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How do we explore our knowledge to be creative?

Overview: Researchers say creativity is linked to two different semantic memory processes.

Source: Paris Brain Institute

To come up with a creative idea, we need to draw on all our previous knowledge. But how does this happen in our minds and in our brains?

The group of Emmanuelle Volle (Inserm) in the Frontlab of the Paris Brain Institute, in collaboration with the universities of Graz (Austria) and Warwick (UK), and the Israel Institute of Technology, has identified two semantic memory search processes involved in creativity .

Being creative doesn’t come out of the blue. Yet the birth of a creative idea in our brain is still an unknown phenomenon. Current theories suggest that it is based in part on the organization of our knowledge stored in semantic memory and how we search for concepts in it.

“What actually happens when we look for a new idea? Until now, we had no clear idea of ​​the processes by which we can navigate through our semantic memory and be creative,” explains Marcela Ovando-Tellez, a postdoctoral researcher at Frontlab and lead author of the study.

Semantic memory and creativity

Semantic memory can be studied as a network of associations of objects and concepts that are connected to each other to a greater or lesser extent. For example, the word ‘apple’ will be strongly associated with the broader range of ‘fruit’, but also associated with the concepts of ‘sweet’, ‘vegetable’ or even more distant words such as ‘fairy tale’ (if you’ve read Snow White). It is all these concepts, stored in our semantic memory, that enable us to understand the world.

Creativity is closely linked to the structure of this network and the way we navigate it, coupled with executive control processes. If the semantic associations are organized in such a way that connections between distant objects are easily made, it is easier to generate original ideas.

The Components of the Semantic Memory Search Process: Clustering and Switching

To understand how we navigate this network of semantic associations to dig up creative thoughts, the group of Emmanuelle Volle (Inserm) and their collaborators constructed a free semantic association task consisting of giving a cue to a participant and asking them to all the collaborators who come to mind at the suggested word.

“The specific thing here was that the cue words were polysemeus, ie they had several possible meanings,” explains Emmanuelle Volle (Inserm), the study’s final author.

“This ambiguity results in the activation of different meanings of the cue words, allowing us to classify the answers according to the related meaning, and to distinguish two interacting components of the memory search process: clustering and switching.”

What are clustering and to change gear† Taking the example of a word generation task with the “Animals” category, clustering would consist of sequentially listing the number of names of a subcategory of animals such as birds, while switching moving from one subcategory to the other entails, from birds to amphibians or mammals.

For example, the task developed by the group of scientists included the French word ‘rayon’, which can have several meanings: the sun’s rays, the supermarket shelves or the bicycle spokes. Thus, if a participant sequentially proposes words related to “ray” in relation to the weather, he or she uses a clustering-type memory search, while if he or she alternates between words related to the weather and the supermarket, his or her her memory quest is now of a switching type.

The researchers combined this association task with a host of other tests that measure creativity, judgment of semantic associations, and executive control (ie, 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, functional imaging MRI acquisitions have allowed us to explore the underlying neural correlates.

Creativity, Memory Search and Cognitive Control

The first result of the team is that clustering and switching are indeed related to creativity, but different. Clustering is related to divergent thinking i.e. the free generation of ideas while switching is related to the ability to combine distant associations between concepts. In addition, the switching component was also related to the organization of the concepts in memory and executive control skills.

This shows a person painting
Being creative doesn’t come out of the blue. Image is in the public domain

The researchers were then able to predict both clustering and switching of the participant’s brain functional connectivity and show that the two components have different brain correlates.

Clustering was predicted by connection patterns between brain networks related to attention and executive control, suggesting that persisting in a semantic category — for example, any mammal names that come to mind — involves attentional processes and may be involved in the generation of creative ideas.

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Switching, on the other hand, was predicted by connectivity patterns mainly involving the default network and the control network. This connectivity pattern may support executive control processes that interact with semantic memory to explore and combine distant memory elements.

Taken together, these results show how the alternations between exploratory search and focused attention support creativity, and provide new insights about the neurocognitive correlates of memory research related to creative cognition.

About this news about creativity and memory research

Author: Nicolas Brard
Source: Paris Brain Institute
Contact: Nicolas Brard – Paris Brain Institute
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original research: Open access.
An investigation of the cognitive and neural correlates of semantic memory seeking related to creative abilityby Marcela Ovando-Telez et al. Communication biology


Abstract

An investigation of the cognitive and neural correlates of semantic memory seeking related to creative ability

Creative ideas likely arise from seeking and combining knowledge from semantic memory, but the mechanisms that act on memory to yield creative ideas remain unclear.

Here we identified the neurocognitive correlates of semantic search components associated with creative skills.

We designed an associative fluency task based on polysemic words and distinguished two search components related to clustering and switching between the different meanings of the polysemic words. Clustering correlated with divergent thinking, while switching correlated with the ability to combine remote workers.

Moreover, switching correlated with semantic memory structure and executive skills, and was predicted by connectivity between the standard, control and salience neural networks. In contrast, clustering was dependent on interactions between control, salience, and attentional neural networks.

Our results suggest that switching captures interactions between memory structure and control processes that guide search, while clustering can capture attention-driven processes for persistent search, and that alternations between exploratory search and focused attention support creativity.

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