Posts Tagged ‘Henri Poincaré’

What is Incubation?

October 17, 2010

Let me be more specific, the question is what is incubation in the context of creativity or unconscious thought. The French mathematician Henri Poincare developed a four stage model of the creative process based on his own introspections regarding how he made his mathematical discoveries. Here are the four stages:

  1. He put in a great deal of conscious work until he became stuck and put the problem aside.
  2. At this point his unconscious took over. His unconscious worked beneath the surface. This is incubation
  3. The solution emerged into consciousness.
  4. At this point he checked the solution and found that it was correct.

Some psychologists debunk this theory because they have been unable to replicate it in their laboratories. Unfortunately, the vast majority of psychological research is done with college students. Moreover, the duration of an experiment is typically only one or two hours—sometimes even less. This reminds me of when I was a graduate student. At that time there was debate about whether we could control our own autonomic nervous systems. For example, could we learn how to control our heart rate (apart from running to increase it)? Most psychologists argued that we could not control our autonomic nervous systems based on short term studies with college students. The fact that Hindu mystics, among others, had already demonstrated a phenomenal capacity to control their autonomic nervous systems and alter their heart rates was ignored. The same situation seems to be prevailing with respect to creativity. The four stage model introduced by Poincare has been confirmed with a variety of creative individuals.

I certainly am no genius, but I have experienced incubation, most often when I am trying to recall a name, event, or vocabulary word. After a prolonged period of failure in which I was unable to recall what I wanted, hours, sometimes days, later the answer pops to mind.

Today it is generally believed that the vast majority of mental activity occurs below the level of conscious awareness, so it is not surprising that these efforts continue after your conscious mind moves on to something else. The implication is that you can continue to exercise your mind after you consciously abandon the exercise. The important part is that you need to start thinking about something. Incubation does not occur without an initial conscious effort.

That is why the Healthymemory Blog encourages you to try to remember things that you think you know, but that you cannot quite recall. This initiates the use of memory circuits that have been inactive for long periods of time. Trying to remember these items reactivates them. This reactivation should continue after you have abandoned your conscious attempt to recall the information. If it has not popped into memory after several days, retry your conscious attempts. If there is still no recall after days, then take recourse to transactive memory and attempt to look up the information.

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