How creativity, memory, and deja-vu really work

Your brain obviously has a lot of roles to play day-in and day-out.

Particularly when it comes to creative thinking, there are a lot of processes at play in the brain. To better understand exactly what’s going on when you have that moment of insight or when an idea does – or does not – strike, let’s look at what the processes involved in creative thinking exactly are.

It all starts with memory.

Actually, it starts before that, with two key parts of what we know as memory: information and encoding.

Everything you experience as a chemical or physical experience (that is to say: a broken heart, a high-five, watching a movie, or a stubbed toe) is information that goes through your brain, whether you are consciously aware of it or not.

Even things you’re not keenly aware of (like sounds occurring in the background of your life or what color of shoes somebody wears on the street) are bits of information that your brain consumes.

The sight of a bird while you’re out on a walk, or the sound of a refrigerator, the emotional outcome of your dire attempt to ask that special someone on a date, the smell of Autumn rain, or the feeling of warm pants fresh out of the dryer, are all bits and pieces of information that jet into your brain almost instantly as you encounter them.

What happens then is your brain first encodes the information using one or more types of processes best suited for the situation you’re in.

The most common types of memory encoding are: visual encoding (where your brain makes a visual representation of the information coming into it), acoustic encoding (which is our ability to hear the individual sounds of, say, a word, and store that information as sound in memory), semantic encoding(which pairs particular stimuli with context), and – most importantly for our creative studies – elaborative encoding.

We’ll get to creativity in just a second, I promise. But first, an explanation.

Elaborative encoding uses existing memories in the brain in relation to new ones coming in.

When you encounter a red ball, for example, your brain does a lot of things to encode that information (the color, the location, any sounds or smells, etc.) but with elaborative encoding your brain also takes that new information and looks through existing memories to see if anything stands out.

Your brain does this primarily through what scientists believe is a process of reconstructing an existing neural network.

You see the words “red ball” and specific neurons in your brain fire. Bang bang! Just like that, the neurons literally reach out to other neurons that also have fired at the sight of the words (maybe one neuron that has been created to respond to the word “red” and another to respond to “ball” and together they fire to understand the concept of a “red bal.”). That’s a neural network taking shape to create a memory.

So, when you encounter that red ball in real life those same neurons fire and, if you’ve seen a red ball before, you’re suddenly empowered with all of those past experiences. So where you are now plays a factor in which neural networks become active at the thought of a red ball. Are you in your room? At work or school? Maybe you’re at a cafe waiting to order something. What about the sounds you hear now, or the clothing you’re wearing? Even your mood plays a part in how your brain is interpreting the idea of the words.

This is all done in an attempt to categorize and assess the information coming into you. If you have been in this same situation before, say, reading about neural networks and their relation to the words “red ball” those same sounds and emotions as you felt before will lightly be activated in your brain.

It’s worth noting that elaborative encoding will work even if there isn’t any new stimulus coming into the brain. It’s enough to merely think about something from your past to cause those neural connections to fire off again. Bang bang!

Already we’re beginning to see the foundations of creative thought.

From encoding to storage

So your brain takes all of your experiences and encodes them. What happens next is storage.

Almost everything you experience is immediately stored in a short-term way that is even shorter than short-term memory itself. Scientists call this first phase of memory storage Sensory Memory.

We’re talking about memory associations that lasts much less than a few seconds. It’s as though you saw a picture and then it was immediately hidden from you. There, then gone.

There are a few reasons for sensory memory, but one of the standing explanations is that it provides time for the brain to accurately grade the value of an experience without immediately throwing it out or placing it into longer-term memory.

When you first encounter some information in the world outside of your head, there are certain neural connections that are firing, as mentioned previously, but the important connections in your long-term and even short-term memory remain idle until the initial sensory memory can be sorted.

Maybe what you’re experiencing now isn’t all that important or threatening. While it’s in sensory memory your brain has time to determine whether it’s important (an attacker rapidly approaching you with a weapon) or not important (the sound of a car idling in a parking lot). Of course, the determination depends just as much on the type of information being encoded as well as the situation.

Once that information has been encoded and passed through sensory memory, if it’s important enough, it goes into short-term memory.

Short-term memory is created by neural connections that are generated but easily replaced, again: depending on the impact of the information. While it used to be believed that short-term memory could hold a maximum of 7 +-2 bits of information, recent research has shown that the actual capacity for short-term memory is around four or five. We can blame the Internet in-part for that.

