💡 Need to Remember Stuff to Be Creative?

You might ask, “To be a creative thinker, do I need to remember things? Can’t I just look everything up on my phone?”

Actually, remembering things leads to better thinking. Let’s explore how memory plays a role in creative thinking.

🧠 Working Memory vs. Long-Term Memory

First, let’s discuss the two memory systems in our brain: “Working Memory” and “Long-term Memory.” Working memory is for temporary information storage and manipulation, while long-term memory stores information for extended periods.

When asked to remember a 4-digit number for a minute, you’ll likely repeat it in your head, using your working memory. But when calculating 64 x 98, it’s challenging because your working memory quickly runs out of space, so you might need paper or a device to help.

Limited Working Memory

An image of a brain with a lot of things you have learnedOur working memory is limited. According to Oakley, Rogowsky, and Sejnowski in Uncommon Sense Teaching, the average working memory holds 4 units of information. This capacity increases with experiences like reading but becomes largely set by age 14.

Even with a larger-than-average working memory, it’s still limited. For example, multitasking, like reading a text-filled PowerPoint slide while listening to a speaker, is nearly impossible due to our limited working memory.

🤔 Working Memory and Thinking

So, how does limited working memory relate to thinking? It’s essential to conserve working memory for thinking. By storing fundamental skills and knowledge in long-term memory, your working memory can access them when needed, freeing up space for higher-order activities like thinking.

💭 Focused Mode vs. Diffuse Mode

Eureka moments often happen when our minds are relaxed, in a state Oakley calls “diffuse mode.” This mode allows for unexpected associations in your brain, leading to “Aha moments.” However, without anything stored in your brain, these associations can’t happen. 

Remembering things and having knowledge in your long-term memory is crucial for thinking.

📚 Higher-Order Thinking

You might aim for higher-order thinking, like “analyze” or “evaluate” in Bloom’s Taxonomy, a hierarchy of thinking skills ranging from basic recall to complex analysis and evaluation. 

But mastering fundamentals is necessary before reaching higher levels. For example, discussing the difference between World War I and II requires a firm grasp of each war’s context, time frame, and outcomes. Higher-level thinking is supported by fundamental knowledge.

🎯 Drill to Kill vs. Drill to Skill

You may think drills kill creativity, but Oakley advocates for “Drill to Skill.” Solid fundamental knowledge and skills are necessary to free up working memory for critical and creative thinking.

🚀  Do This Now

Identify things you often look up while working or studying, such as keyboard shortcuts, important dates, or essential formulas. Master them, so you don’t need to look them up, freeing up your limited working memory.