Associative Networks


If creativity is considered as a cognitive process then the mental operations involved in the scanning of stored memories, and their associative meanings, become an important starting point. Although there is certainly much more involved in generating creative output (motivation, environment, knowledge), this mental scanning is recognised as a significant factor; many creativity tests have been based on the ability to come up with alternative uses for objects, whilst many training techniques relate to the ability to make associations between words based on their associative physicality or concepts.

Research tests have confirmed that more creative individuals are likely to make a greater number of associations, and also to make further reaching or more remote connections that result in surprising or unexpected associations. This ability can be defined by Bower’s theory of associated network, which assumes that memory is organised as a semantic network; an object or an event is organised into a memory group consisting of all concepts, opinions and emotions which relate to that object or event. These memory groups are triggered by a node, a kind of beacon, which when activated initiates the retrieval of this stored information which radiates from the beacon like a ripple effect. Associations between two different objects or concepts can occur when the initial node triggers a smaller interim node, which is located within the initial memory group, this acts in a similar way and spreads its own associations which can then activate a chain of further nodes until a satisfactory goal is reached. In their paper exploring the relationship between creativity and associative memory, researchers Gruszka and Necka, found that subjects who were considered to have a higher level of creativity were more open to the possibility of associations and that these subjects spent longer time making their decision as to whether connections could be made. This led the researchers to conclude that these creative individuals were accessing larger reaching ripples of information and developing a longer, and more time consuming, chain of nodes than the less creative subjects.

model of associative network involved in the cognitive process of creativity.

The ability to make these conceptual associations seems particularly relevant to the fields of illustration or graphic design but as Bower’s theory of association also relates to emotion it could also be seen as significant to a wider field of artistic creativity such as fine art or poetry. Once the process is identified the obvious question to ask is whether a tool can be developed that can facilitate the development of the semantic network, to increase creative output. Exercises to develop associations are the basis of many concepts as outlined by De Bono, however he is often criticised for not providing a theory to justify his ideas or showing evidence for their benefit (one of my favourite literary criticism was penned by William Hartston writing on De Bono). However, Gruszka and Necka found that priming of the nodes resulted in a greater spread of activation and led to a greater acceptance of associations in a verbal test, which raises an interesting question of whether this process can be primed in a lab test based on another creative practice such as drawing, and one that would make a more grounded starting point of investigation.

Further reading:

Lab test.

Gruszka, A., & Necka, E. (2002). Priming and acceptance of Close and Remote Associations by Creative and Less Creative People. Creativity Research Journal. Vol 14, No 2, pp. 193-205.

Associative theory.

Mednick, S.A. (1962). The associative basis of the creative process. Psychological Review. 69, pp 220-232.

Creativity as a cognitive process.

Finke, R.A., Ward, T.B., & Smith, S.M. (1992). Creative Cognition: Theory, Research, and Applications. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


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