Safety boxes or minestrone soup: Modern neuroscience sheds light on our amazing association abilities

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What is the secret behind our ability to associate and create brand new thought-patterns much more efficiently than the most powerful supercomputer? Modern neuroscience achievements about how our mind stores and manages memories shed new light on this mystery.

Computer memory is like safety boxes in a bank …

But let’s start by looking at how the computers work. Each piece of information in the memory of the traditional computer is made up of ones and zeros. These are stored in a pattern that remains constant over the stored time, unless it is overwritten or modified by the computer software.

Each sequence of ones and zeros is also reserved for a single piece of information and the stored information neither affects nor is affected by other information stored next to it. The information is stored in a specific location that is accessed through the computer’s address book and the information stored next to it may be completely unrelated.

It works a little bit like the safety boxes in a bank vault. Each box has its own owner and own key that can open the box (and only that box), no matter what is in the box next to it

This construction is safe and efficient, but also makes the computer basically stupid without the ability to make creative associations.

… while the brain is more like a minestrone soup

The memory of the human brain is built completely different. The memory information stored in the brain is not static but changes all the time. It is modified, rebuilt or disappear, making it less secure and stable, but on the other hand, it allows for new creative thoughts and ideas.

How is this possible? To understand this, we need to consider three different aspects of how our memories are organised.

Firstly, each individual memory-coding nerve cell can be activated by a range of qualities, so called micro-attributes, e.g. shades of the colour yellow. A certain nerve cell reacts strongly on a very specific wavelength of yellow, but also responds, but not as strongly to other similar yellow shades. The adjacent nerve cell also reacts to an interval of yellow but has a preference for slightly different shades.

The consequence is that each specific memory is encoded in many different nerve cells, but also that each nerve cell encodes many different but similar memories. When we pick up a memory, we activate an entire group of nerve cell, but the signal strength differs between the nerves from very strong to very weak.

The second aspect of memory function is that the memory groups are distributed over the brain cortex so that related or similar micro attributes are stored adjacent to each other and addressed according to their content.

When we store the memory of a windsurfing board, the different nerve groups encoding the triangular blue sail can be adjacent to the nerve groups encoding the flat white board, which is adjacent to the water-coding group of nerve cells.

Everything we remember is therefore associated with something else. When we next time store the memory of a swimming fish, these new nerve groups may end up close to the previous water group. We are of course not aware of these links between white, triangles, water and fish, or some of the hundreds of millions of other links between different micro-attributes, and in our conscious mind we could most likely not have made the connections.

The different nerve groups tend to overlap each other, which means that some of the nerve cells that have their preference for water can be slightly activated by the shape triangular (from the sail). This construction of our memory means that there are countless of different ways to pick up each of the different impressions stored in our memories.

The third important aspect is that the memory is constantly being rebuilt. Each time we pick up a memory, we will reshape it based on recent experiences, ongoing activities and our present mood, so that the memory will better fit our context. The memory is then re-stored in a partially different new version.

This window between recalling and consolidating a certain memory is sensitive, and conversations with others can greatly affect what we remember. If you saw a green ball, and someone asks you if the ball you saw was red, then the colour red will be added to memory and you may be led to believe that you actually saw a red ball.

These “new” memories can be experienced very intensively and we can have very clear and compelling memories of something that has never happened. If we really want to be sure to remember something correctly, we need to document it in an objective and unchangeable way, for example in writing, photos, movies, or audio recordings.

If the memory of the computer is similar to a number of locked bank safety boxes, then the memory of human brain is more like a boiling minestrone soup where the various pieces of meat, vegetables and pasta all the time swirl and bounce against each other in the boiling water. Nothing is constant and everything is connected in some way.

Connections between seemingly unrelated memories

The overall outcome of these three aspects of our memory function is that related information pieces can not only enhance each other but also interact with each other and with nearby reconstructed information in an extremely efficient and creative manner.

The new information that always occurs in the border between different micro-attributes is thus not random and nonsensical, but the links are relevant, although not immediately apparent.

When we then activate our memory groups in the search for the creative idea, each time we pick up a memory automatically “for free”, we also get a lot of concepts that are related, but in a whole new way and thus potential carriers for new insights.

This is the basis for our amazing association skills that allow our minds to suddenly change traces and let completely different thoughts bounce against each other, blend and transform into something new.

We think with our entire body

The ability to associate means that every time we are exposed to different stimuli, a whole chain-reaction is launched, not only through thoughts but also through bodily reactions. If we think of sex, the body reacts with sexual arousal, if we think of a rat, the hair is moving on the body and if we hear the word “vomit”, we feel a sense of discomfort in the stomach. Thus, we do not only think with our brain but with our entire body.

The ideas flow

Associating is not a completely spontaneous creative process, where the ideas of themselves come to the surface, but a more active search after associations in a semi-conscious way with elements both from the spontaneous and conscious way of idea generation.

People with a constant flow of new ideas or ability to play with words and spontaneously see new contexts have highly activated association areas in the brain, and in addition, they have the ability to get their impulses flowing up to their consciousness through down-tuned filters to the subconscious brain regions. But even for those who usually have more difficulties in putting on the taps, there are ways and techniques to tune down the filters to better access the associative parts of the brain.


“The human brain had a big memory storage. It made us curious and very creative. These qualities gave us an advantage – curiosity, creativity and memory. And that brain did something very special. It invented an idea called ‘the future’. “

– David Suzuki


Source: Gabora L, Ranjan A (2013). How insight emerges in a distributed, content-addressable memory. In: Vartanian, Bristol AS, Kaufman JC (Ed.) (2013). Neuroscience of creativity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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