How can we use the exploration of knowledge to stimulate creativity?
We have to use all our prior knowledge while trying to come up with a creative idea. But how does this happen in our thoughts and brains? Two semantic memory-searching mechanisms involved in creativity have been uncovered by Emmanuelle Volle’s group (Inserm) at the Paris Brain Institute Frontlab in collaboration with the Universities of Graz (Austria), Warwick (UK) and the Israel Institute of Technology.
Creativity is not something that just happens. But it’s still a mystery how creative thoughts arise in our minds. According to current theories, it depends in part on how our information is organized in semantic memory and how we search for terms there.
“What actually happens when we are looking for a new idea? Until now, we didn’t have a clear idea of the processes that allow us to navigate and be creative through our semantic memory,” explains Marcela Ovando-Tellez, a postdoc at the Frontlab and first author of the study.
Semantic memory and creativity
Semantic memory can be viewed as a network of associations between things and ideas that are more or less connected. For example, the word “apple” will be closely related to the category “fruit,” as well as to the ideas “cute,” “vegetable,” and even more distant expressions like “fairy tale” (if you’ve read Snow White). Because of all these concepts stored in our semantic memory, we can understand the world.
The structure of the network and the way we move within it are directly related to executive control procedures, and these two factors are critical to creativity. It’s easier to get creative when the semantic linkages are set up so that connections between distant elements can be easily made.
The components of the semantic memory search process: clustering and switching
To understand how we navigate this network of semantic associations to discover creative thoughts, Emmanuelle Volle’s group (Inserm) and her collaborators constructed a free semantic association task, which consists of giving a participant a cue and asking them to search for all Asking associations that come to mind in relation to the suggested word. “What was special about it was that the keywords were polysemic, i.e. had several meanings,” explains Emmanuelle Volle (Inserm), the senior author of the study. “This ambiguity leads to the activation of multiple meanings of the keywords, which allowed us to classify the responses according to the associated meaning and to distinguish two interacting components of the memory-searching process: clustering and switching.”
What are clustering and switching? Using the example of a word-formation task with the category “animals”, clustering would consist of listing a series of names of a sub-category of animals such as birds one after the other, while moving from one sub-category to another, from birds to amphibians or mammals.
The task developed by the group of scientists contained, for example, the French word “rayon”, which can have several meanings: the sun’s rays, the supermarket shelves or the spokes of a bicycle. Thus, when a participant suggests words associated with “beam” related to the weather in a row, he or she engages in a grouping mode of memory search as he or she switches between words associated with the weather and the supermarket are, his or her memory quest is now of an alternate type.
The researchers combined this association task with a whole range of other tests measuring creativity, assessment of semantic associations and executive control (eg inhibition, working memory, etc.). Thanks to this data, they were able to reconstruct the structure of each participant’s semantic network and relate the two components of memory search to creativity, semantic memory organization, and executive control skills. Finally, MRI scans with functional imaging have allowed us to examine the underlying neural correlates.
Creativity, memory search and cognitive control
The team’s first finding is that while clustering and switching are related to creativity, they are different. Clustering refers to divergent thinking, i.e. generating ideas freely, while switching is related to the ability to combine distant associations between concepts. In addition, the switching component also related to the organization of concepts in memory and executive control skills.
Researchers were then able to predict both clustering and switching from the functional connectivity of the participant’s brain and show that the two components have different brain correlates. Clustering has been predicted by connectivity patterns between brain networks related to attention and executive control, suggesting that sticking to a semantic category—e.g., all mammalian names that come to mind—involves attentional processes and may be involved in creative idea generation . Switching, on the other hand, was predicted by connectivity patterns primarily involving the standard network and the control network. This connectivity pattern can support executive control processes that interact with semantic memory to explore and combine distant elements of memory.
Taken together, these results demonstrate how alternations between exploratory search and focused attention support creativity, and provide new insights into the neurocognitive correlates of memory search in the context of creative cognition.
Reference: “An Examination of the Cognitive and Neural Correlates of Semantic Memory Search Associated with Creative Skills” by Marcela Ovando-Tellez, Mathias Benedek, Yoed N. Kenett, Thomas Hills, Sarah Bouanane, Matthieu Bernard, Joan Belo, Theophile Bieth, and Emmanuelle Volle , June 16, 2022, communication biology.
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