How To Incubate A Creative Idea

Psychologist Christian Jarrett explains how to “incubate” a creative idea—a process in which your unconscious makes novel links between concepts during a period when you’re not actively thinking about those concepts. The key, writes Jarrett on the blog 99U, is to switch to a different kind of mental activity:

A team of British psychologists led by Ken Gilhooly gave over a hundred volunteers one of two main challenges. One was verbal in nature and involved spending five minutes coming up with as many new uses as possible for a brick (akin to brainstorming session in the office). The other was a spatial task, equivalent to a design-based project at work, and this involved arranging five simple shapes into recognizable objects.

After the time was up, the participants switched tasks for a five minute incubation. Half stayed on the same kind of mental activity—if they’d been brainstorming the brick uses, now they solved anagrams (both are verbal tasks); if they’d been arranging shapes, now they completed a mental rotation exercise (both are spatial tasks). The other half of the participants switched mental activities—brainstormers now did mental rotation (switching from verbal to spatial); shape sorters now did anagrams (spatial to verbal).

Once the incubation period was over, the participants returned to their main challenge for an additional five minutes and the key test was whether they’d outperform a control group who’d just worked on either the brick task or the shape task for ten minutes straight through.

The take-home finding was that incubation breaks boosted creative performance, but only when the time was spent engaged in a different kind of mental activity. Participants who in the break switched from verbal to spatial, or from spatial to verbal, excelled when they returned to their main task—in terms of the number and quality of their solutions. The change in focus freed up their unconscious to spend the incubation period tackling the main challenge.

On the other hand, the participants who’d used the incubation period to perform the same kind of activity – verbal or spatial—were unable to capitalize on the break. Staying in the same mental domain appeared to tie up their unconscious, robbing its ability to work behind the scenes.

This study has clear implications for how to optimize your performance at work. The next occasion that you feel burnt out on a creative task and decide to take a time out, don’t simply switch to a similar kind of project. Aim to work in a completely different way. If you were writing, try switching to numbers or design; and vice versa. While you’re doing that, your unconscious will be free to work its magic.” (Read more here.)

I’m sure this is good advice. Almost all the tasks required by my work, however, are verbal in nature. I can switch from reading . . . to writing . . . to talking—does that count?

Maybe it’s time to doodle.

2 Responses to “How To Incubate A Creative Idea”

  1. As a writer you could refocus by trying to create a good visual model for some of your theories. Mental or visual models are always what really “grounds” an idea for me.

  2. This is why a cycle of varied activities works so well in elementary school, but students really miss the variety once they are in secondary.

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