On Sunday nights, I play in the horn section of a blues band. Each week, musicians come from all over town to play with us. So, over the course of the night, I get many opportunities to hear people play solos on a variety of instruments. And sometimes, I am just blown away by the quality and creativity of people's solos.
One thing that is clear is that the great musicians who play with us have spent a lot of time honing their talents. A fascinating paper by Carsten De Dreu, Bernard Nijstad, Matthijs Baas, Inge Wolsink, and Marieke Roskes in the May, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that people's working memory capacity may also play a role in the creativity on display.
Working memory capacity is the amount of information that people can hold in mind at once. All of us have a relatively limited amount of information we can think about at any one time, but there are differences between people in the size of working memory. This capacity can be measured with tests like the OSPAN, in which people solve math problems while trying to hold words in mind at the same time. The more words you can remember on this test, the larger your working memory capacity.
In one study, the researchers actually explored the creativity of improvisations played by cellists with no formal training in improvisation. At the start of the study, they measured everyone's working memory capacity. Then, participants were given the chance to perform three 3-minute improvisations based on a theme (such as Winter or Spring). Each improvisation had a different theme. The improvisations were recorded in a studio, and then professional musicians rated them for their originality and creativity. The creativity of the first improvisations people performed was about the same regardless of their working memory capacity. However, the people with high working memory capacity played better improvisations as they progressed through the study, while those with low working memory capacity played worse improvisations. So, by the end of the study, the people with higher working memory capacity were playing significantly more creative improvisations than those with low working memory capacity.
In another study, participants whose working memory capacity was measured were given a fairly unconstrained brainstorming task in which they were supposed to generate as many ideas as they could. These ideas were rated for their originality and their rarity. Of interest, the researchers explored flexibility and persistence as well. Flexibility was measured by the number of different categories that someone explored while brainstorming. A flexible person might generate one idea about pollution and then another about education, and then a third about transportation. Persistence was measured by how likely people were to stick with the same category and to produce lots of ideas from that category. A persistent person might generate several ideas about education.
People with high working memory capacity generated more original and novel ideas than those with low working memory capacity. People with high working memory capacity were also more persistent than those with low working memory capacity. That is, they generated lots of ideas within a category. Other statistical analyses suggest that this difference in persistence explains the difference in the originality of people's ideas.
What does all of this mean?
In order to be creative, it is important to get beyond familiar ideas. Chances are, when you start thinking about something, whether it is a musical solo or an idea to revolutionize our education system, the first few things you come up with will be variations on ideas you have encountered in the past. Only after you think through those more mundane ideas are you likely to start really generating something new.
It seems that when you have high working memory capacity, you are better able to pull out both the initial ideas that are not deeply original as well as other more novel ideas.
There is still much research to be done to investigate this further. For example, the studies I just described were both correlational. That is, the researchers measured people's working memory capacity and then related that to their performance on tasks of creativity. They did manipulate working memory in one study by having a group of people do a task called the Remote Associates Task (RAT) while trying to remember some numbers at the same time. The RAT is often used as a measure of creativity. It would be useful to see more results like this with a wider range of creativity tasks and ways of affecting people's working memory capacity before drawing stronger conclusions.