Free association, divergent thinking, and creativity: Cognitive and neural perspectives

Tali R. Marron, Miriam Faust

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Try to imagine your “train of thought” when you are not focused on a specific task, when it just wanders freely. You might think about past events, future plans, perceptions of the outside world, inner hopes and fears, significant thoughts, and many others that seem small and irrelevant. One thought arises after another, without necessarily a clear logical connection between them. This is a type of internally focused thinking that one might experience while daydreaming, or when the mind wanders off a goal-related task (Gruberger, Simon, Levkovitz, Zangen, & Hendler, 2011; Smallwood & Schooler, 2006). A main characteristic of cognition in general and of the spontaneous “train of thought” in particular is that it is associative. Each idea that arises is connected in some way to (i.e., associated with) other ideas that are currently active in the mind of the thinker (Collins & Loftus, 1975; Marupaka, Iyer, & Minai, 2012; Mednick, 1962). Such associative processes have been linked to creative ideation in general, and specifically to divergent thinking, a critical component of creativity. In fact, associative abilities have been found to explain up to half of the interindividual variance in divergent thinking scores (Benedek, Könen, & Neubauer, 2012; Lee & Therriault, 2013). For example, conditions that facilitate associative thinking (e.g., probed mind-wandering, Baird et al., 2012; a period of unconscious thought referred to as an incubation, Dijksterhuis & Meurs, 2006) enhance performance on creativity tests. Moreover, associative thinking can lead to unusual combinations between ideas, which in some cases yield a creative idea or a creative solution to a problem (Schilling, 2005). Researchers have studied associative processes in individuals by using “free-association tasks” that entail nonconstricted verbalization of associative ideas. Past research has shown some connection between free-association tasks and creativity (e.g., Mednick, Mednick, & Jung, 1964; Riegel, Riegel, & Levine, 1966). In this chapter we review behavioral and neurological research providing insight into this connection. Specifically, we highlight the differences between three common types of free-association tasks (see below). Using behavioral and neurological findings, we conclude which aspects of creativity each free-association task is best suited to measure, and suggest that free-association tasks can serve as a valid, economic measure of some of the processes involved in creative thinking. We further suggest that protocols based on free association can enhance creative thinking.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Handbook of the Neuroscience of Creativity
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781316556238
ISBN (Print)9781107147614
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Rex E. Jung and Oshin Vartanian 2018.


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