you want to memorise, mentally change it to something bizarre and surprising, and remember that instead. This process takes things like numbers – abstract and dull – and makes them vivid, visual, memorable. And it’s not surprising to learn that this skill takes enormous amounts of imagination. If you use it right, a good imagination is the best tool for improving your memory.

Congratulations. Having read this far, you have learned more about how the mind operates. The more you understand creativity, the more creativity you will feel. This is a journey, an education, and this short article is an important part of it. Why? Because the next time you feel creative, a small part of you will observe the process and remember these words. You will feel your memory and creativity working in tandem as new ideas blossom from your mind.

Create well.

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