How To Understand the Creative Process - #2 Incubation

Two years ago, I entered a muffin baking competition.

I'd always been a bit of a fan of home-baking, and decided to see how my White Chocolate & Raspberry muffins could stand up against the competition. So for a couple of weeks, I perfected the recipe - testing different amounts and combinations, all in the goal of creating the ultimate muffin.

Each time I baked the muffins, something interesting would happen. Before I put them in the oven, the mixture looked like the result of an explosion at a concrete company. It was liquid, had a slimy texture and did not look appetizing at all.

But after 15 minutes in the oven, this mixture would transform into light muffins, that were good enough for sixth place in the regional muffin awards.

This illustrates the importance of the second stage of the Creative Process - Incubation.

The muffins needed heat and time to transform from a combination of different ingredients into one new product. Similarly, in nature, animals need time and warmth to transform from a simple zygote into a complex creature. If this time is rushed - then the animal will not be fully developed. Also, if you take the muffins out too early - they will be a gooey mess.

The same is true of the Creative Process.

Once you have begun the Preparation stage of identifying the problem and then immersing yourself in ideas around the problem - you must let the ideas Incubate. This is the mysterious nature of creativity, and shows how our subconscious minds continue to explore ideas and combinations whilst we sleep, play and work.

Kary Mullis was working for Cetus Corp as a chemist, exploring DNA chains and how parts of the chain could be identified, captured and replicated. He had been immersing himself in the problem for almost a year, when one night on a three hour drive to a cabin, Kary began explaining the problem again to his girlfriend. Suddenly, a new insight flashed into his mind - leading to the development of PCR, a Noble Peace Prize and infamy.

Similarly, Otto Loewi had been researching chemical transmission of nerve impulses, but could not prove the hypothesis. After years of immersion, one night he dreamt of an experiment that could prove his hypothesis. Excitedly, he awoke and scribbled it down - only to find in the morning he could not decipher his notes! Fortunately, he dreamt the same dream the next night, made his notes legible - and became the Father of Neuroscience.

From Archimedes in the bathtub, to Einstein observing the clock in Bern - each of these creative insights was preceded by a period of incubation, where the ideas were playfully moved in new combinations by the subconscious mind.

There are some creative techniques that can be used to spark the incubation process along and generate more combinations, which will be discussed in a later blog post. However, this post illuminates that though there is definite scientific techniques and methods that can enhance creativity - there is an aspect of the process that remains mysterious.

If you have been wrestling with an idea for a long time - consider relaxing, and letting the subconscious take over. If you have a tendency to give up on creative thinking - I'd encourage you to practice immersion and preparation for longer, to allow the incubation period more chance of firing.