Memory is essential for creativity. Consider, for example, the classical four-stage model of creativity proposed by Wallas (1926), based on the ideas of Helmholtz (1896) in which creative achievement occurs through preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. Preparation, the stage in which adequate knowledge of the creative domain is acquired, necessarily involves extensive encoding of information and the ability to retain that information over time. Verification, the stage in which creative output is evaluated in terms of its accuracy or utility, must involve the retrieval of information and skills necessary for the appraisal. The incubation and illumination stages involve memory processes insofar as previously acquired information is recombined to generate and recognize a novel idea. Clearly, memory processes figure prominently at every stage of this model. How can memory be so flexible such that information acquired in one way can be manipulated and recapitulated in so many other ways? What clues are there to the neural mechanisms underlying these dynamic memory processes?
We attempt to address these questions in this chapter by conceptualizing creative cognition as a set of separable but interdependent cognitive processes that collectively generate creative output. We are particularly interested in processes that interact with information stored in memory to either facilitate or hinder the novel recombining of ideas that is characteristic of creative cognition. We first describe the associationist approach to creativity, one that is amenable to a variety of cognitive and neuroscientific analyses. This discussion will provide a precursor to our integration of discoveries on the nature of human memory retrieval with cognitive processes that have been defined in creative thinkers. More specifically, we consider one oft-cited attribute of creative individuals, reduced behavioral and cognitive inhibition (e.g., Eysenck, 1995; Martindale, 1999), and merge it with insights into inhibitory processes regulating retrieval from semantic memory stores. Lastly, we apply the results of functional neuroimaging studies on inhibitory process in memory retrieval to generate a possible neurobiological mechanism underlying this aspect of creative cognition. Thus, this chapter offers two central ideas: (1) a distinct mechanism by which inhibitory cognitive mechanisms may alter the expression of creativity and (2) an improved outline of the neurobiological systems upon which this mechanism operates.