It happens to the best of us. You spend hours trying to solve a problem and eventually you get so frustrated you give up and call it a day. Only, you don’t. You go for a short walk and then BAM. It hits you.
You run back to your office and you can’t believe how simple the solution was. Within five minutes you’ve solved the problem. What just happened? The incubation effect.
When you start working on a problem your brain subconsciously creates mental models of it. These models are inaccurate to begin with, but as you spend more time finding what does and doesn’t work you gradually begin to build a more accurate model of reality.
You may realize some of these changes immediately, but often you’ll need time away from the problem to process them. This is where the incubation effect comes into play.
When you step away from a problem by taking a shower or going for a walk your brain doesn’t shut off. You may no longer be actively trying to solve it, but your subconscious is continuing to refine your model of reality and find alternate solutions.
Of course, all this is bound to bring up another question. What’s the point of working hard if my subconscious is just going to solve all my problems anyway? To which I would say there’s two answers. Input, and intent.
Your subconscious can’t make a rabbit jump out of an empty hat. It can’t refine your model of reality if you don’t have one to begin with. Seriously, try it. I challenge you to subconsciously learn the Japanese alphabet without ever exposing yourself to it in the first place. Our brains are amazing, but they can’t make something out of nothing. You’ve got to give them something to work with.
There’s also the matter of intent. Imagine your old high school history class. You probably found it boring, and you likely even fell asleep in it from time to time. Now imagine taking a class in something you’re truly passionate about. Perhaps blogging, entrepreneurship, or yoga. You’re almost guaranteed to learn and retain more in the class you’re passionate about. Why? Intent.
If you’re not interested in what’s being taught you’re not going to put as much effort in and your subconscious isn’t going to bother processing it. If you’re not engaged with the subject matter on a conscious level why would your subconscious allocate additional mental energy to learning it? It just wouldn’t make sense.
By exerting a lot of conscious effort to learn things or understand problems your brain attaches importance to them so your subconscious will work harder as well. In addition remember that the incubation effect isn’t the end all be all of problem solving.
It definitely has its place for solving extremely complex or difficult problems, but it shouldn’t be used as a crutch. The majority of problems you have in everyday life can be solved more quickly through conscious effort.
Applying The Incubation Effect
Now that we’ve got the theory down we can apply the incubation effect in three simple steps.
1. Try Lots Of Solutions And Work Hard To Solve Your Problems. Trying lots of solutions will give your brain more alternate models of reality to work with. Working hard will typically allow you to solve your problems in itself, but if it doesn’t your subconscious will now identify the problem as important and be willing to spend additional energy processing it.
2. Step Away From The Problem, But Don’t Give Up On It. After you get stuck on a problem for too long you’ll begin to spin your wheels. You can try spending additional time on the problem, but most likely you’ll continue to get similar unsuccessful iterations.
This is the ideal time to step away from the problem and let your subconscious get to work. Ideally you’ll begin working on a relaxing activity that’s completely unrelated to your problem.
Going for a walk, taking a shower, or emptying the dishwasher are good options here. Ideally you’d pick something that’s active to get additional blood flowing to the brain, but meditating, or cleaning the house are almost as good.
Watching television isn’t a good option, however. We’re looking for something that’s relaxing, active, and requires few mental resources. Television isn’t active, but it’s not relaxing to your brain either. It requires constant processing in the form of passive intake.
The other important thing to remember is to commit yourself to returning to the task. The reason I publish a new blog post almost everyday is because it puts pressure on my brain. If I post crappy content it’ll waste your time and make me feel bad.
I’m no blogging superhero, but the regular practice and constant subconscious processing is quickly improving my ability to express my ideas and help contribute to the field of personal development.
There’s huge consequences to both others and my emotional well being if I write low quality posts, so by writing everyday my brain is constantly thinking about how I can make tomorrow’s post even better than today’s.
The power of everyday, or at least regularity is huge. If I only wrote one blog post a month I’d get little practice and my brain would have little incentive to improve my abilities as a writer. Therefore I highly recommend doing whatever you’re trying to work on everyday if possible, and if not at least regularly.
3. Return To The Problem
After you’ve taken a break and allowed the incubation effect to take effect it’s likely you’ll see a solution to your problem almost immediately after you begin working on it. If not, don’t fret.
You may not have reached the epiphany, but you’ve almost certainly made some internal progress on it. You’ll probably find the solution to the problem within a few hours of hard work. If you start to begin spinning your wheels again step away from the problem and give your brain another chance to go through the incubation process.
Most difficult problems can be solved through a couple cycles of the process, but particularly complex ones may require several. It took Thomas Edison several hundred nights of “sleeping on it” to come up with the light bulb.
If you’re attempting something particularly complex it may take many, many nights of sleeping on it, but if you stick to the process you’ll eventually come to a solution, and it’ll likely have been an obvious one that was in front of you the whole time 🙂
What are your experiences with the incubation effect?
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