In this current unexpected zeitgeist of ubiquitous news of quarantine and its related issues as we seek to contain the spread of the Coronavirus, I can’t help but think about how the concepts of separation and social distancing suggest aspects of the creative process. The idea of isolation–shutting off certain areas of your life and removing familiar structures — in my mind– parallels the concept of incubation in the stages of the creative process. Considering that creativity is a positive and useful commodity, we can appreciate this aspect of being at one with our thoughts while our physical bodies are socially distanced. When you take time off from “working thoughts”, your mind is freed up to allow your subconscious mind to “incubate” on problems or concerns. Think of incubation in terms of mind-wandering (for relatively short periods) and sleep (for much longer periods), both of which are easily accomplished during quarantine.
Incubation can be considered one of four proposed stages of the creative process, the four stages being preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. While you’re in quarantine and apart from your usual distractions, you have a great opportunity to allow incubation to occur naturally. If you have a problem or are just working on a new idea, consciously leaving the problem or idea for a time may lead you to a solution that “comes out of the blue” when thinking about something else.
We associate incubation with several other “I” words. Incubation is related to intuition and insight in that it is the unconscious part of a process whereby an intuition may become an insight. Incubation is also associated with Illumination—the flash or aha moment that appears after an association of various ideas. Another closely associated “I” word is Intuition: the power of the mind that immediately perceives the truth of things without reasoning or analysis. Intuition, insight, and intuition are all valuable aspects of creative thinking.
The value of setting a problem aside for facilitating solutions has been studied by theorists for at least the past 100 years. There is now considerable evidence substantiating the benefits of setting a problem aside after a period of work time. There have been several theories proposed to explain such benefits. Whether one achieves the benefits of incubation through relaxation, mentally shifting or disregarding information, or through distraction techniques, or whether conscious thought is followed by a period during which one refrains from focused conscious thought, incubation practices are useful activities to engage in during our self-imposed separations. And, since researchers have found that positive mood enhances creativity at work, incubation can help keep the creative ideas flowing and fuel that positive mood that keeps the productive cycle flowing. A positive attitude is definitely needed to get us through this social distancing period.
If you’re a parent and want to increase incubation at home, encourage your children to let their minds wander, to step away from a problem or obstacle for a day or more, let an idea germinate overnight, or simply reject the first solution or answer one has and wait for what other thoughts might emerge. If you’re a teacher –whether teaching online or in person—practice these same ideas with your students. Give a problem for which you don’t request an immediate answer. Don’t accept the first ideas that are offered—wait for later (and probably better) ones; and leave your students with a last minute idea that they are asked to think about overnight. Let’s incubate some great ideas while we incubate our lives and stay well!