Reference: Storm, B. C., & Patel, T. N. (2014). Forgetting as a consequence and enabler of creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(6), 1594-1609.
Think back to a time when you tried to be original or creative. Maybe you were trying to figure out something new to make for dinner, or you were generating a new idea for that novel you’ve been meaning to write. Regardless of what you were trying to think of, you may have had a difficult time producing a completely new idea because old ideas came to mind. This experience—where old ideas block the production of new ideas—is called mental fixation, and it can often hinder creative thought.
Given that humans experience mental fixation, it stands to reason that the cognitive system would be built in such a way that it helps us overcome such fixation when we encounter it. One way that we do that is through something that most people think of as a nuisance—by forgetting! Previous work using Remote Associates Problems—in which participants are tasked with finding a word that relates to each of three seemingly unrelated words (e.g., playing, credit, report; solution: card)—has demonstrated that people tend to forget information that causes fixation (i.e., words that are related to the words in the problem, but are not the solution; e.g., playing-fun, credit-union, report-paper) when attempting to solve problems blocked by such information (1). More importantly, people who forget more fixating information are better able to solve problems (2). However, prior studies used problems that only had one solution. The current study by Storm & Patel (2014) tested whether such forgetting applies to creative thought more broadly by asking participants to generate ideas to an open-ended prompt after being exposed to fixating information.
This study used the Alternative Uses Task, in which participants are asked to generate as many uses as possible for a common household object (e.g., a newspaper, 3). Participants were asked to do this for eight objects. For all of the objects, participants were asked to study a short list of example uses (which would ostensibly fixate them) for a short time. Then, participants were asked to generate their own ideas for half of the objects. Finally, participants were given an open-ended test of those example ideas. Their recall of the examples was compared across conditions in which participants were asked to think of new ideas (i.e., “thinking condition”) and those in which they were not (i.e., “baseline condition”). Multiple experiments were run, with different instructions in each: generate either common or creative uses (Experiment 1) and use/do not use the examples as hints to help generate additional uses (Experiment 2A & 2B). In Experiment 3, the researchers changed the type of final recall test from open-ended to cued, in which participants were given clues to help remember the specific studied examples (e.g., newspaper: p__ m__, for paper mâché).
(2) Adapted results from Experiment 2A and 2B of Storm and Patel (2014). When participants were told to use example uses as hints (left columns), no recall difference was observed between the thinking and baseline conditions. However, without this instruction (right columns), participants in the thinking condition forgot some of the example uses (i.e., recalled fewer example compared to the baseline condition).
Together, the results demonstrated that when people were asked to think of new ideas, they were more likely to forget the example ideas (as demonstrated by lower recall of those examples) than when they were not asked to think of new ideas, regardless of most instructions. The only case in which participants did not demonstrate forgetting was when they were asked to use the examples as hints to generate new ideas. This is because the examples were no longer unhelpful for thinking of new ideas; in fact, they were helpful!
Critically, the forgetting results replicated on the cued-recall test (Experiment 3), in which participants were given clues to help them remember the studied examples. These results demonstrate that people did not simply get confused about which ideas they were supposed to remember; that is, they forgot the examples in order to think of new ideas and were not blocked by the ideas they personally generated.
Additionally, the generated ideas across all experiments were rated on a variety of factors including creativity, novelty, and usefulness. Interestingly, the more forgetting of examples people showed, the more creative their generated uses were. This shows that the more someone is able to forget fixating information, the more they are able to break away from examples and think more creatively.
What does this all mean? In sum, humans’ ability to forget underlies their ability to think creatively, and the experience of forgetting can be a natural byproduct of thinking new thoughts. Without the ability to forget, people would be less creative than they are—which is saying something, since thinking of new ideas is already very difficult! So the next time you find yourself lamenting the fact that you can’t remember something, know that your forgetting is beneficial for creative thinking.
Images: (1) Featured image from Pixabay. Accessed 12/16/2018. https://pixabay.com/en/. (2) Figure 2 of Storm & Patel (2014) adapted with permission.
(1) Storm, B. C., Angello, G., & Bjork, E. L. (2011). Thinking can cause forgetting: Memory dynamics in creative problem solving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 37(5), 1287-1293.
(2) Storm, B. C., & Angello, G. (2010). Overcoming fixation: Creative problem solving and retrieval-induced forgetting. Psychological Science, 21(9), 1263-1265.
(3) Guilford, J. P. (1957). Creative abilities in the arts. Psychological Review, 64(2), 110-118