When you're wrestling with a tough decision or you're trying to solve a hard problem, you might assume you just need to think harder. But concentrating harder won't force a 'eureka moment' when you're experiencing a mental block.
Instead, your best option might be to step away from your project and busy yourself with another task. Clean the house, pay some bills, or take a nap and you just might experience a spark of genius as the solution seems to magically come to you.
The Incubation Period
For more than 100 years, scientists have studied the "incubation period." Studies have found that the best ideas often come to people when they aren't actively trying to develop a solution.
Instead, individuals often experience a spark of genius or eureka moment when they're busying themselves with a task unrelated to the issue they're trying to address.
What the Research Shows
In a 2010 study published in Psychological Science, researchers examined how an incubation period affects choices. In the first experiment, participants were asked to evaluate profiles of potential roommates given to them by the researchers.
One group was asked for their decision immediately following their evaluation. The other group was asked to complete an anagram before weighing in.
The participants who were asked to complete an unrelated task--and wait several minutes before making a decision--made better choices.
In a second experiment, participants were asked to evaluate potential job candidates. The results were the same. Those who had a brief incubation period before making the decision made wiser choices.
Other studies have yielded similar results--taking time to not think about a problem can lead to the best decisions.
Why It Works
Your unconscious mind is surprisingly astute--that's a fact researchers agree on. But, they agree on why an incubation period leads to a spark of genius.
Three main theories explain why an incubation period can lead to new insight:
- Eliciting new knowledge. When you stop thinking about something, your brain continues working on the problem in the background--which means it will come across relevant memories in your brain that you may have ignored when you were actively trying to think about the problem. Armed with that new information, your brain may be able to develop a better idea.
- Selective forgetting. An incubation period weakens the unhelpful solutions that are distracting you. Taking a break gives you a fresh perspective and you'll find a new approach.
- Problem restructuring. Stepping away from the problem (literally and figuratively) gives your brain an opportunity to reorganize the problem. When you see the problem differently, a solution will be more obvious.
How to Make the Incubation Period Work for You
Regardless of why it works, the question is how are you going to make it work for you?
Well, the next time you're struggling with a problem--whether you can't get past the first chapter in that book you're writing or you can't decide whether to accept that new job you were offered--take a break from thinking too hard.
Studies vary on how long your incubation period should be. But some of them say an incubation period as short as 10 minutes might be enough to help your brain gain a new perspective. But you might want to experiment to discover what works for you.
The next time you're tempted to talk through all your options with your partner for the fifth time, go do something else. A flash of inspiration may come to you while you're weeding the garden or cleaning the closets.
Or, when you're tempted to stay up late and work through a problem, you might be better sleeping on it. Your brain might solve the problem for you while you're fast asleep.