In 1981, a 30-year-old man was driving home from work on his motorcycle. Maybe it was too dark. Maybe he was going too quickly. Maybe there was something on the road. Maybe his attention wandered. Whatever the reason, the routine trip soon took a traumatic turn: the motorcycle spun off the exit ramp, its rider knocked unconscious by the impact.
72 hours later, K.C.—as he has become known to posterity—woke up in an intensive care unit. In ten months, he was discharged home. And only then, far from the hospital wards and rehabilitation centers, did it slowly become clear just how much the accident had impacted him: K.C. could no longer form memories. Of any kind. What’s more, he seemed to have forgotten personal details of past events from his own life—and while he recognized his friends and parents, he’d lost all memory for details of their lives, too. He could remember an episode—say, the death of his younger brother a few years before the motorcycle accident—but knew nothing of the circumstances surrounding the news. His reaction, how he found out, where he was: these were all blanks. Memories--the few that remained, that is--had been reduced to emotionless facts, encyclopedia entries that lacked all context.
K.C. had suffered severe injury to the medial temporal lobes and almost total hippocampal loss. His memory, in any traditional sense of the term, was as good as gone. It seemed that the tragedy couldn’t be more complete.
And yet—there was another, at first invisible side to the loss. Not only could K.C. not remember the past, but he was unable to image the future. He had lost the ability to record. And with it, he had lost the ability to create.
When I first read Joshua Foer’s book, I’d been struck by a claim made by Tony Buzan, somewhere along the way, that superior memory could lead to enhanced creative ability. At the time, it had seemed somewhat farfetched. No amount of fancy mnemonics and training in elaborate memory footwork could compete with creative inspiration, the genius of true imagination. The one was drudgery and practice and tricks of the trade. The other, the ability to imagine something entirely new.
But the more I thought about it, the more the connection seemed logical—perhaps not in as sweeping a fashion as Buzan would have you believe, but in a very real sense all the same. After all, as Foer is quick to point out, the same Latin root, inventio, is the base of both inventory and invention – remembering and creating. Could that common root point to more than shared linguistic origin?
One of the central elements of creativity is the ability to link disparate points into a cohesive (and novel) whole. That’s the type of creativity that brings about that most famous of moments, the eureka, light-bulb-like realization. An integration of unrelated ideas in an unexpected way—that in retrospect makes complete sense.
A classic paradigm used to capture this type of creative thought is called compound remote associates. You are given several words and asked to think about one single word that could be added to each to form a two-word phrase. For instance:
CRAB PINE SAUCE
In this case, the correct answer is apple – and though you can solve it the hard way, by trying out different words one at a time, the people who are most effective at this type of task just seem to “see” the solution. In other words, they experience creative insight: their minds are able to see a remote association that ties everything together in a way that makes sense.
But here’s the thing: you’d be unable entirely to reach the solution if you had never heard of a crabapple, didn’t know what a pineapple was, or had never encountered apple sauce. True, this particular example may seem a bit silly—though not out of the question, especially for non-native English speaker—but the underlying point holds for all such associative connections: if something is not in your store of knowledge, you cannot possibly use it, no matter how insightful and intelligent you might otherwise be, in your solution. And if you don’t remember something, if you can’t access it when you need to, if you never bothered to concentrate and to add it to that repository of stuff in your brain, it’s like you never knew it at all.
Memory, then, is crucial after all. Take an impoverished memory, and you get impoverished associations, shoddy pulling together of information, little or no insight. In short, impoverished memory is impoverished creativity. As Foer told me, “I think the notion is, more generally, that there is a relationship between having a furnished mind (which is obviously not the same thing as memorizing loads of trivia), and being able to generate new ideas. Creativity is, at some level, about linking disparate facts and ideas and drawing connections between notions that previously didn’t go together. For that to happen, a human mind has to have raw material to work with.” Absent the raw material, absent the potential for insight. (If you're not convinced, just think of mathematician Henri Poincaré, one of the most creative minds of his, and perhaps any, time: his memory was nothing short of remarkable. As a biographer noted, “In retention and recall he exceeded even the fabulous Euler” – and Euler was someone who, it was said, could recite the Aeneid from memory.)
And yet—there is another side to the story, one that doesn’t diminish the role of memory in the least, but does reframe it – and most of all, illustrates that Buzan’s assertion is only one part of the truth. Yes, a store of knowledge is essential. More material cannot help but be good. As Ed Cooke puts it, “I think this...is the fundamental reason that knowing things is not pointless: only when known can it participate in the tissue of your intuitions, as well as in the flow of your conversation, imagination, and thought.”
But there is also something distinctive about the associations of creativity as compared to those of the effortful memorization and recall that goes into the creation of memory palaces and the ability to consciously and meticulously bring up the exact right piece of information when asked to do so. Whereas the latter connections are effortful and explicit and require focus and attention—you can’t remember the contents of your memory palace unless you are able to bring the palace to mind; the process of recall is specific and directed—the former is far more, in a sense, effortless and implicit.
Consider again Poincaré. His insights into mathematics were not reached by conscious recall of data and facts. Quite the contrary. They were the product of a far more subconscious process: a diffuse attentional network in the brain that worked on his store of knowledge while he was doing something else entirely--the same type of neural activity that precedes insight into the compound remote associates paradigm, when the answer just seems to appear. He made what is perhaps his most famous discovery while on a geological excursion: “Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At the moment I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry.”
