Kay: Get Creative by Recalling Details

From the montage "16 Very Sad Girls" collected from the British Library Collection now on Flickr

From the montage “16 Very Sad Girls” collected from the British Library Collection (Flickr)

After I got back from the RWA conference, I needed to do a little tax-related bookkeeping. I hadn’t gotten any receipts for meals or travel expenses because I was always with a group, and we got one bill, and we divided it up…and that was that. No receipt. (My tax guy won’t like this.)

So I got home and tried to remember everything I spent and where I spent it. Recalling every expense over five days after I got home was a bit of a challenge. Plus, my revisions are going well, and who wants to stop and figure out tax junk when revisions are going well? Not me.

But recalling all the meals, snacks, drinks, books, and other items I bought was a fun way to recall the conference. (“Okay, I took a car service to the hotel, took forever, so incredibly hot that day, $60. Did I eat lunch? I must have. Right, that hamburger place. So delicious. Wonderful beer. Then I spent the afternoon with Kat and Jilly—coffee and snacks at their hotel—and then for dinner the group met at Tony’s di Napoli, which was fabulous, $40.”)

It turns out that remembering events at a high level of detail is good for creativity. Who knew? (Although my revisions are going well, so I’m thinking maybe it isn’t all coincidence.) A research team led by Harvard University psychologist Kevin Madore found that recalling specific elements of a recent experience can lead to higher scores on a standard test of creative thinking.

It sounds a bit convoluted to me, and the researchers reported in the journal Psychological Science that the technique doesn’t boost all indicators of creativity, but does enhance one that is often used as a marker: the ability to come up with nonobvious uses for common objects.

Here’s how the researchers measured it. They took two groups of people, showed them a video about a couple doing various activities in a house, and then interviewed each group about what they saw. One group was asked about their “impressions” and “reactions” to the video and “what adjectives they would use to describe the setting, people, and actions.” The second group of viewers was instructed to describe specific images, such as the arrangement of the kitchen and the clothes and hair color of the man and woman.

Afterwards, the viewers took three tests designed to measure different facets of creative thinking. One of the tests was the Alternative Uses Task, which instructs users to come up with as many unusual and creative uses as possible for common objects. (Example: Name all the uses for a brick. Potential responses: paperweight, doorstop, weapon, mock coffin at a Barbie funeral.) The results: Although the detailed-memory exercise didn’t affect results on the other creativity tests, it produced “significantly” higher scores on the Alternative Uses Task.

What writers might be able to draw from this: if you’re looking for creative ideas, try to recreate, in as much detail as possible, an event from your recent past. Researchers don’t know why, but precise, episodic recollection seems to set the stage for detailed imaginative leaps.

I’m not saying my revisions are going well because I tried to figure out my tax-deductible receipts by reliving the conference. On the other hand, it probably didn’t hurt, either. Tomorrow: I’ll go over the checkbook. Maybe I’ll get a new idea for a series!

And speaking of recalling expenses at the conference: I have no memory whatsoever of Friday lunch. Ladies, can you help? Was I with you? Where did we go, and what did we spend? It was right after we went to hear Jenny speak. Think of it as an exercise in creative thinking (rather than an exercise in futility). If I can’t remember, I’ll just have to get creative with that receipt. And my tax guy will really hate that.

7 thoughts on “Kay: Get Creative by Recalling Details

  1. That’s an interesting idea Kay. I’ll do my own unofficial experiment next time I sit down to write and see if I wind up with any “imaginative leaps.”

    As for lunch on Friday, afraid I can’t help you with that. I dashed off to Carve with Michille and I’m pretty sure you weren’t with us 🙂

    • I’ve always thought that remembering events in detail was good as a memory exercise. I just never thought it did much for creativity. But maybe it does.

      Carve sounded good. The next time I’m in NYC, I’ll have to try it.

  2. Must give this a try, Kay. Imagining scenes or stories in detail seems to get my imagination firing, but have to say I never tried reconstructing real life experiences.

    Friday lunch? I can help you with that. We went to Jenny’s workshop and talked to her afterwards, and then there wasn’t much time before I had to sign in for my volunteer stint on the pitch desk, so we went to Starbucks on the ground floor of the hotel. I think you had a delicious sandwich and a coffee 😉 .

  3. LOL, I’ve been out hosting Girl Scouts from America the last several days, and my mind is such a blank. I will have to sit down and try to journal it, and see if that kickstarts everything else. So damn lazy . . . .

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