Associative thinking at the core of creativity

Roger E. Beaty, Yoed N. Kenett

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)671-683
Number of pages13
JournalTrends in Cognitive Sciences
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2023


  • associative thinking
  • creativity
  • distributional semantic modeling
  • semantic memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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