THE BLOG
03/21/2013 10:00 pm ET Updated May 22, 2013

The Creative Power of Memory

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Here's a provocative claim: Great creativity is based in great memory. If we enhance our ability to remember, we will become more creative. You probably think that memory is the exact opposite of creativity. After all, the things you memorize already exist, they're not new. And creativity is all about a new idea that didn't exist before... right?

Well, not exactly. Creative insights always come from combinations of existing mental material. New ideas don't just appear out of thin air; they build on existing ideas, concepts, and perceptions, that you've stored in your mind over the years. Researchers have discovered that major creative insights tend to happen only after you work many years in an area -- because it takes years to absorb the many small bits of mental material that will feed your creative process. If you don't remember all of this material, then it won't be available as raw material to your mind's insight generating combination machine.

Creative insights always come from combinations of existing mental material. New ideas don't just appear out of thin air; they build on existing ideas, concepts, and perceptions, that you've stored in your mind over the years. -- Dr. R. Keith Sawyer

The key take-away from Foer's talk is that you'll remember more if you think spatially, visually, and with your body. And guess what? It turns out that creativity is also enhanced when you act, physically, in the world. Lots of studies show that creativity is often driven by making an object or manipulating materials. Some people call this "thinkering" -- tinkering that leads to creative thinking. When artists and designers are given a creative challenge, the first thing they do is grab a pen and pencil, or a block of clay, and start shaping and drawing. It's because they know that creative ideas emerge from the work.

Foer described some research in London that examined the brains of memory champions. It turns out their brains are no different from ordinary people, except that they've mastered a technique: using spatial navigation. And creativity researchers now know that creative people's brains are no different from the rest of us; they've just learned a set of techniques and habits that consistently result in greater creativity. I collect the best of these techniques in my new book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. One of these techniques is the habit of looking: being aware and mindful of what is happening around you. A second technique is making: putting your ideas out in the world, creating through drawing and building. A third technique is asking: Identifying good questions and formulating problems in productive ways.

Foer closed his talk by saying "Great memories are learned... The techniques work because they make you work... there are no shortcuts. This is how stuff is made memorable. There are incredible memory capacities in all of us." And the good news from creativity research is almost exactly the same: Creativity can be learned. Researchers have identified a set of creativity techniques that anyone can learn. They work because they make you work, and they force a kind of mindfulness. There are no shortcuts to creativity; this is how people create.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email tedweekends@huffingtonpost.com to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.