Memory, Metacognition, & Creative Cognition Lab

Steve Smith & SmithLab

Where do ideas come from? Research in our laboratory examines the cognitive and neuroscientific mechanisms that bring memories and creative ideas to mind. Much of our current research concerns blocks that obstruct memory, creative thinking, and problem solving, a phenomenon known more generally as fixation. That is, we study how memories and ideas come to mind by focusing on what prevents them from coming to mind.

Lab Coordinator

Shivani Mansharamani

Research Assistants

Jillie Hermoso         Lauren Jackson             Wendy Jiang

Creative Cognition & Creative Cognitive Neuroscience

Currently, our lab is engaged in creative cognition research that examines the roles of various memory processes in causing and strengthening fixation, using laboratory manipulated materials to induce blocks in memory and creative problem solving. Our studies of automatic retrieval vs. deliberate recollection of fixating stimuli show separate effects of these memory processes on problem solving. A second memory mechanism of interest is context-dependent memory; problems are solved more poorly in the fixation context, and they are better resolved if they are retested in new contexts. A third mechanism of interest is suppression of unwanted pre-potent (dominant) responses, a process that may be essential in creative thinking; common or inappropriate ideas may crowd out more unusual ones. In addition to the cognitive mechanisms, we are beginning to study the neurocognitive mechanisms that underlie the causes of fixation, the ways that fixation can be overcome or avoided, and the consequences of resolving fixated problems.

Articles on these topics include:

Beda, Z., Smith, S. M., & Orr, J. (2020). Creativity on demand – Hacking into creative problem solving. NeuroImage, 116867.

Smith, S. M., and Beda, Z. (2020). Old problems in new contexts: The context dependent fixation hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Beda, Z., and Smith, S. M. (2018). Chasing red herrings: Memory of distractors causes fixation in creative problem solving. Memory & Cognition, 46(5), 671-684.

Smith, S. M., Gerkens, D. R., and Angello, G. (2017). Alternating incubation effects in the generation of category exemplars. Journal of Creative Behavior, doi: 10.1002/jocb.88

Angello, G., Storm, B. C., & Smith, S. M. (2015). Overcoming fixation with repeated memory suppression. Memory, 23(3), 381-389, doi: 10.1080/09658211.2014.889167.

Smith, S. M., & Ward, T. B. (2012). Cognition and the creation of ideas. Oxford handbook of thinking and reasoning, 456-474.

Memory & Metacognition

Current memory research in our lab deals with context-dependent memory, and with memory blocks. We have been interested in a number of topics, such as factors that make memory more contextualized vs. what makes memories context-independent. One line of research has examined effects of varying your learning contexts vs. keeping learning contexts constant. Our research has shown some interesting paradoxes; for example, we find that material seems more poorly learned when practice contexts are varied, yet retention is enhanced by varying one’s learning contexts. In addition, we have found that confidence in one’s learning is lower when practice contexts are varied, motivating learners to study more. Our memory research has also examined strong laboratory induced memory blocks, and recovery from them. Currently, we are examining the roles of automatic retrieval and deliberate recollection of retrieval competitors, and the roles of those processes in the formation of memory blocks.

Some of our articles on these topics include:

Smith, S. M., Handy, J. D., Hernandez, A., and Jacoby, L. L. (2018). Context specificity of automatic influences of memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. DOI: 10.1037/xlm0000523

Saenz G. D. & Smith, S. M. (2018). Testing judgments of learning in new contexts to reduce confidence. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

Smith, S. M., and Handy, J. D. (2016). The crutch of context-dependency: Effects of contextual support and constancy on acquisition and retention. Memory, 24 (8), 1134-1141, doi:10.1080/09658211.2015.1071852.

Smith, S. M., Handy, J. D., Angello, G., and Manzano, I. (2014). Effects of similarity on environmental context cueing. Memory, 22(5), 493-508, doi:10.1080/09658211.2013.800553

Smith, S. M., & Handy, J. D. (2014). Effects of varied and constant environmental contexts on acquisition and retention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 40(6), 1582-1593,

Handy, J. D., & Smith, S. M. (2012). Triggering memory recovery: Effects of direct and incidental cuing. Consciousness and Cognition, 21(4), 1711-1724, doi:

Smith, S. M., and Moynan, S. C. (2008). Forgetting and recovering the unforgettable. Psychological Science, 19 (5), pp 462-468.

Steve Smith's Academic Family Tree