In this episode, you're going to learn the secret behind both Einstein and Isaac Newton's greatest insights; how a world-champion martial artist and national chess champion structures their daily architecture; how to harness your unconscious mind for huge, creative insights; the science behind creativity; and much more.
Have you ever had that aha moment (the eureka moment, as they sometimes call it)? I'm sure you've heard the stories about famous eureka moments throughout history, whether it's Isaac Newton, one of the most prolific physicists of all time and many ways one of the founders of modern physics has a famous story about an apple falling from a tree and hitting him on the head and giving him some of the insights into gravity and physics and how it worked. Another classic story is that of Archimedes and his bathtub. That's actually the origin of the eureka moment. Another one is Einstein and his insight about relativity. But I'm sure you've had some of these moments in your own life, too. Have you ever had that situation happen, where you're dealing with something that you're kind of stuck? You know, you're grinding away. You can't overcome this challenge or you can't put this thing together, or you can't... Maybe it's even sometimes if you're playing a game and you get stuck against this boss and you can't beat them, and then you go have lunch, you go step away for an hour, and you come back and boom — you immediately do it. You fix it. You achieve it on your first try. I think we've all had that moment, and that's connected with the same kind of idea, the same theory of these aha moments, these eureka moments, and it's a concept that's rooted in science. It's something called creative incubation. Creative incubation is defined as a process of unconscious recombination of thought elements that were stimulated through conscious work at one point in time, resulting in novel ideas at some point later in time. Today, we're going to explore the science behind creative incubation and how we can use it in our daily lives.
Remember Josh Waitzkin? We've talked about him on a number of other episodes of the Science of Success. Josh is a multi-time national chess champion; the person who was featured in the documentary *Searching for Bobby Fischer*; a child chess prodigy who then went on to be a two-time world champion martial artist; and now is a performance coach for some of the most successful people on the planet.
Josh talks about an idea of building a daily architecture around maximizing your creative process, leveraging the concept of creative incubation. To paraphrase him, you want to create rhythms in your life that are based on feeding the unconscious mind, which is the wellspring of creativity, and then tapping it. And I want you to remember creativity shapes everybody's life. Even if you're not an artist; even if you're not a creative; even if you're an accountant; even if you're a CFO; even if you're an engineer; you don't think that creativity applies to you... It fundamentally applies to everything. Everybody has an art. Everybody has a craft. Business could be your art. Accounting could be your art. Engineering can be your art, can be your craft. It can be something that you're constantly refining, constantly applying. Creativity is such a broad and important topic, and it often gets kind of shoveled into a certain realm of sort of marketing creativity, art, all that kind of stuff. But the reality is every single businessperson, every single teacher, every single engineer, every single accountant... Whatever it might be, you can benefit from creativity. You can benefit from leveraging the process of creative incubation to make yourself smarter and to solve difficult challenges that you encounter along the way.
We're going to start by looking at the four phases of the creative process as it's defined by the Graham Wallas model in neuroscience. This was uncovered in the 1920s — a framework that neuroscience and psychology have since used to think about and understand the creative process. And there are four phases. There's preparation, incubation (which we're going to focus on today primarily), illumination, and verification. All four of these phases are relatively straightforward.
In the preparation phase, it's all about defining the problem; understanding the problem; gathering the information that you need, sometimes from unique and disparate sources; and feeding all the information into your mind so that your subconscious can then process it and put it together and recombine it in new and unique and different ways.
The next phase, incubation—which we're going to get into the weeds on here in a minute—is about taking a step back from the problem. It's about focusing on something else. It's about letting go of the conscious focus on the issue and then returning to it in a structured way later on to kind of tap that unconscious power, to harvest what your subconscious mind has processed, and then bring that to the forefront — and that's what illumination is about.
Illumination, the third phase, is where these ideas arise in the mind and, based on what the subconscious has processed, you start to see the challenge from a new perspective, from a new light. You start to gain a new insight.
And, lastly, verification is kind of fact checking. It's thinking, okay, does this new insight make sense? Does it apply? Testing it out and figuring out if you can actually use it to solve the challenge that you're dealing with.
Those are the fundamental components of how science defines the creative process, but incubation in itself is still not very well understood. Researchers know the effect exists, but they're not 100% certain what neural networks are involved, what parts of the brain are involved. They don't know exactly how or why the process functions, but they do know that is exists. And we're going to look at a couple different studies that kind of describe or examine the process and the effect of incubation, and sort of show that it's true and that it's real.
