Where do you have your best ideas?
I’m guessing that it’s not often at your desk, or on-demand when you want them. The reason we have our best ideas when we’re not thinking about the problem is down to a process called incubation. Our unconscious mind needs time to noodle away on the challenge and help us make connections. Alpha waves are the stars of the show when it comes to creativity. They are slower than the brainwaves typical of alert, focused mindsets; yet faster than the slow waves of deep sleep. Daydreaming and time out can provide this brain state to foster creative thinking. Meditation does this too.
When I wrote my book In Your Creative Element, a key element I explored is the Unconscious Mind (Um), working alongside neuroscientist Ben Martynogre.
“… I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it …’” Ernest Hemingway
Sigmund Freud used to compare the human mind to an iceberg. Conscious thought processes – reasons, feelings, awareness – are like the iceberg’s tip. Sunlight glitters impressively on this frozen peak, but the vast bulk of ice actually lies in the deep gloom beneath the waves. For Freud, this submerged and unknowable realm was the unconscious. Down there is where the crucial mental action plays out.
More than a century on, scientific study of the brain has exploded in power and precision. Some of Freud’s ideas have proved to be off-beam, but modern neuroscience fully supports his central analogy. Our self-conscious experience, which feels so dominant and powerful, is in fact often not at the heart of the brain’s grand scheme. Instead it finds itself on the fringes, frantically trying to understand and influence the super-computer-like machinations of the unconscious mind (Eagleman, 2011).
Unconscious mental work plays a huge role in powering the imagination.
This explains how William Blake could claim that he wrote his poem Milton “without premeditation, even against my will.” It’s why the French mathematician Henri Poincaré said one of his most famous ideas “…came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it”. It’s perhaps why Einstein claimed to “see” the solutions to many of his problems long before he was able to describe them.
Brain scientists have moved on from these anecdotes and are now capturing the unconscious mind in the act of creative thought.
One of the best-studied examples of the unconscious at work is the incubation effect, exploring how rest and creativity work in practice.
When you’ve tackled a creative problem head-on and progress slows, it often pays to back off.
In 2006 psychologists Dijksterhuis and Meurs asked study participants to list as many creative uses for a brick as possible. They gave one group three minutes to consciously think about the problem before writing. Another group spent three minutes with their conscious awareness absorbed by a simple computer game. After this brief unconscious incubation period, the latter group to came up with more original uses for the brick (Dijksterhuis, 2006).
How’s your mental digestion?
The improved performance caused by time out is not just a passive consequence of recouping energy and attention. A recent brain imaging study showed that the unconscious mind quietly worries away at problems (Cresswell, 2013). Study participants were set a challenge and then distracted by a memory test. During the incubation period, conscious deliberation was impossible, but brain scans revealed clear task-relevant mental processing going on in the background.
ITV’s Pope of Soap on incubation and creative thinking
Nicknamed ‘the Pope of Soap’, John Whiston is MD for Continuing Drama & Head of ITV in the North. His creative remit covers new ideas and storylines for serial dramas Coronation Street and Emmerdale. John deliberately works incubation into his creative process.
He told me: “if someone wants me to come up with something, say if they send me an email about what they are looking for, I won’t read it properly. I will just scan it and get the gist. And I won’t start thinking about it. I’ll just file away the idea behind the email and maybe a couple of phrases. That’s a combination of laziness (I’ve got other more pleasant, easier things to do) and of pride (I don’t yet have the good idea, the clever angle. I don’t want to go back with a boring, sensible, perfectly satisfactory answer. I could but that wouldn’t be me).
My conscious mind will know I have to reply to the email. And my inbox will nudge me whenever I’m on the computer. And at some random point, on a train or walking into a building, an idea will spring at me. Actually spring. From behind a bush or around a corner. The rest is easy. But whatever I do, I don’t re-read the original email. I fear too much detail about what is needed will confine any idea from me, even strangle it. Of course this sometimes means what I come up with is at a tangent to what I was meant to come up with.
An interesting tangent, though. You haven’t read the brief properly so this is a danger. But, in a way, you are responding to what you think the brief should have been from the few phrases you have read. The Essence Of Brief (a heady aroma) rather than the brief itself.
This sounds arrogant. It’s not. You’ve come to realise and accept that you just aren’t built to respond closely point by point to a detailed brief. That’s not better or worse than people who are. Just different. But possibly 4 out of 5 times you are kind of on target. Or at least not so embarrassingly off target that they realise that you didn’t even do them the honour of properly reading their email.”
Sleep on it (be more sloth)
Another excellent and direct way to channel the power of the unconscious is to fall asleep. Elias Howe perfected his sewing machine design during nocturnal reverie. Mendeleev’s arrangement of the original periodic table was reportedly imagined during sleep (this version popped into my head, whilst face-down and dozing during a massage following a Breaking Bad box-set binge) Popular culture is awash with stories of dream-inspired creativity. But once again, the brain science is right behind them. A 2009 study shows that REM sleep, the phase we dream in, is particularly conducive to creative problem solving (Cai 2009).
Every creative journey takes a winding path through of periods of conscious and unconscious mental effort. If the conscious mind can learn to recognise when it has reached its edge, it should surrender control to the arcane workings of the unconscious brain. By adding in stimulus, incubating the problem, wandering through daydreams and forming unexpected associations the unconscious will, with luck, dredge up pertinent insights.
So there you go, some of the evidence for rest and creativity, permission to nap, rest, and be more sloth!
Now Go Create run strategy, creativity and pitch training for agencies and in-house comms and brand teams online and in-person. Please contact me to chat about how we can help up the ante on your creative capabilities email@example.com