I have an astonishingly bad memory. On the plus side, I'm more creative than most civilians. I think the two are connected. That's my hypothesis for today.

I'm good at remembering concepts, systems, ideas, and generally how things flow and fit together. But I don't have a trace of photographic memory in which one can remember exact conversations, phone numbers, names, and other matters of objective fact. I also can't remember directions to a new place until I've been there a hundred times. It's inconvenient as hell.

In school, I could force myself to remember topics for tests, but it only lasted as long as the test. At home, we have a lot of conversations about what I might have heard or said at some specified time in the past and it almost never sounds vaguely familiar. Sometimes it feels as if someone else lived my life until this very moment and now I'm taking over.

The way I perceive the act of creativity while it happens in me is as a process of forgetting, not a process of creating. The mind is not capable of having zero thoughts, so when you flush whatever is in your head at the moment it creates a sort of vacuum that sucks in a new thought. In my case, that process of forgetting and then sucking in a new thought happens continuously. My memory isn't "sticky," so what comes in slides right back out in a nanosecond. Sometimes a new thought is worth writing down, which I either do right away or lose it forever. Usually the new idea is random garbage and it passes quickly, making room for the next idea. My mind feels like a slot machine that I can't stop pulling. Sometimes the diamonds line up, but not often.

My question for readers is this: Do any of you have a combination of excellent memory for facts/dialog/numbers while also possessing commercial grade creativity? My hypothesis is that none of you will have that combination.
Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +63
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
Aug 28, 2012
I would have to say that I have a pretty good memory, perhaps not photographic, but close. If I find some fact interesting, or hear something that makes an impression on my one way or the other, I tend to remember it without trying to. Often times I'll remember random (and meaningless) parts of a conversation with someone that they won't even remember themselves. I also find that it only takes one or two trips to someplace new until I know the way by sight. There are other times when I'll be driving down a well traveled road and think something doesn't look right until I notice that a whole swath of trees has been cut down. About the only downside to my memory is that once I've learned something for a test, I have to review the material every so often in order to retain that information.

I would also say that I'm pretty creative, perhaps not commercial grade. I work as a software tester, which may not sound creative on the surface, but I have to analyze new applications and changes to existing application, and create an appropriate test coverage based on what is being implemented by development and what I perceive to be changes with high rates-of-failure. I also have had poems published. And I don't know if this would be considered creative, but I have a litany of useless talents including being able to make balloon animals.

So, I wouldn't say I'm the counter-example, but perhaps I have a perfect balance of the two.
Aug 24, 2012
I more like you. Less forgetting but probably less creativity, too.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 21, 2012
I have a great creativity. As for memory it depend on what, I can't remember date and number, for the number it can be a bit annoying when I'm doing math, unless it's important. I have a very good recall for conversation and I remember damn well general concept and how thing flow together. So small fact and unimportant thing no. Also I have a good orientation sense and I need only one or two time going somewhere to know how get there. All in all, my memory is pretty good too and I don't lose fabulous idea neither, without having to write it down.

I think creativity is less about forgetting stuff and waiting for luck to give us good insight and more about free thinking, not being limited in what you can imagine for all sorts of reason, and not sticking to the same idea for too long. Your assumption might seem correct as I think instead a good balance of people have bad memory and creativity but compensate for the bad memory by sticking to something for longer. They'll highly focus on a though and thus miss link and even unrelated thinking they might have if they had a better memory. These people end up remembering some sort of fact in a more liable way that creative people with bad memory. But in the end, the creative people don't have a worse or better memory, they just don't cope to remember and if they need, will prefer to write down important stuff. They allocate their brain resource differently.

But that could just be me, I read a lot, and quite fast, with a decent recall percentage. Unimportant detail got flush very fast and sometime I only need to remember something partially as my processing is able to recreate the whole information if need arise. I prefer remembering the roots facts that all the leafs facts. With the root, you can get the leafs back, but you can't get the roots with the leafs.

So maybe I don't have both a wonderful memory and superb creativity, but my long term memory is above average, as my creativity.
Aug 20, 2012
I think we need to distinguish between problem-solving creativity, and artistic creativity.

When solving complex problems, having good memory can betray you because it might trick you into you taking relevant clues off the table.

When being artistic, you want to draw on your memories of your interactions with the world in all its variety and recombine them. If you just dump these bits because they don't help you expand and consolidate your map, then you aren't going to have any material to build from.

I suck at being artistic. Like when artistic people look at old churches and see inspiration, I see lack of new information.
How about this theory: people with bad memory struggle with appreciating ancient buildings or art.
Aug 20, 2012
My oldest son does. Ok, I realize this a Mom, assessing her kid's "commercial grade creativity" - so take it for what it is worth.

However, even if you take my word on that point, I should also point out that no one would consider him a true counter-example for your theory. He does have a near-photographic memory -with astonishing recall of facts, figures, etc. He can quote long passages of text and then give insightful analysis.

He cannot, however, find his way home without GPS if he is more than four blocks away. (Two blocks, from one direction...).

He definitely tends to mentally flush out details others consider important. He technically qualifies as a counter-example, however - because you did not ask about recalling mundane details. You asked about fact and figures recall.
Aug 20, 2012
I'll support your hypothesis; I have an excellent memory... and am not at all creative. I find it hard to come up with new ideas.

I try to compensate for it with experimentation - and remembering snippets about what worked for other people, connecting the dots, etc. At work, it can occasionally look like creativity.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 20, 2012
Therion, I said "borders on," not "actually is." It was a simple way of describing something. All I meant was that most people I encounter cannot recite back a particular experience with anything even remotely approaching the level of specific detail that I can (and I can usually only do it short-term). I just picked a familiar term, as I didn't think "excellent memory" is adequate for something that I've been told is abnormal, multiple times by multiple people. If there's a better term for recalling a particularly high amount of extremely specific **spatial and/or sequential** details of an experience, that's what I'd use to describe my own memory ability.