The first is a study from 2003 titled *Incubation in Problem Solving and Creativity*. This was a meta-analysis, a meta-review of a number of different studies, and I want to pause for a second and talk about this concept. If you've ever done much digging into the different kinds of studies, science, good science, bad science, how bias an affect the conclusions of research studies, et cetera... It's a deep rabbit hole and there's some interesting topics on it, which I'll include some articles in the show notes, that you can really kind of dig into that if you want to. And I'm going to include, also, all this research in the show notes as well, which you can access just by going to scienceofsuccess.co/show-notes or just scienceofsuccess.co and you can click the "Show Notes" button.
Anyway, meta-reviews or meta-analyses are, in many ways, sort of the king of studies. They're studies that look across many different other studies that have taken place and they kind of say, okay, if we have 30 different studies that have examined this topic, what are the shared conclusions? What are the things that we can kind of pull out of this and say, okay, maybe a couple of these studies had biases, maybe a couple of these studies had flawed methodologies, but we can pull out some real learning, some real information from this? So, the first one—the 2003 study—was a meta-review of 39 different studies around incubation, and what they concluded was that 29 of those 39 experiments found a significant incubation effect and that one of the major findings across all those studies was that preparation activites substantially increased the effect and the power of the incubation effect. So, that's something we're going to talk about once we talk about how to leverage and apply this concept to build a daily architecture, but just keep in mind that preparation is an essential component and that across 40 different studies, essentially, they found a very strong and significant effect from incubation.
The second study in 2009, titled *The Incubation Effect: Hashing a Solution*, was another meta-review of 117 independent studies across all kinds of different aspects of incubation and the incubation effect, and, again, they found a strong, positive correlation. They found strong evidence of the incubation effect existing across the majority of the studies that they looked at. So, this is something... This is not just a colloquial idea. It's not something that is sort of woowoo or made up. It's something that you can tap and harness and leverage the science to apply, to make yourself more effective in your daily life. And, again, both of those studies are meta-reviews. They're meta-studies, and that is often kind of considered the king of research studies because it draws from so many different areas and it helps sort of mitigate and filter out a lot of the biases. Think of it in the same way that you'd think of the power of diversification from a financial standpoint. Similarly, having a vast array of studies, you kind of cancel out some of the errors in many ways and you're able to really let the cream rise to the top.
The last study—and this factors, again, into the importance of how do we structure daily architecture around this—looked at the importance of sleep. This is a 2001 study titled *The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Their Dreams for Creative Problem Solving and How You Can, Too*. This was an interview study focused around artists, scientists, even Nobel Prize winners, and it looked at everything from math, music, business, all kinds of different elements. Again, this is an incredibly important point. Just because you don't think that creativity necessarily applies to what you're doing, it absolutely does in many different ways. Even in contexts that you wouldn't necessarily think about, you can leverage these creative tools to empower and improve your decision-making and your problem-solving abilities. And what they found was that sleep was a very important factor in the creative incubation process and that sleep was a vital tool to kind of fueling and empowering the subconscious in a way that enabled people to solve these challenges using creative incubation.
Now, let's look at structuring your daily architecture around these principles of creative incubation. The first important step is preparation and conscious focus on the question or the challenge that you're dealing with, and I can't understate this enough. There's a study titled *Creativity: The Unconscious Foundations of the Incubation Period* in the journal of *Frontiers of Human Neuroscience*, and this is one of their findings. "Although unconscious processes can be a powerful source to facilitate creativity, only engage in daydreaming or sleeping to produce groundbreaking discoveries or great artistic creations will not do the trick. A plethora of raw materials has to be available to be connected and one has to be able to focus on some options out of an array of options. In this sense, conscious processing is needed to establish a knowledge base, to know what problems to tackle, and to verify and implement new ideas."
What does that mean? It means you need to feed your brain. It means you need to constantly be picking up and use the conscious elements of your brain to focus on both the problem and the challenge that you have, but also potential solutions, potential alternatives, and even sometimes things that you wouldn't necessarily consider as possible alternatives because your subconscious is able to combine, recombine, use distinct and different elements to create something that you would consciously not be able to do, to connect things that you consciously wouldn't be able to connect to form a novel and unique solution.
The next step is to let go, right, is to focus on something else, and this is a critical component. You have to be able to release yourself from that challenge or from that focus, from that question. If you are trying to creatively incubate a problem and you sort of consciously turn your focus to it, and then 15 minutes later you're checking your email or you're thinking about it again or whatever, you're not going to gain the benefits of creative incubation. You have to let go. You have to focus on something completely different. You have to just let that problem melt away. And in the context of structuring a daily architecture, one of the ways to think about this is... We'll talk about this in a second when we get back to how Josh Waitzkin thinks about his daily architecture and how you can structure it, but you want to end your day with quality. You want to end your day with a focus on whatever problem or challenge is most relevant, is the biggest hurdle in your life right now, the biggest challenge that you're dealing with right now. You want to, at the end of your work day, consciously turn your attention to that question, to that challenge, and even to the extent of writing it down and saying, you know, "How am I going to deal with X?"
