Creativity has long been thought to involve associative processes in memory: connecting concepts to form ideas, inventions, and artworks. However, associative thinking has been difficult to study due to limitations in modeling memory structure and retrieval processes. Recent advances in computational models of semantic memory allow researchers to examine how people navigate a semantic space of concepts when forming associations, revealing key search strategies associated with creativity. Here, we synthesize cognitive, computational, and neuroscience research on creativity and associative thinking. This Review highlights distinctions between free- and goal-directed association, illustrates the role of associative thinking in the arts, and links associative thinking to brain systems supporting both semantic and episodic memory – offering a new perspective on a longstanding creativity theory.
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- associative thinking
- distributional semantic modeling
- semantic memory