Memory: An Outlook on Creativity & Intelligence

How exactly does memory relate to our creativity and intelligence?

The Greek orators used the ‘method of loci‘ to memorize their speeches. In this technique, the speakers associated their points in speeches with landmarks or places in their towns. As they imaginatively passed by a specific place or landmark, it enabled them to recall the associated memory item. The invention of this technique is creative, while its nimble utilization is intelligent. How exactly human memory relates to creativity and intelligence? In this article, we discuss how memory is used for creativity and intelligence-oriented tasks. The effort is based on different research studies, experiments, and generalizations made from those experiments.

Definition, Types & Working of Memory

Memory is “the means by which we retain and draw on our past experiences to use that information in the present” (Tulving, 2000). It is interesting the definition associates the term ‘use’ with memory function. We also want to understand how the memory is ‘used’ for creativity and intelligence-oriented tasks. Alternatively, Encyclopedia Britannica defines memory as the encoding, storage and retrieval in the human mind of past experiences. Thus, there are three major stages of information processing in human memory; Encoding or Acquisition, Storage or Safekeeping and Retrieval or Recollection.

William James, an American psychologist and philosopher, distinguished two types of memory: primary and secondary. Primary memory is concerned with managing transient and short-term concerns, while secondary memory is responsible for storing information for long-term purposes. Short-term memory is the working area of the brain, whereas long-term memory is its storage place. The temporary memory of an average person may store 5 to 9 units of information, while the capacity of permanent memory is virtually limitless. The duration of short-term memory for holding information is up to 30 seconds, while information stored in long-term memory can last a lifespan. Lastly, working memory is kept and recollected sequentially, whereas the permanent memory is stored and recovered by Association or Consolidation (McLeod, 2013).

Association or Consolidation is a highly important feature of memory processing. It is the ‘transferring’ of information or experience from short-term to long-term memory. We are inevitably obtaining information day in and day out; this information directly goes to short-term memory. It is undesirable and impossible to store all the details surrounding us, permanently. There are, however, some experiences or information we do acquire, store and save during our everyday life, deliberately or otherwise. For this, our brain demands the transmission of an experience, event or knowledge from short-term memory to long-term memory. This is done through association or consolidation. It is synergizing new information or experience with previously acquired information or experience. For example, the method of loci is an application of the same phenomenon; the association of parts of speeches with landmarks.

The information is consolidated more easily when a person is attentive and alert, inferring the significance of concentration and focus. Emotional association – such as through pain, joy, pleasure or fear – also tends to solidify memory traces (Mayda, 2010). Normally, human memory can associate a particular smell, place, or music with a certain occurrence, as well.

If consolidation of present experience is made with past information for safekeeping, then it is surely possible that our existing information might be associated with a future event. The readers may amuse themselves with an interesting argument:

“Episodic memory (personal memory or experience) supports ‘mental time travel’ into the future as well as the past, and indeed, numerous recent studies have provided evidence that episodic memory contributes importantly to imagining or simulating possible future experiences” (Madore, Addis & Schacter, 2015).

Human Memory & Brain

American neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield (1891-1976) found the first evidence for physical basis of memory (O’Shea, 2005). His experiments presented specific memories not only have a physical basis, but each also has a particular physical location in the brain. The memory trace in the brain is called engram (Britannica, 2019). Memory items stored in the brain manifest in the form of chemical or physical neural changes, i.e., memory physically alters our brain! The changes are transient for short-term memories while they ‘must’ be permanent for long-term memories. Hippocampus is the part of the brain where short-term memories are ‘transferred’ into long-term memories (O’Shea, 2005).

The long-term memory requires a dialogue between synapses – gap among neurons – and genes while short-term memory does not (O’Shea, 2005). Both synapses and genes are pertinent to our theme of understanding how human memory relates to creativity and intelligence. Synapses are active participants in the process of our brain responding to the changing environment, which means, our behavior, along with the brain, adapts continuously according to our latest experiences. What’s more interesting, our ability to learn from these experiences largely depends on the way our genes are designed to respond! (O’Shea, 2005).

Neurons changes showing the "existence" of memory in human brain
Neurons Background, by starline

Human Memory & Forgetfulness

When we talk about memory, we often call to mind the term forgetfulness (as a result of its ‘association’ with the definition of memory). Forgetfulness is an unexpected lapse of memory; it can be sudden or gradual. Forgetfulness is an inevitable and indispensable aspect of human life; it is “an absolutely essential and active element of the process of interacting effectively with a changing environment” (O’Shea, 2005). Moreover, evidence suggests the rate at which individuals forget is directly proportional to how much they have learned (Britannica, 2019).

Time and forgetfulness are also related. Time allows us to forget certain occurrences or at least get past emotions associated with them. The ability to forget events or emotions can enable individuals to move on. Also, medically, our nervous system relaxes by forgetting; otherwise, it might collapse (Mayda, 2010).

