Test Your Creativity: What Do These 3 Words Have in Common?

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Photo: Popescu Gelu Sorin/Getty Images

In his 1962 paper on the creative process, psychologist Sarnoff Mednick, a professor at the University of Michigan, argued that all methods of reaching a creative solution to a problem fall into one of three categories: There’s “serendipity,” in which all elements of the situation arrange themselves exactly right to provoke a lightbulb moment (today we’d describe this as insight); “similarity,” in which your brain makes its way through a chain of similar concepts (like running through a list of rhyming words to hit on the perfect one); and “the meditation of common elements,” or following a train of thought.

And all three of those categories, Mednick said, had one thing in common: “Any ability or tendency which serves to bring otherwise remote ideas into contiguity will facilitate a creative solution,” he wrote. In other words: Creativity depends on the ability to make associations that aren’t immediately obvious.

In the same paper, Mednick proposed a tool to test people’s ability to do just that: the Remote Associates Test, or RAT, a word puzzle that requires the solver to link three different words using a fourth. For example: What do words “top,” “multiplication,” and “dinner” have in common? “Table.” (As in, tabletop, multiplication table, dinner table.) What about “silly,” “theory,” and “ham”? Answer: “String” (like silly string, string theory, and hamstring).

Is your brain tickled yet?

While the best use for RAT is a subject of debate — some psychologists have argued that it actually measures something more nuanced than creativity, like linguistic ability or problem-solving strategy — it’s remained a popular tool within psychology research, as well as that rare unicorn within the field: a study that’s actually pretty fun for the participants. As neuroscientist Daniel Bor, author of The Ravenous Brain, has explained to Time, solving puzzles comes with its own distinct sense of satisfaction. “We get streams of pleasure when we find something that can really help us understand some deep pattern,” he said. “Sudoku isn’t the most [fun activity], but it sure feels good when you put in that last number,” he said. Below, a chance to feel good, whatever it is that’s actually being tested.

What word connects these groups of three?

crab, sauce, tree

stone, ice, head

head, book, tree

tissue, top, shoe

rock, nail, time

grab, shoulder, paper

carrier, box, chain

wrist, dog, man

walk, wedding, pan

fiber, wine, ceiling

shake, made, second

surf, school, room

feed, silver, table

hair, fire, stroke

cup, party, green

Think you can do better? Or just want to keep going? Head here for a trove of RAT puzzles and solve your heart out.