So you think you’re creative. Would you also describe yourself as having a bad memory? If you answered yes to that question, new research in the 2021 journal Cognition may be able to answer why. 

Researchers have found a surprising link between creativity and memory suggesting that creative thinking can also lead to memory errors. But, I hear you ask, what’s the link between being able to create a masterpiece and forgetting where you’ve put your keys?

It all boils down to two ways of thinking. When people generate creative ideas it involves a few different stages. The person must be good at describing the problem in different ways in order to come up with different solutions. This is known as divergent thinking

The second thing the person must be good at is the ability to find common ground among a variety of different aspects of the problem. This is known as convergent thinking

Image by Talenthouse Creator Juan Primera

If someone is particularly creative then they have the ability to develop ideas that aren’t immediately obvious (divergent thinking) but can be generated from the available information (convergent thinking).

Research also suggests that people who come up with the best creative ideas are actually just those who just come up with the most. The good news therefore is that there isn’t some big secret to unlocking your creative potential, you just have to come up with a lot of ideas, occasionally good and often bad. 

Still with me? Well the question that piqued the interest of Preston Thakral, Aleea Devitt, Nadia Brashier, and Daniel Schacter was whether this creative ability also affects a person’s memory of a situation - and here’s how they put this question to the test. 

Image by Talenthouse Creator Monica Cerniauskas

Using the Deese-Roediger-McDermott technique, they measured the tendency of a group of participants to remember information that was not actually present. They gave a group of people 8 lists of 12 words (for example, sill and pane) associated with a target word (e.g. window). The idea goes that people will often misremember seeing the target word in the initial list of words, even though it was never there to begin with. 

After a brief delay, the participants were shown a list of words that included words on the list, target words, and words that had not been on any of the lists, and were asked to select those they believed they had seen in the study lists. 

From here, researchers were interested in the relationship between performance on the above memory test and performance on a separate creativity test. 

After the memory test, participants did versions of the alternative uses test (the test for divergent creative thinking) and the remote associates test (the test of convergent creative thinking), and the results were in. 

Image by Talenthouse Creator Jhony Caballero

Research found that participants who scored higher on the test of convergent thinking also falsely remembered target words in the memory test (the ones that were never actually there). Also the quantity of divergent thinking (the degree of elaboration and detail) was related to falsely remembering target words, however the quality of divergent thinking (the originality of ideas) was not. 

So what does this all mean for creatives? Well, this research reminds us that the way we think has an influence on our memory. The bad news, the more you associate different ideas with each other the harder it becomes to remember exactly what you have seen in the past. The good news however, is that the more you connect different ideas the more likely you are to find creative solutions to problems. 

You win some, you lose some.