The fact remains that humans tend to forget more often than needed. Medically, there are numerous explanations, and psychologically, plentiful enlightenments. The age factor elucidates forgetfulness is proportionate to the number of the loss of cells (Mayda, 2010) – clearing up why aged people can forget seemingly simple things. In everyday life, depression, stress, negative emotions such as anxiety and anger, carelessness, and importantly, not using acquired information leads to forgetfulness and poor memory (Coruh, 2012). Also, frequent drinking, drug abuse, physical contact and injuries on the head may reason for forgetfulness. Sound sleep, healthy diet, and spiritually uplifting activities help avoid frequent memory losses. It is noteworthy, good human memory responds to contentment with life and peace of mind.

Creativity, Intelligence & Memory

According to Frederic Bartlett, a British psychologist, remembering is not simply the recollection of previously experienced events but instead involves an imaginative reconstruction of the past (Stein, 1989). If so, isn’t memory function a creative process itself?

To proceed with our paper to understand the creativity and intelligence of memory, we first grasp the concept of Declarative Memory. Declarative or explicit memories, like declarative sentences, contain information about facts and events (Britannica, 2019). Declarative knowledge is highly crucial for comprehending the reality of our world/environment and also to regulate our behavior patterns. There are two major types of declarative memory: episodic and semantic. Former are long-term (and complex) memories of specific or personal events, while the latter are memories of facts and general knowledge.

As we saw in section Human Memory & Brain, it is proved through experiments that “memory requires the brain to be physically altered by experience” (O’Shea, 2005). Life is a marvelous series of experiences that physically alter our brain, continuously, and as a result, form/re-form our behavior or personality. It is in the reserves of our memories, episodic and semantic, we find our life experiences and present knowledge that help us tackle everyday life challenges, whether demanding creativity or intelligence.

A creative challenge requires us to reconstruct our past life events and find existing knowledge and deductions in our memories for discovering new solutions. That is, we are able to form imaginative ideas based purely on our previous experiences and current knowledge. As Barry S. Stein, from Tennessee Technological University, in his contribution of the chapter “Memory and Creativity” in Handbook of Creativity, puts it: “remembering can be an important part of the creative process” (Stein, 1989). Hence, it is safe to say the memory of an individual plays a significant role in developing his or her creative disposition and capacity. For example, novels are compiled by creative authors who build imaginative worlds and ingenious personas, but it is precisely their real-life experiences that provide them with gems of creative writing!

Merriam Webster defines intelligence as “the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations: the skilled use of reason.” We have already seen the memory requires the brain to be physically altered; “it is this remarkable property that makes thought and consciousness possible… The synaptic change or plasticity (of brain) is fundamental to learning and memory function” (O’Shea, 2005).

Normally, our ability to understand and solve problems expresses our intelligence. There is obviously more to intelligence than problem understanding and solving, but we are particularly interested in determining the position of intelligence from the outlook of memory. First, problem-understanding demands the application of existing knowledge and memories stored inside the human brain, correctly. For this purpose, the stored and relevant information is to be retrieved quickly from the long-term memory to working memory.

Second, problem-solving entails the capability of the working memory to handle multiple thoughts and memories, gracefully, while also learning along the process. In short, agile memory retrieval from permanent memory to transient memory and swift thought-processing in the working memory enables us to understand and solve underlying problems. For example, a person good in mental mathematics can solve tricky problems, briskly, in the head. It is because he or she is able to retrieve stored mathematical data/rules from the long-term memory, quickly, and handle the entire solution in the working memory, accurately.

There is evidence that people can improve their working memory – and possibly their intelligence – by practicing” (Minkel; 2010). Knowing this, we can appreciate why thinking and mental exercises are recommended for the well-being of our brain. The extraordinary and ultimate challenge is to harness the power and treasures of memory; to embrace and learn from whatever experience life puts us through.

References

Tulving, E. (2000). Memory: An Overview. In A. E. Kazdin (Ed.). Encyclopedia of Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, Vol. 5, pp. 161-162.

McLeod, S. A. (2013). Stages of Memory: Encoding Storage and Retrieval. Simply Psychology.

Madore, K. P., Addis, D. R., & Schacter, D. L. (2015). Creativity and Memory: Effects of an Episodic-Specificity Induction on Divergent Thinking. Psychological science, 26(9), 1461-8.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. (Last Updated: April 18, 2019). Memory. Encyclopedia Britannica: Encyclopedia Britannica, inc.

O’Shea, M. (2005). The Brain: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mayda, A. (2010). Memory and Forgetfulness. The Fountain Magazine, Issue: 73.

Coruh, H. (2012). Poor Memory and Its Causes. The Fountain Magazine, Issue: 87.

Minkel, JR. (2010). Simple Memory Test Predicts Intelligence. Live Science.

Stein B.S. (1989) Memory and Creativity. In: Glover J.A., Ronning R.R., Reynolds C.R. (eds) Handbook of Creativity. Perspectives on Individual Differences. Springer, Boston, MA.

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