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When Being Forgetful Can Actually Benefit You, From A Neurologist

Scott A. Small, M.D.
July 20, 2021
Scott A. Small, M.D.
Neurologist & Alzheimer's Researcher
By Scott A. Small, M.D.
Neurologist & Alzheimer's Researcher
Scott A. Small, M.D., is a physician specializing in aging and dementia and a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University.
Woman Sitting on Living Room Floor Painting
Image by Alina Hvostikova / Stocksy
July 20, 2021

Psychologists have pored over the introspections of individuals who are generally agreed to be highly creative—visual artists, poets, novelists, musicians, physicists, mathematicians, and exceptional biologists. A unifying thread among these testimonials has emerged.

What does it mean to be creative?

Colloquially, "to create" implies novelty or innovation; "to be creative" suggests a broader generative capacity. But the recurrent theme that epitomizes the creative process is not generating something brand-new out of the blue: Rather, a creative spark occurs when unexpected associations among existing elements are suddenly forged—a sort of cognitive alchemy.

Phrases people use to describe creative insight include how elements in one's mind engage in "combinatory play," how they "collided until pairs interlocked...making a stable combination," or how they "drew together beneath the surface through the almost chemical affinities of common elements." My favorite description is from the poet Stephen Spender, who described his creative process as "a dim cloud of an idea which...must be condensed into a shower of words." 

How "word associations" capture the creative process.

Psychologists set out to devise a behavioral task that captures this creative crucible1. Consider the following three words: elephant, lapse, vivid. Think of a fourth word that relates to all three. The answer is memory. How about a word that is associated with another trio: rat, blue, cottage? If you answered cheese, you are right. But even if you did not, take a moment to reflect on these two answers. Once you put the words together and come up with or are shown the right answer, its accuracy is obvious, and you experience an aha-moment. 

There is no obvious route a mind must take, no formula for how to cognitively compute the right answer. It just happens. The correct answer is always there, somewhere in your cortex. You know that rats eat cheese; you have eaten, or at least seen, blue cheese or cottage cheese. But if you were asked to free-associate to rat alone, cheese might not come first to your mind. Unless you are a cheesemonger, blue might elicit sky; cottage might spark house. Only if you are a pest control expert, a ratcatcher who has experimented with various baits, might the word cheese come first to your mind. Similarly, only if you are a memory expert, like me, might the word memory be your response to elephant, lapse, and vivid.

On the flip side, the strength of my association with words linked to "memory" can potentially constrain my creativity. I cannot, for example, see one of the sea's most fabulous creatures, the sea horse (hippocampus in Latin) without being locked in to an immediate association with "memory." 

How forgetting can promote creativity.

And this is exactly the point. Creativity requires preexisting associations—requires memory—but they must remain loose and playful. The artists' testimonials teach us that creative abilities are forged by immersion in various elements and the establishment of associations between them, but only when the links are relaxed. All visual artists immerse themselves in visions, poets in words, scientists in facts and ideas. But what sets the great ones apart is that their associations are not set in stone. 

Loosening associations, relaxing links, associations that are set in clay, not in stone: All are required for creativity, and all sound like forms of forgetting. Is this true?

Evidence that forgetting is beneficial for creativity2 first came from studies in which psychologists used various ways to either strengthen or loosen associations between word pairs, like "blue–sky" or "cottage–house." For example, by repeatedly exposing subjects to word pairs, researchers found that they formed tighter memories between those couplets and predictably initially performed worse on the creativity task. Subjects' performance gradually improved over the next few days, however, an improvement that tracked with forgetting's known timeline. 

While those findings are interesting, other evidence that links forgetting to creativity3 comes from sleep studies. These studies clearly show that our creativity, whether measured by the creativity word task, or on other measures, significantly benefits from a good night's sleep and, in particular, from our dreaming. And when examined, this benefit did not occur because sleeping is somehow restful. Nor did it occur because dreaming happens to sharpen a few memory snippets of what our minds were exposed to throughout our daily peregrinations.

Most of the studies were performed before the definitive evidence validated Francis Crick's prediction that we sleep in order to forget much of our quotidian memories4. Nevertheless, with the benefit of scientific hindsight, the inescapable conclusion is that we are most creative when associations of what we do remember are kept loose and playful by sleep-induced forgetting.

Excerpted from FORGETTING, copyright © 2021 by Scott Small. Used by permission of Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

Scott A. Small, M.D. author page.
Scott A. Small, M.D.
Neurologist & Alzheimer's Researcher

Scott A. Small, M.D., is a physician specializing in aging and dementia and a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University, where he is the director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. He has run a National Institutes of Health–funded laboratory for over twenty years and has published more than 140 studies on memory function and malfunction, research that has been covered by The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Time. His insight into Alzheimer’s disease recently led to the formation of Retromer Therapeutics, a new biotechnology company which he co-founded. Small is the author of FORGETTING: The Benefits of Not Remembering. He was raised in Israel and lives in New York City.