Let’s say you’re at a formal party and you’re quickly introduced to six people at random. The odds of you remembering the first and second person’s names are slim, thanks to the limited capacity in your short-term memory.

Fortunately there are ways to trick your brain into storing more data in short-term memory than just four of five names. The technique is called “chunking” and makes perfect sense if you think about it. Instead of having to remember each of the party guests names one by one, you could trick your brain into thinking two or more names were to be stored as a single memory.

Rather than thinking of: “Tom,” “Penny,” “Jason,” “Mallory,” “Robert,” and “Rupert,” you would simply try to remember: “Tom and Penny,” “Jason and Mallory,” “Robert and Rupert.”

Chunking tricks your short-term memory into thinking that grouped concepts are singular. It’s like magic!

Enough with the memory tricks though.

From short-term to long-term, and deja vu

At this step, If the information that has been experienced and encoded into memory is important – either because it has already been experienced before and therefore must be of some importance (like, for example, hearing your name), or because it is vital to your health and well-being (like, as another example, the sharp sting of a hot stove) – the memory is sent into long-term storage.

Long-term memory consists of neural networks that can hold vast more amounts of information than short-term and sensory memory, plus long-term memories last much, much, much longer than any other type as well. Some studies have indicated that long-term memory can last an entire life.

While you may not remember the first flavor of ice cream you had when you were younger, you’re likely to remember your first kiss or a life-changing accident, no matter how long ago they occurred.

Long-term memory isn’t restrictive to just neural connections in the brain either.

Some information is declared so vitally important by your brain that it can alter your very DNA through a process known as “DNA methylation,” the same process of altering DNA structures when you’re first born. Long-term memory is where everything vitally important goes.

Your brain isn’t always sure what’s vital though, so a lot of useless junk (like the lyrics to an old pop song or the color of your first crush’s hair), can get stored in there too. But there’s so much capacity that it doesn’t matter! In-fact, new studies have found that the brain is so elastic that it’s constantly growing the neural networks required to store memories long-term. Which means it’s ok if you remember those cheesy lyrics to your favorite song, that won’t impact your ability to remember your name or favorite recipe twenty or thirty years from now.

As a fun side note: it’s theorized that the feeling of deja-vu (or feeling as though you’re repeating an experience for a second or more time) is a result of your brain collecting the experience you’re having but storing it as a short-term or long-term memory before actually interpreting it.

So your brain tricks you into feeling as though you’ve been here and done that, when in reality it’s simply stored the information before actually interpreting and encoding what’s going on. It’s not that you’ve actually been in the situation before, it just feels that way due to a filing error in the brain! Neato, right? Anyway, onward.

As we can see, memory is an immensely powerful and extremely important process for both body and brain. Without memory, creativity (and your ability to do much of anything) would be the equivalent of trying to browse the Internet without turning the computer on first.

What does this all mean for creativity?

When you’re working on something creative, like a school project or a painting or writing a novel, you are focusing on specific information; like the type of novel you’re writing or the precise topic of your homework.

In your brain there’s a lot of action going on around that specific information as you think on it and experience it.

For example: let’s say you’re trying to paint something new on a blank canvas. Your brain will begin to fire all the neural connections that have been fired in the past while trying to paint. Anything related to the ideas of “paint” or “canvas” or “artwork” are all going off, one after the other. Boom boom boom! The more relaxed and not-tightly focused you are, the more those connections are going to occur naturally.

So you may remember something you painted in the past, and all of the connections in your brain that were part of that process will suddenly fire. The way you held the brush, the sounds and smells, the resulting product and the way it made you feel.

A number of these memory recalls will go unnoticed, automatically being deemed as “not the right fit” for what you’re doing, which is trying to paint a painting (why would smell impact that? To your brain, it wouldn’t, so the memory around the smell only stays on in the deep background of your mind). Here you are trying to paint and suddenly you remember all of these specific painting-related tidbits that you’ve previously experienced and then, in a blink, you remember even more.

Maybe you remember a painting you saw when you were younger that was so beautiful it inspired you to paint in the first place. Or perhaps you remember the time you went to a museum and saw what they call “real art” for the first time.

Now those memories begin to expand beyond even that. You remember the beautiful colors on a banner outside of the museum that day, you really liked those colors, they reminded you of another time when you were hanging out with friends one summer… more memories!

