Stop Thinking About It

How to incubate problems in your subconscious mind.

Published on September 7, 2011 by Michael Michalko in Creative Thinkering

Imagine a gardener who plants a turnip. After a while, the turnip isn’t developing as it should, and the gardener is unhappy. The gardener digs it up and examines the turnip to see if he can find any faults. He then cleans it, clips some hair and re-plants the turnip using a different process. In effect, by trying externally to control nature, he has interfered with it and produces a poor turnip, if it grows at all.

The gardener was focused on control and not outcome. When the turnip wasn’t developing as it should, he dug it up and tried another method. If the gardener had relaxed and let nature follow its way, he would have found that nature, with very little help, would do all of the work after he planted the seed, and the turnip would grow. All the farmer had to do after he planted the seed was to walk away and do something else.

The same sense for “control” is what freezes thinking and what prevents the “free” play of awareness and attention. In a way we are like the gardener who interferes with nature in an attempt to control it.


Illusory grey spots mysteriously appear at the points of intersection in the illustration of the  black and white grid. However, the spot does not occur at the specific intersection on which you concentrate your attention.  Sometimes ideas, like the gray spots, do not appear when you are concentrating your attention and mysteriously appear when you are not. Modern science recognizes this phenomenon of incubation and insight yet cannot account for why it occurs. This suggests how the creative act came to be associated with “divine inspiration” for the illumination appears to be involuntary.

Focusing your attention on the black dot for a period of time makes the shaded background fade and disappear. Imagine the dot is the subject you are thinking about and the background are the hazy ambiguous half-formed associations and connections and bits of unrelated thought that are flowing through your mind. Intense focus on your subject makes this treasure of information disappear. The more you concentrate, the more these useful connections and associations disappear.

Taking a break and forgetting about the problem allows this information to come back and grow stronger. There is an important Chinese term, “wuwei,” “not doing,” the meaning of which is not “doing nothing,” but “not forcing.” Things will open up of themselves, according to their nature. And they do.

Cognitive scientists have observed that people after a period of incubation are 39 percent more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas. Yet this enhancement of creative thinking exists completely beneath the radar screen. In other words, people are more creative after they forget about the problem for a period of time, but they don’t know it. It’s as if a period of incubation resets your mind. You’re taking a walk or taking a shower and realize “Wait a minute, there’s another way to do this.”


A well-known physicist once said that all the great discoveries in science were made when the scientist was not thinking about the problem. In the 1970s, Frank Wilczek of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., deduced how the nuclei of atoms stay together, one of those rare “knowing the mind of God” discoveries. His breakthrough occurred when he was reviewing a totally different problem in fact, a completely different force of nature. When suddenly he experienced a “mind pop,” and realized that a failed approach in one area would be successful in another.

Others in other fields report the same. Bertrand Russell was quoted in The Conquest of Happiness as having said: “I have found, for example, that if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic, the best plan is think about it with very great intensity—the greatest intensity with which I am capable—for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months, I return consciously to the topic and find the work has been done. Before I discovered this technique, I used to spend time worrying because I was making no progress; I arrived at the solution none the faster for this worry and the worrying time was wasted.”

Incubation usually involves setting a problem aside for a few hours, days, or weeks and moving on to other projects. This allows the subconscious to continue to work on the original challenge. The more interested you are in solving the challenge, the more likely your subconscious will generate ideas. The creative act owes little to logic or reason. In their accounts of the circumstances under which big ideas occurred to them, scientists have often mentioned that the inspiration had no relation to the work they happened to be doing. Sometimes it came while they were traveling, shaving or thinking about other matters. The creative process cannot be summoned at will or even cajoled by sacrificial offering. Indeed, it seems to occur most readily when the mind is relaxed and the imagination roaming freely.

We all know the impression of a heavy flash of lightning in the night. Within a second’s time we see a broad landscape, not only in its general outline but with every detail. Although we could never describe each single component of the picture, we feel that not even the smallest leaf of grass escapes our attention. We experience a view, immensely comprehensive and at the same time immensely detailed, that we could never have under normal daylight conditions. Our nerves and senses are strained by the suddenness of the event. Henri Poincare, the highly acclaimed French genius, spoke of incredible ideas and insights that came to him with suddenness and immediate certainty like a heavy flash of lightning in the night. So dramatic are the ideas that arrive that the precise moment in which the idea arrived can be remembered in unusual detail.

1 Comment

  1. Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is great blog. A great read. I’ll definitely be back.

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