The moment would be one of those apocryphal tales if it didn’t happen to be true. And it was far from the only such instance. As Poincaré would later write, “The role of this unconscious work in mathematical invention appears to me incontestable.” Yes, the knowledge must be there. And yes, conscious processing and effortful thought is absolutely essential to begin with—Poincaré was quick to point out that his sudden moments of creative inspiration only took place after days of voluntary effort that had hit a wall. But the type of connections you make to reach the actual insight, to get to that creative revelation are far different from the explicit links of building memory palaces or learning to store and retrieve facts for an exam. Memory is essential. But so is something far more intangible. And while that intangibility can also be trained, the evidence shows—for instance, we can become far more adept at solving compound remote associates; we can be taught to improve our brain’s ability to make the sorts of connections that lead to insight—the training is not one of memory.
But creativity isn’t just about making connections, as conscious or unconscious as they may be. It is also about being able to imagine something that doesn’t yet exist, to envision realities, scenarios, alternatives that are real only in your mind. It is, in other words, about the very ability that had been lost to K.C. the moment his head hit the pavement. And in that sense, memory may well be the cornerstone that holds everything together.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter met K.C. back in the eighties, when research on the amnesiac’s condition was just beginning. Schacter is a memory researcher. To him, the possibilities in studying K.C.’s injuries were endless. But curiously, what struck him more than the shortcomings of the patient’s ability to remember and recall was that other discovery, the one that didn't come until later and seemed at first to be wholly unrelated to memory: the discovery that K.C. was likewise unable to plan for—or even envision, in any sense—the future. In response to the simple-seeming question of “What are you going to be doing tomorrow?” the normally gregarious and obliging man would become confused and taciturn, unable to grasp the significance of the query or formulate a proper reply. If pressed and encouraged, he would perhaps be able to come up with something like, “I will probably eat lunch” or “I might have dinner,” but that was the best you were likely to get.
K.C.’s total inability to construct a future prompted Schacter to ask a key question: might not memory be more than simply an essential component of remembering things that have already occurred? Might it also be central for imagining those that have yet to occur--or might occur in some alternate reality?
Over the years, the answer has become increasingly clear: memory isn’t just for remembering; it is also—and centrally—for creating. In a series of behavioral and imaging studies, the Schacter lab has demonstrated that memory is essential for constructing future events, for imagining the very hypotheticality that is so central to creative thought. The two processes even rely on the same core brain network.
Schacter refers to this idea as the Constructive Episodic Simulation Hypothesis. The better our recall for the past, the better we are at constructing a hypothetical future. And what's more, the very things we traditionally think of as flaws in memory (our forgetfulness, our false impressions) are instead features that enable successful creative imagining: the vagueness and malleability that sometimes accompanies the knowledge we've stored may be bothersome, to be sure, but may also allow for a more constructive approach to simulating the future—or to creating hypothetical realities. For creative integration to take place, we need a system that can be flexible in its recombination of previous experience and stored knowledge. In other words, we need a mind that not only remembers, but that can alter and manipulate what has been stored. We need memory, in all of its facets.
W.H. Auden memorably said, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” But Auden didn’t mean that poetry was not necessary or even not essential for something to happen. Quite the contrary. Actionless as it may be on its own, in his mind it is an inherent catalyst of action—the reason Plato was so keen to oust all poets from his ideal city, lest they upset its delicate balance through the thoughts and deeds their words could inspire. Poetry may make nothing happen in the literal sense, but as Auden also points out, when the poet creates, he would like nothing more than to think that he is writing to the leaders of the country themselves. Those are his ideal readers.
Much the same can be said of memory: on its own, in and of itself, it, too, makes nothing happen. But while actionless alone, it is also a catalyst of sorts for creativity, for literature, for language. It is not a cure-all—as Cooke is quick to say, “I forget things all the time as a result of inattention and confusion”—but it is an essential foundation, without which nothing could happen.
At the end, you need that base, those building blocks that memory offers, even if alone, the blocks are not of much use. The rattling off of thousands of digits may be a dressed-up parlor trick—though a very impressive one, I admit—but it is the foundation of something far more important. It’s up to us to understand how to apply what we’ve memorized, what we’ve learned, all the knowledge we’ve stored, up to us to know what to make with the disparate blocks of memory. But without that memory? Simply put, we wouldn’t have anything to build—or any idea what a successful building would even look like. The less we pay attention to memory, the more we run the risk of becoming like K.C.: someone with intelligence and a wealth of knowledge potentially at our disposal, but who cannot take advantage of that knowledge in any way that challenges the world as is and dares to imagine it as it is not.
This is the second part of a two-part exploration of memory and creativity. The first is available here. Many thanks to Ed Cooke and Joshua Foer for their time and assistance with both pieces.
Rosenbaum RS, Köhler S, Schacter DL, Moscovitch M, Westmacott R, Black SE, Gao F, & Tulving E (2005). The case of K.C.: contributions of a memory-impaired person to memory theory. Neuropsychologia, 43 (7), 989-1021 PMID: 15769487
Schacter DL, & Addis DR (2007). The cognitive neuroscience of constructive memory: remembering the past and imagining the future. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 362 (1481), 773-86 PMID: 17395575
Addis DR, Pan L, Vu MA, Laiser N, & Schacter DL (2009). Constructive episodic simulation of the future and the past: distinct subsystems of a core brain network mediate imagining and remembering. Neuropsychologia, 47 (11), 2222-38 PMID: 19041331