The Key To Creative Insight Can Be Simpler Than You Think

It’s called incubation in the research world, and it can work wonders.

The Key To Creative Insight Can Be Simpler Than You Think
[Illustrations: Yeryomina Anastassiya via Shutterstock]

Sometimes a creative breakthrough comes when we’re not doing anything creative at all. Maybe we’re taking a walk, or standing in the shower, or awakening from a nap. The mathematician Henri Poincaré may be king of what we commonly call the “aha moment.” You don’t have to understand his sudden insights into non-Euclidian geometry to appreciate his belief that the best way to overcome a creative obstacle is to take a break from it.


“Often when one works at a hard question, nothing good is accomplished at the first attack,” Poincaré wrote in The Foundations of Science (via Brain Pickings). “Then one takes a rest, longer or shorter, and sits down anew to the work. During the first half-hour, as before, nothing is found, and then all of a sudden the decisive idea presents itself to the mind. It might be said that the conscious work has been more fruitful because it has been interrupted and the rest has given back to the mind its force and freshness.”

Creativity researchers have a name for this period of intentional interruption from a tough mental task: incubation. The concept isn’t new; as early as 1926, social psychologist Graham Wallas referred to incubation as a creative stage when a person is “not consciously thinking about the problem.” Some social scientists now place incubation smack in the center of the creative process, coming after exploring and focusing on a problem and just before producing an insight and following through on it.

Recently, a team of mechanical engineers looked at the role incubation can play for designers, in particular. For the study, led by Joanna Tsenn of Texas A&M University, the research team asked young engineers to design a machine capable of shelling peanuts. These test participants were given a set of design criteria as well as an example of a successful device–the Full Belly Sheller (below), which winnows shell from nuts using a hand crank, a conical roller, and a collection bin.

Via Design Studies

On their first day in the lab, the test participants considered the problem for 5 minutes then spent the next 45 minutes generating as many design solutions as possible. The participants left the lab without any instructions to think about the problem further. But two days later they returned, after an incubation period, and were asked to generate ideas about the same design problem for another 50-minute stretch.


Incubation was by no means a creative panacea. In the September issue of Design Studies, Tsenn and collaborators report that the quantity of these post-incubation ideas was not significantly greater than during the initial phase, and that the average quality of ideas generated during both sessions was also similar. In fact, participants generated more high-quality solutions during the first creative session, and often failed to revisit their best designs the second time around.

Where the incubation did seem to help was in alleviating creative fixation. On the second day in the lab, participants mentioned significantly fewer elements from the Full Belly Sheller than they did on the first day. The post-incubation ideas were rated as being more novel than those generated during the first session, and participants drew up a greater variety of concepts after incubation, too. Participants were “both exploring new areas of the solution space and expanding it,” the researchers conclude.

In other words, these design engineers didn’t necessarily think better after incubation, but they certainly did seem to think fresher–to borrow Poincaré’s own term. (Clearly, this post wasn’t written with a sufficient incubation period.) Over time, one can imagine this freshness leading to the types of creative breakthroughs necessary to conquer the original problem.

The evidence is decidedly mixed on just how incubation works (as well as how long it should last and what you should do during it). Some creativity scholars believe unconscious processes actively attack a problem during incubation. Others suspect the mere absence of conscious effort does the trick, perhaps by helping the mind forget any ill-conceived leads or assumptions and opening it up to new threads of thought.

For anyone on the verge of an insight, whether you’re cracking nuts or math equations, knowing the exact incubation process is less important than trusting that there is one.

About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014).