Elements of creative thought: Investigating the cognitive and neural correlates of association and bi-association processes

Mathias Benedek, Julian Jurisch, Karl Koschutnig, Andreas Fink, Roger E. Beaty

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Creative thinking relies on the ability to make remote associations and fruitfully combine unrelated concepts. Hence, original associations and bi-associations (i.e., associations to one and two concepts, respectively) are considered elementary cognitive processes of creative cognition. In this work, we investigated the cognitive and brain mechanisms underlying these association processes with tasks that asked for original associations to either one or two adjective stimuli. Study 1 showed that the generation of more original associations and bi-associations was related to several indicators of creativity, corroborating the validity of these association performances as basic processes underlying creative cognition. Study 2 assessed brain activity during performance of these association tasks by means of fMRI. The generation of original versus common associations was related to higher activation in bilateral lingual gyri suggesting that cued search for remote representatives of given properties are supported by visually-mediated search strategies. Parametric analyses further showed that the generation of more original associations involved activation of the left inferior frontal cortex and the left ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which are consistently implicated in constrained retrieval and evaluation processes, and relevant for making distant semantic connections. Finally, the generation of original bi-associations involved higher activation in bilateral hippocampus and inferior parietal lobe, indicating that conceptual combination recruits episodic simulation processes. Together, these findings suggest that the generation of verbally cued, original associations relies not only on verbal semantic memory but involves mental imagery and episodic simulation, offering new insights in the nuanced interplay of memory systems in creative thought.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number116586
StatePublished - Apr 15 2020


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

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