Those of us in the innovation space know that to be creative, you need to be very diverse in your education and life experiences. Not only as a person, but also as an organization.
Put simply, diversity breeds breakthroughs.
This is nothing new. But being able to do this means you must have excellent memory, which most people don’t have.
How your working memory determines your creative capacity
Scientifically, we don’t know why or how there are some people who have the ability to hold more information in their brains than others. I’ve asked myself this question for as long as I can remember because, I have photographic memory. I don’t memorize. It’s all associative. So I have vivid memories of conversations from years ago, including what day it was, what was I wearing, what the other person was wearing, etc.
Up until four years ago, started writing notes on paper. And then I jumped into Evernote. But before that, it was all mental notes.
While finding out the answer to the question, I found the answer in the book Strategic Intuition by William Duggan a few years ago. And according to a recent paper, which confirms Duggan’s synthesis, being able to hold vasts amounts of diverse information is possible by people’s working memory capacity:
A fascinating paper by Carsten De Dreu, Bernard Nijstad, Matthijs Baas, Inge Wolsink, and Marieke Roskes in the May, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that people’s working memory capacity may also play a role in the creativity on display.
Working memory capacity is the amount of information that people can hold in mind at once. All of us have a relatively limited amount of information we can think about at any one time, but there are differences between people in the size of working memory. This capacity can be measured with tests like the OSPAN, in which people solve math problems while trying to hold words in mind at the same time. The more words you can remember on this test, the larger your working memory capacity.
What this means is that:
In order to be creative, it is important to get beyond familiar ideas. Chances are, when you start thinking about something, whether it is a musical solo or an idea to revolutionize our education system, the first few things you come up with will be variations on ideas you have encountered in the past. Only after you think through those more mundane ideas are you likely to start really generating something new.
It seems that when you have high working memory capacity, you are better able to pull out both the initial ideas that are not deeply original as well as other more novel ideas.
Great, but how do you increase your working memory capacity?
While there are no definitive methods, there are several things believed to be helpful. Improving reading comprehension is one, which can be done by reading more often and paying close attention to what you read. With every sentence, you should be able to recall it in memory afterwards—even if that recollection is only temporary. Practicing this can make a difference. Additionally, dual n-back training can actually help your brain focus better on tasks and this should help your working memory. Brain Workshop is one free game that can get you started. In addition to focusing better, breaking down information you want to remember into small chunks can help. Simple information is almost always going to be easier to remember.
Another mind hack is to associate. For example, one of my best friends has a bit of amnesia. So I’m his second brain. I have had to remember the pin numbers of his debit cards when we’ve traveled together. How do I remember the pin numbers to different cards?
Let’s say the pin number to one of his debit cards is 3352. I know Scottie Pippen, retired Chicago Bull, wore number 33. And I know Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens linebacker, wears number 52. Then if the card is a VISA from Bank of America, I’ll say Scottie Pippen and Ray Lewis play for Bank of America and their favorite play is called VISA.
Of course, it can be a lot more simple. But the key with effective associating, is to put more hooks into what it is that you are going to remember. Think Velcro, the more hooks it has the stickier it will be, and thus the easier it will be to remember.
Another benefit of doing remembering things by associating, is that you will be actively developing one of the five key innovation skills: association. You will get very good at seeing connections between seemingly disparate ideas 😉
- Creativity, Persistence and Working Memory (psychologytoday.com)
- Boost Your Creativity by Improving Your Working Memory [Mind Hacks] (lifehacker.com)
- Where do you keep your ideas? (game-changer.net)
- Why Is Memory So Good and So Bad? (scientificamerican.com)
- Failure School: Metacognitive Reframing Boosts Working Memory (eideneurolearningblog.blogspot.de)
- The Benefits of Daydreaming (blogs.smithsonianmag.com)