I mostly consider it more of a stupid-human-trick with few real-world applications; it's kind of like how my dad used to be able to write two different sentences at the same time (one with each hand) as a kid, at least until the nuns smacked it out of him.
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 20, 2012
The worst part about attempting to be creative when you have a great memory...you know exactly what and from whom you are stealing.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 20, 2012
I know exactly what you mean....and have the same situation...although I don't call it a problem. I was involved in chemical/pharmaceutical research for 25 years. My normal approach to a new problem was to break it down into sub-problems. Then when looking at the sub-problems I would try to quickly evaluate....in general has something like that been done before or not. If I had a general feeling that something like it had been done before, I would quickly move on, thinking that the details could be looked up later, when and if an **implementation** phase was actually reached. After all there is no point in stuffing one's head full of details when the details will actually be different for each occurrence of the same general situation. Using this approach it was much easier to spend the majority of the time and effort trying to identify and work on the sub problem that had either never been solved before....or to see if there is sub-problem that was definitely going to be a show stopper. Often times what seems like a new problem is just a matter of assembling sub-problems, that have already been solved before, in a new combination. Isn't that what Newton did with the apple?

0 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 20, 2012
Wow, I have exactly that: terrible memory and great creativity. It forces me to reevaluate something in a new light every time I get back to it. However, my memory is degrading even more with age, and I think it is becoming more of a disadvantage now than an advantage, so I am guessing there is a sweet spot, and that sweet spot is where I was 4 or so years ago.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 19, 2012
I have a very good memory but frequently have trouble with recall. Like you I often have no recollection of a conversation or event but eventually someone finds the right trigger. Then wham, it all comes flooding back and I remember a lot of details such as who was there, where the were sitting/standing, what they ate etc. Maybe you have a really good memory but are really crappy at recall.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 19, 2012
WOW. I'm bookmarking this post so I can use as "evidence" that terrible memory has its upside.

That's a curious theory. I never considered myself particularly creative, but throughout my career as an engineer I've been singled out as the creative one in the team many times. I've also been commissioned to create slogans and names for startups and books, and had logos and drawings win awards (none of it as part of my professional experience).

My memory is so bad, that when a comment from someone triggers a memory of a vacation, for example, before I start describing it I run through a mental filter: was this a real vacation, or just one I "took" in a dream while sleeping? The easiest way to tell: if the memory is very vivid and full of details, it's definitely a dream. But both types of experiences are stored "side by side" in my brain, so there isn't really much to differentiate real from fake vacations. I wonder if other people deemed as creative by others have the same experience with dreams.
Aug 19, 2012
Everyone is creative in one way or another but we often judge creativity on how "new" an idea seems.
In literature there are only a few stories which occur time and time again so it is possible to begin reading a story or waching a film and knowing how its going to end - most authors, directors and playwrights realise this and as such are always on the lookout for new twists and gimmicks to make people think its an original story. Is this being creative or is it simply remembering what has gone before. My hypothesis is that in order to be creative you have to have a at least a decent memory in order to remember what has already been done - and if enough time has passed for it to seem like a new idea/story again.
Aug 18, 2012

Proving your hypothesis right or wrong as it is written would not mean much. Having an "excellent memory" would probably mean something like two standard deviations above the average, and "possessing commercial grade creativity" may be even rarer. If no one who comments on this post possesses both attributes, then that would only provide evidence that the two attributes are not strongly positively correlated.

I think it would be very interesting to ask professional mathematicians and scientists this question. I know that being a good mathematician or scientist requires creativity, and from my perspective as a science student they also seem to have good memories.
Aug 18, 2012
>Do any of you have a combination of excellent memory for facts/dialog/numbers while also possessing commercial grade creativity?

I work in an assembly-line type creative situation where I focus mainly on technical elements, and have what I think is an above-average memory for facts that I find interesting at least once - but it's been proven to manufacture false positives before.

>In school, I could force myself to remember topics for tests, but it only lasted as long as the test.

Not to return to an earlier posting's subject, but doesn't your admitted brilliance discount your earlier association of tests with brilliance?


Or does a temporary memorisation of facts for tests qualify as brilliance?

Or did I totally miss your point?

Aug 18, 2012
It's really hard to say for me. I have written prose and poetry, and painted. I would say that I am creative in my work as a mathematician and an administrator.

One former student told me that I didn't just 'think outside the box', I was so far away that I couldn't even see the box.

I can remember smells, voices and the way people move. I have a bad memory for names and directions.
Aug 18, 2012
As an electronics engineer, I can remember technical things with great ease but have a lousy memory for names/faces/people. I have no artistic talent at all and my attempts to learn to play the guitar ended after years of pounding away to the dizzy heights of mediocrity.
Aug 18, 2012
I know in my case I remember the things linked to my creativity. I bet you remember a lot about the individual strips, process, etc about Dilbert. I'm a writer who loves movies, so I remember details from movies I saw once twenty years ago. I'm a storyteller so I remember details from stories. I'm a musician so I remember melodies and lyrics from songs I haven't heard in twenty years. But I also don't remember directions, business details, faces, names.
My guess is you are right, with a twist: maybe a creative person is a person with poor memory who only only remembers a specific type of knowledge. His brain therefore compensates by over-remembering that area of knowledge which is why they are creative.
Aug 18, 2012
I don't agree with your hypothesis. I've always found it very easy to combine creativity and.....I'm sorry, what was your question?
Aug 18, 2012
I do think its possible have both though. You just need a different incentive to keep your memory sharp.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog