I’ve been observing the creative process in others for some time now, always curious how the most prolific and profound among us manage to keep creating meaningful projects again and again. Do they have a different chip in their brain? Do they see the world through some other lens? Having done a great deal of reading about memory recently, it occurs to me that perhaps one of the things these folks intuitively understand is how our brains collect sensory input, then encode and retrieve it as memory. They know to store what may seem like unrelated or unimportant data at the time in such a way that they can retrieve and connect the dots later, as more pertinent information appears.
It may be that consistently creative people however, not only store and process memory better, but understand and accept that memory and perception are constantly changing with the introduction of new experiences. Daniel L. Schacter points out in his fascinating 1996 book Searching for Memory that memory is the “complex constructions built from multiple contributors.” Schacter likens memory to the fragments and elusive remnants used to create a collage. We are constantly integrating new information and experiences into our mental collages.
Establishing a durable memory of an experience depends on thoroughly encoding the occurrence by associating it with something that already exists in memory. We store experiences based on a number of factors—what we were seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling or thinking at the time for instance—then are able to retrieve the memory later when that encoding cue is introduced. In most cases “successful recall depends heavily on the availability of appropriate retrieval cues.”
The most creative among us realize that while our perceptions and understanding of the world and our place in it depend on the complex workings of memory, memory itself is a shifting collage that is constantly incorporating new into old. No doubt, creativity depends on being able to successfully recall old experiences when presented with the appropriate cues, yet also on staying open and receptive to what emerges in the present. Releasing preconceived notions about memory as a stored picture of an experience or event and understanding it as an ever-changing process may be the key.
Daniel Schacter and Benedict Carey discuss memory encoding and retrieval on the Charlie Rose Show.