If you spend enough time just thinking about painting, you’re going to have a lot of memories suddenly stir up almost randomly. This is the latent activation of association networks. Even really weak, very old memories stored far away can be re-energized if just the right thought spurs up. Science has found the when you’re slightly tired or inebriated these thoughts rise-up easier than if you’re too-tightly focused.

This process presents a problem though. Suddenly the act of painting has become a tirade of memories all related to your goal.

Your brain works like that naturally, you don’t have to be a creative to think about it. The memories come, the neural connections seek one another out, all is well.

But what happens if you want to be really creative with that painting? And by that I mean: you just really want to paint something great, not simply think about it.

You can’t rely on the previous work you’ve done, that’s not creative, that’s old news. And you can’t think about that masterpiece you saw at the MoMA either, because somebody’s already done that too. All of these memories, while great, don’t – on the surface – help you paint that next masterpiece you’re doing to get out.

So what do you do?

Aha! Here we are, finally, at last! Creativity!

While your brain excels at linking existing concepts, via memory, together, it has a hard time of breaking away from those links into other connections that may be beneficial. In-fact, it can’t do so at all, unless you trick it into it.

If you want to paint a painting, your brain is going to do everything it can to bring about all of the connections related to painting. Nothing more.

To be creative, then, is to look outside of the common connections and see what other memories you can stir up to draw out new ideas.

The good news is that there are a number of ways to trick your brain into making connections when you need to be creative. I’ve even made an app that offers more than 150 ways. More often than not the simplest methods work incredibly well for breaking focus just long enough for your brain to “light up” other memories that may be worthwhile.

No ideas, of course, can come from things you don’t already know. So creativity only works with what you’ve got. This, in-part, explains why many creative books, coaches, and savants, tout gaining new experiences (by reading new books, traveling, conversing with strangers, trying new things, etc.). It’s only through existing knowledge and memories that you’re going to be able to pull all of the random connections you need to have that next big idea.

If you want to paint a creative painting, you have to shake things up in the memory department upstairs.

Here’s one example of how to change focus slightly. In our painting example, all you would do is try to associate the concept of painting with something completely random. You could, as an example, look at your blank canvas and say, out loud, “pancakes!”

It’s a silly exercise, I know, but the result is that suddenly your brain isn’t just thinking about painting. Now you’ve got memories of breakfast with your family. You can see the fluffy white pancakes right before your eyes, can’t you? Maybe you hate pancakes, so you have memories of anger arise, but regardless: now you’ve got some leeway for creative thought.

It’s easier for your brain to associate different neural connections with painting. It’s easier to suddenly ask: What if the painting was of a giant, square stack of pancakes? Or an endless stack of pancakes? How could you turn that into a painting? Maybe stacking canvases and dripping paint over them like syrup of a larger-than-life stack of flapjacks?

No, not enough? Let’s shake things up a little more (and that’s a good trick to creativity: always shake things up, even if you feel like you’ve reached a good stopping point).

We’re on the topic of breakfast so let’s try something similar to that. Try to remember the best breakfast you ever had, what was it? Where were you? Who was there? What were the tastes or smells? What if you tried painting with those smells? Would that involve splashing your Moms perfume, a gallon of old milk, and maybe some Cheerios onto the canvas? That’s creative! Maybe it’s not right for you, but you can see where this is all going. Random association!

Mind-maps are amazingly powerful tools to do this type of processing in a tangible way too.

By drawing down the central idea and then branching out indefinitely, you can start to tie unrelated ideas together right on paper. Your last idea (Cheerios, in this case) may not be directly related to the initial one (painting), but if you can find a way to meld the two you’re onto something. Keep going.

And that’s another trick to creativity that is worth highlighting here: creativity is not merely thought. It’s not about having an idea and then breaking focus and drawing out other un-related ideas, but the real trick to creativity is to try out anything that comes to mind. Big or little, crazy or scary, you’re not going to truly know the impact of your thinking efforts until you turn them into real efforts. So go ahead and get that perfume, get that old milk, dump it onto the canvas and see what you get.

To quote Thomas Edison: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

It’s too easy to believe that creativity is just all in our heads, that it’s just about the memories and the connections and the original thoughts. Creativity is more than that: it’s action.

Now that you know a little more about how creativity works and how to spur it up when you need it most, what are you going to create?

Feature photo by Doug.