Incubation is a term that describes a period of time used to indirectly dwell on a problem you are trying to find a solution for. The benefits of incubation – or allowing your brain to percolate on a challenge or problem – is to take advantage of our unconscious mind, which is a powerful problem-solver.
A recent study has found incubation can help you to get ‘unstuck’ when attempting to solve a problem. Ever heard of writer’s block? Well, a period of incubation, even a measly two minutes, can help shift the block.
So what is happening in our brain when we experience a sense of ‘stuckness’? This is the result of highly activated neural mechanisms or pathways (or trains of thought) that lead us to dead ends.
It is this strong activation that stops us from exploring other possible pathways. Instead, we find ourselves reverting back to the same unhelpful conclusions time and time again.
In this recent research, participants had to solve remote association tests. This is when participants are presented with three words and they are tasked to find the common word that links them all. For example, for the problem: water; cube; skate, the solution is ice.
Researchers artificially created a ‘stuckness’ in participants. Participants were provided incorrect associations to throw them off the correct solution, such as water (fountain), cube (sugar), and skate (figure).
All participants were given 15 seconds per problem to find a solution and the stuckness worked; they couldn’t solve all of them. Next, half of the participants either attempted all questions again for 15 seconds per question, or spent two minutes incubating (which was a reading task) before attempting to solve the difficult questions a second time.
Those in the incubation condition solved 38% more problems the second time around compared to their non-incubation counterparts.
What happened was that this period of incubation reduced the activation of the incorrect neural pathway, allowing for the correct answer to present itself!
So, the next time you find yourself going down the same train of thought that leads you to a dead end, take two minutes out to refresh or reset your mind so you can get one step closer to your solution.