Humans' ability to create and think of new ideas is critical to many domains including imagining the future, inventing new products, and generating new hypotheses in science. I study idea generation and problem solving through the lens of creative cognition, which argues that our cognitive system is inherently creative (Smith, Ward, & Finke, 1995). Indeed, I have argued that our cognitive (specifically memory) system is built in such a way that it allows for people to flexibly generate new ideas at the expense of occasionally producing errors such as memory failure and distortion (Ditta & Storm, under review). This idea provides the groundwork for my research, which focuses on the relationship between memory, forgetting, and creative problem solving/idea generation.
Current Line of Inquiry
Memory, Fixation, & Generating New Ideas I seek to understand the complex interplay between memory and idea generation; more specifically, how it is that retrieving--compared to merely restudying--previously generated ideas may help or hinder the generation of additional ideas. Further, I am interested in understanding the phenomenon known as fixation, or the experience of becoming stuck on unhelpful information that prevents new ideas from coming to mind (Smith, 2003). Currently, fixation effects are well-documented, but are typically found when unhelpful information is purposefully provided to someone with the intention of causing fixation (e.g., Smith, Ward, & Schumacher, 1993). However, little is known about whether people are able to fixate themselves through their own idea generation; indeed, some researchers even argue that it might not be possible for people to fixate themselves (e.g., Kornell & Metcalfe, 2017). My dissertation work is aimed at resolving this debate while simultaneously examining the potential role of retrieval in causing fixation. I am especially interested in using this work to help inform people about good practices in brainstorming, to maximize useful idea output and help solve problems.
Incubation Effects Many people are familiar with the experience of struggling to solve a difficult problem, only to find that the solution came easily to them after taking a break! This finding--that people are more likely to solve a problem after taking a break in between problem-solving attempts, compared to working continuously on the problem--is known as the incubation effect. I am interested in several questions regarding how and why incubation effects occur.
Taking Breaks: When people take a break, what type of task should they engage in? Should they try something similar to the problem they just attempted? Or should they try something completely unrelated? Should the task be highly demanding, or relaxing?
Reaching Impasse: When solving a problem, is it enough for someone to be briefly exposed to the problem before taking a break? Or should people seek to exhaust all potential solutions and reach impasse before getting away from the problem? Critically, does the effect of reaching impasse depend on whether someone becomes fixated on unhelpful information during their problem-solving attempt?
Forgetting the Past to Imagine the Future Imagining the future is an inherently creative activity, since it requires us to imagine something that has not yet occurred (an ability referred to as "episodic future thinking"). Much research has found that episodic future thinking relies upon mechanisms similar to those involved when recalling memories of the past (e.g., Addis & Schacter, 2008). Drawing upon these findings and principles of retrieval-induced forgetting (RIF; the finding that the retrieval of some information in memory causes the forgetting of other, related information; e.g., Anderson, Bjork, & Bjork, 1994), we tested the idea that imagining the future can cause the forgetting of past autobiographical memories. We found that people do forget the past as a consequence of thinking about the future, which suggests that imagining the future acts as a modifier of memory that makes past memories less recallable than they would have been otherwise (Ditta & Storm, 2016).
Forgetting Initial Ideas Prior work on idea generation found that people forget previously-studied ideas as a consequence of thinking of new ideas (Storm & Patel, 2014). My early work in graduate school followed up on this "thinking-induced forgetting" effect by examining 1) whether people forget their own ideas as a consequence of thinking of new ideas, and if so, 2) whether they are able to protect the ideas that they deem "important" or "useful" from such forgetting. We found that people do forget their own ideas as a consequence of thinking of new ideas, though we did find some evidence to suggest that people may be able to protect a small number of ideas when prompted to do so (Ditta & Storm, 2017). Such work provides insight into the cognitive mechanisms underlying idea generation, suggesting that thinking of new ideas acts as a memory modifier of old ideas.