On Creativity and Memory

Generating consistent creative output is the holy grail of today’s creator’s economy.

To be creative, you have to be able to combine something that exists into something new. Recombine, transform and convert existing ideas into a brand new thing.

Take the iPhone, for example. There are hardly any innovations on the iPhone. Steve Jobs’s genius was to combine existing technologies in a new and exciting way. The whole was more than the sum of the parts. 

Now, let’s do a little thought experiment. 

Let’s say you read 20 books per year (that’s a lot compared with the general average, but I guess it’s a good proxy for someone reading this blog). 

If you have been reading 20 books per year during the last 10, that’s 200 books. If I ask you about book #78, you would probably remember the author and the general idea about what that book was about, but most probably, you won’t remember the specifics of the concepts outlined in that book. 

All that time you spent reading and the information is now gone. It doesn’t seem like a good investment. 

If you want to compound knowledge, please read below.

At the time of reading, though, you might have been able to extract at least, let’s say, thirty exciting ideas that are long forgotten now. 

What if you could remember those 30 ideas for the 200 books you read in the last ten years? 

That would create a mind library of 6.000 ideas that you would have readily available in your head. 

You don’t need to re-read or go back to the book; they are fresh in your brain. 

This way, you would have 6.000 ideas that resonate with you. 

6.000 pieces of information that you could combine in thousands and thousands of ways. 

There are 17.997.000 possible combinations of 2 ideas that you can make having access to such a network. 

That’s right, 18 million ways of connecting new information. 

But is this even possible? 

You may be thinking that what I mentioned above is kind of cool, but seriously… that must be science fiction. 

Well, it turns out that memory techniques to remember large quantities of information have been around for thousands of years. 

We forgot them in recent decades, but they were essential to passing knowledge in ancient times. 

The art of improving memory has been with humans for thousands of years. 

Nowadays, with all our digital crutches, the art of improving memory only remains practiced in some obscure circles. 

In antiquity, humans had no phone, no laptop, and no Kindle; people used to remember much more. If you depended on oral traditions to pass knowledge generation over generation, you had to remember more. 

If you remembered more, then you would have more ideas and mental models from different fields in your head. 

And, as we argued, great ideas will form from the combination of concepts from different fields. 

The more they remembered, the more they created. 

So, is there a process we can adopt to be more creative? 

Creativity as a process

Having a process of absorbing knowledge in books and then generating ideas is the key to effortless output. 

A process of that type would have the following characteristics: 

  1. Have a way to incorporate ideas directly into your long-term memory so they are readily available when you need them. 
  2. Systematically record new ideas and connect them to an existing bank of thoughts registered in external support. 
  3. Generated output.

Having a system like this in place would provide the necessary raw materials to create. 

Creativity and memory are two sides of the same coin. 

To incorporate ideas directly into our long-term memory. We use an ancient technique called memory palaces. 

How to use the palaces of memory

I’ve always thought of memory palaces as some cheap mental trick that takes a lot of time to dominate and which value in daily life is at least questionable. 

Little did I know that this technique has been used by savants literally since ancient Greece and that, if used correctly, it can have a tremendous impact on the rate at which we compound knowledge. 

There’s an excellent account of this technique and how it is used nowadays in Josh Foer’s book, Moonwalking With Einstein. 

A memory palace translates abstract information to the language of sensory information and spatial imagination. 

The human mind is extremely good at remembering places. If I ask you about the house where you grew up, you can probably walk me through all the rooms in the house out of your memory, even if you haven’t lived there for decades. 

We are extremely good at remembering places and spatial information. 

Another thing we are good at is remembering are images with great sensory detail: strong smells, rare textures, curious sounds, and delicious flavors. 

If we combine these two skills, we give birth to the memory palace technique. 

The precise process you would follow to remember a book using a memory palace would be the following:

  1. Write down the 20 or so more essential ideas of the book. 
  2. Come up with a strong sensory image for each of these ideas; it has to be an image that you can easily relate to the concept in the book. 
  3. Now you will have 20 images that you can carefully place around the rooms of the house you grew up in. 
  4. Place the images around the house and create a mental journey where you visit each of the rooms. 

Now, the next step of the process is to record ideas in an external medium in a systematic way, connecting each concept to the other. We can do this by applying the Zettelkasten system to a note-taking app like Roam or Obsidian. 

Develop a Zettelkasten system on a note-taking app

The Zettelkasten system is a way of taking notes where you connect your notes to create a superior structure. 

I have written about the Zettelkasten system here and here. 

In this specific situation, it’s enough to say that we will be developing three types of notes: 

  • Fleeting notes: when an idea pops into our minds, we write it down to avoid losing it. 
  • Literature notes: when we understand a concept or idea from a book, we write it down with our own words to make sure we know it. 
  • Permanent Notes: once we polish the knowledge we acquire and develop a new idea, we write it down. 

So far, we have a method to incorporate ideas directly into our long-term memory and a process to write down ideas and integrate them into a more extensive network. 

Let’s understand now how memory works. 

The Baker baker paradox

To show how our memory works and why it’s crucial to connect concepts inside our heads, consider the Baker/ baker paradox. 

If I tell you that someone’s name is Baker and then ask you again in 30 days, you will probably forget the name because the only piece of information you associated with it is his particular face. 

If I tell you that someone’s profession is “baker,” you will remember this information when asked again 30 days later.

This is because we have more data points associated with baker the profession (memories, smells, flavors, images, etc.) than to Baker the name. 

The same happens with experts in a determined field. When they learn new information, they are more likely to remember it because they have many data points to connect. 

Now Create

Now you have to create something connecting the ideas you have in your head and the ideas you wrote in your note-taking system. 

You can directly create an outline thinking of your main goal for the piece, continue with talking points, and then write a conclusion. 

There are different ways to tackle the creation process. I like the concept shared by Julian Shapiro here and Ed Sheeran here about the creative faucet. 

Write until you get out all the dirt. Write until you open your creative faucet. 

Final Words 

In this article, I have shared my approach to building a reliable system to increase the rate at which you are compounding knowledge. 

Furthermore, with this system, you are going to be able to produce effortless output. 

 There’s a mathematical law used to describe the growth in network effects value called Reed’s Law. 

If we use that approach to apprehend the potential of using these techniques, we discover that the mind is limitless. 

If the value of this network of ideas compounds following Reed’s Law, then the potential value you can generate has no limits.