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How to Inspire Creative Thinking: Details, Details

New research finds recollecting specific aspects of a recent event can inspire creativity, as measured by a key test.
(Photo: art4all/Shutterstock)

(Photo: art4all/Shutterstock)

Vagueness is the enemy of creativity. Beethoven didn't just come up with the idea that a symphony could express heroism; he also wrote the precise notes that conveyed that concept in sound. For ideas to be both novel and useful—a standard definition of creativity—they need to be expressed in highly specific terms.

But how do you make the leap from a hazy notion to one that is spelled out in practical details? Newly published research points to one simple technique that may do the trick.

The study finds that using mental imagery to recall specific elements of a recent experience can put one into a detail-oriented state of mind. This subsequently leads to higher scores on a standard test of creative thinking.

Such an exercise "affects a process tapped by both memory and imagining," a research team led by Harvard University psychologist Kevin Madore writes in the journal Psychological Science. The researchers report the technique does not boost all indicators of creativity, but does enhance one that is often used as a marker: the ability to come up with non-obvious uses for common objects.

If you're looking for creative ideas, set your memory to a microscopic level and re-create, as best you can, an event from your recent past.

The researchers describe two experiments, each featuring 24 young adults. The first began with all participants watching one of two versions of a short video of a man and a woman performing various activities in a house.

Afterwards, half of the participants were asked general questions about the video, including their "impressions and reactions" to the work, and "what adjectives they would use to describe the setting, people, and actions."

The other half were instructed to conjure up specific mental images from the video, including the arrangement of the kitchen where much of the action took place, the clothes worn by the man and woman, the shape of their faces, and color of their hair. In addition, they were asked to recall the specifics of the story; a facilitator prompted them by asking "What happened after that?"

Afterwards, all took three tests designed to measure different facets of creative thinking, including the well-known Alternative Uses Task, which instructs users to come up with "as many unusual and creative uses as possible" for five different common objects.

Respondents were scored by noting the number of "categories of appropriate uses" they came up with for each of the objects. When looking at a brick, for example, answers such as "use as a paperweight" and "use as a doorstop" would belong to the same category, while "to hit someone on the head" would be in a separate one. A truly creative answer like "to use as a mock coffin in a doll's funeral" would be in still another category.

The second experiment, also featuring 24 participants, was similarly structured, except it replaced one of the alternate tests of creativity with another that focused on words and phrases.

The results: While the detailed-memory exercise did not affect results on any of the other creativity tests, it produced higher scores on the Alternative Uses Task. "In both experiments," the researchers write, "the most stringent measure of performance on the divergent-thinking task—categories of appropriate uses—showed a significant increase following the specificity induction."

So if you're looking for creative ideas, set your memory to a microscopic level and re-create, as best you can, an event from your recent past. While it's not clear why, that sort of precise, episodic recollection sets the stage for similarly detailed imaginative leaps.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.