And then you have to let go. So, let's say at the end of your work day, you end it with quality, you end it with that focus, again, feeding the brain, preparing the conscious mind to give the information to the unconscious. And then you release the problem and you let go. You cease your focus on your work, you spend some time with your family, maybe you read, watch TV, play video games, whatever is your cup of tea, right. The next critical component in this daily architecture, after you've had that sort of unwind period, the period of letting go, is to sleep, and we talked about before the study, the importance of how critical sleep is. But sleeping really enables you to kind of fuel and supercharge that processing power.
The next step of this daily architecture is when you wake up, you want to return to the problem, but there's a key distinction. When you return to the problem, you want to do it in a way that's pre-input. You want to do it in a way that you're not getting up, laying in bed, checking your emails, suddenly you have seven different things bombarding your mind that you need to deal with. You need to get up and to really kind of harness this daily architecture. As soon as you wake up, before you check your email, before the world sends all of its demand to you, spend ten or 15 minutes just journaling or addressing or coming back to that problem or that challenge, and the critical component here is you have to do it in a state of mind where you're still proactive. You're not reacting to everything, and this is something that Josh Waitzkin is incredibly adamant about in the way he talks about leveraging creative incubation to structure your daily process, you have to have that space before the world interrupts you that you can really untap and really let the subconscious mind kind of flow into solving the problem. As he says, if you don't do this, quote, "Your creative process becomes dominated by external noise instead of internal music." End quote.
And to sum things up, here's how Josh Waitzkin himself describes this entire process. "What I work on is feeding the unconscious mind, which is the wellspring of creativity. Feeding it information and then tapping it. For example, ending the work day with high-quality focus on a certain area of complexity where you could use an insight, and then waking up first thing in the morning, pre-input, and applying your mind to it, journaling on it, not so much to do a big brainstorm but to tap what you've been working on overnight." End quote.
That's, in essence, how you can sort of structure a simple daily architecture around leveraging the creative incubation process. But there's actually another thing you can do in sort of a short mini-burst to capture the same effects of creative incubation in a different context, and that's if you're going to lunch, if you're going to the gym, if you're taking a break, if you're going for a walk, whatever it might be, you can do the same thing. You can post a question or a challenge to yourself and then go to lunch, and then go for a walk, whatever it might be. Come back an hour or two later and do the same sort of mini-journaling and tackle the question again. Often, these short sort of mini-bursts will enable you to, throughout the day, multiple times tap your subconscious processing power and really leverage the power of creative incubation to be able to solve challenges and problems that you're facing.
So, while the biggest use of this—and again, we talked about how important sleep is as part of this process—the biggest and best use of this is to structure your daily architecture in a way that you're ending the day with a quality question of focus using the conscious mind to feed the information to the subconscious mind, letting go of the problem, sleeping, then waking up and returning to it before the world has had a chance to hit you with all kinds of inputs. That's the overarching way to leverage creative incubation for your biggest challenges, but you can also do it on a smaller scale with smaller issues or challenges by using these sort of mini-bursts or mini-breaks with things like lunch, gym visits, going for a walk, et cetera.
There's two or three other considerations to think about when you're structuring your daily architecture like this. One of them is that flow states, especially our play states, with something that's really engaging and engrossing, where you're totally focused on it. Enable you to kind of break from the conscious focus on that problem. So, even something like taking a break for 45 minutes to play video games, often you can return back to the problem you were dealing with and, because you've been so engrossed in that, your conscious attention is completely focused on it. Your subconscious will be able to process all that information using creative incubation. You can return and have a new insight into whatever you're dealing with.
Another thing that can sort of supercharge, or be a powerful factor in improving the quality of your creative incubation, is to use meditation as a tool and to build that into the daily architecture, end the day with quality, let go, go to sleep, wake up, meditate, and then go to journaling on that process. Meditation is a force multiplier when you factor it into the process of creative incubation. We talked about meditation. We have a recent episode about it that's awesome, and if you haven't listened to it, I highly recommend checking it out. It gives you a very simple way to get started a framework, and talks a lot about the science behind why meditation is such a powerful tool. But meditation can be something that can exponentially increase the power and the ability of your daily architecture structured around the power of creative incubation.
That pretty much sums up the topic of creative incubation and creativity. This daily architecture, or even just using mini-bursts, is something that you can apply in your daily life that can help you become much more effective and help you solve some of the biggest problems and challenges that you're dealing with. I really think you should give it a shot. Try it for a day or two. Try it with a specific problem or challenge. See if it works for you and let me know on Twitter or in the comments or send me an email, whatever you want to do. I'm really curious to see how creative incubation works for you.