Cottage, Swiss, Cake: How Do These Words Connect?

Enhance your creativity by using the process of the remote associates test

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Many people think of creativity as something you either have or don’t have. However, creativity can be developed through the use of games and puzzles. Professor Vishton describes one method, which is the Remote Associates Test.

Hands using post it notes on table
Creativity comes from the brain’s ability to work on solving a problem or puzzle by finding remote associations among the elements in a way that haven’t been thought of before. Photo By Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

Why Creativity Matters

Before explaining how the Remote Associates Test (RAT) works, it’s important to understand why you would want to engage in such a test in the first place. Creativity may be the most valuable thing that our brains produce.

Innovations in terms of solving problems and designing products have been a repeating hallmark of human history. The creativity of artists in visual, auditory, and even culinary domains provides some of the greatest pleasures that humanity has ever experienced.

Creativity also shows up in our individual daily lives—not just in terms of work, but in terms of things like maintaining relationships. If an interpersonal problem arises, finding a creative, novel solution can be the key to improving a relationship, or even saving it.

Given the importance of creativity, you would think that cognitive neuroscience would have studied it a lot more. However, only in the last few decades have researchers tried to study creativity from a cognitive neuroscience perspective

The reasons cognitive neuroscience has been late to the game have been largely pragmatic. You can’t just put someone into an fMRI scanner and instruct them to be creative, starting—now!

While the work was delayed as researchers developed techniques, creative solutions have been devised, and we’ve learned a tremendous amount about how the creative process works in general and how the brain implements it. One way to enhance our creativity is through completing puzzles.

For instance, if someone gives you a complex puzzle to solve, you’ll likely have to tap your creativity to come up with a solution. If thousands of people do the same puzzle, some will be creative enough to solve it, and some will not. 

Finding Remote Associations

One type of puzzle is a RAT, during which you are given three words. You must then come up with a fourth word closely associated with all three that could form common phrases of two words with each.

For example, if you were given the words “cottage,” “Swiss,” and “cake,” you would find a word that could form combinations with all three of them. Such combinations include “cottage cheese,” “Swiss cheese,” and “cheesecake.”

Here’s another example to give you a feel for this RAT. The next three words are “glass,” “gun,” and “put.”

This one’s a bit harder. The answer is “shot:” “Shot glass,” “shotgun,” and “shot put.”

One more: the three words are “mower,” “atomic,” and “foreign.” This one is also hard. The answer is “power,” which forms “power mower,” “atomic power,” and “foreign power.”

These are just word puzzles, but they activate many of the brain processes involved in developing creative solutions to problems in general. A big step in most creative processes is to think about how different pieces of information relate to one another. 

Synthesizing Information

For example, suppose you lived in the 1800s and wanted to figure out how to make an incandescent light bulb last longer. You’d have to figure out how electricity flows through the bulb and how that leads to both the production of light and the degradation of the filament material. 

You need to think about the properties of different materials and how they change when heated—in particular, how they oxidize. Eventually, like the Belgian inventor Jobard, you might have the insight that if you could take most of the oxygen out of the light bulb, the filament would oxidize less and last longer.

In this creative invention process, you’re using information from many different sources that are related, but only remotely so, and finding out how to draw new connections between them. That’s exactly what you do with the RAT. 

You search for connections between the words that are remote—thus the name “remote associates” test. This may not be the whole process of creativity, but it’s an essential part of it. If you can become better at finding remote associations, then you can boost your creativity.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.