Switching, fast and slow: Deciphering the dynamics of memory search, its brain connectivity patterns, and its role in creativity

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Creative ideas emerge from searching, reorganizing, and combining ideas or concepts within memory. This involves an interplay between associative and controlled processes. How these processes occur during memory search varies between individuals and how they relate to creative abilities remain unclear. Here, we explored the neurocognitive correlates of semantic memory search by integrating concepts and methods from two distinct approaches: the clustering-switching characterization of responses typically explored in fluency tasks, and the principles of optimal foraging as proposed by the marginal value theorem. We used an associative fluency task involving polysemous words that enabled us to identify clusters and switches among responses with respect to the different meaning of the cue words. We additionally captured the reaction times of the retrieved words during the task, and explored individual patterns of memory search at the cognitive and brain level. Our results indicate that search in semantic memory follows a pattern consistent with optimal foraging. Furthermore, when measuring the time intervals between consecutive responses, we observed that switches during memory search occurred on average as predicted by the marginal value theorem. However, individual patterns of fast or slow clustering and switching related to creativity. Participants with more frequent slow-clustering during retrieval exhibited higher divergent thinking ability, whereas participants with more frequent fast-switching were better able to combine remote associates. Finally, patterns of slow clustering and fast switching were predicted by brain functional connectivity and mediated the brain connectivity-creativity relationship. Overall, we developed new measures of semantic search, identified neurocognitive correlates of semantic search patterns, and related them to creative abilities. Our findings uniquely highlight the significance of the type of search (clustering vs. switching), as well as its temporal modulation (slow vs. fast), in relation to individual differences in creativity.

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