The human brain is an exceptional organ. Despite being a relatively small part of the human body, it’s responsible for controlling and coordinating actions and reactions, allowing us to think and feel, and enabling us to have memories and feelings. It is, in essence, the epicenter of our intelligence. However, the complexity of this remarkable organ is often underestimated. It turns out that our brains can accomplish much more than we realize, particularly when presented with multiple problems at once. The pioneering work of Graham Wallas on the stages of creativity provides insightful perspectives on this concept.
Graham Wallas, a social psychologist and a pioneer in creativity research, established a four-stage model of the creative process. His model comprises preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification stages. Interestingly, Wallas argued that our brain functions more effectively when faced with multiple problems concurrently. This revelation goes against the modern notion of the singularly-focused mind, offering an alternative, potentially more fruitful way of thinking about problem-solving.
According to Wallas, the incubation phase plays a vital role in the creative process. It’s a period of subconscious processing and reflection when we aren’t actively trying to resolve a problem. It’s during this phase that the brain often generates its most profound and innovative solutions, seemingly out of nowhere. The incubation phase sets the stage for “eureka” moments, when sudden insights or realizations occur.
Real life Cases
Let’s consider three historical case studies: the discovery of the benzene ring by August Kekulé, the invention of the sewing machine by Elias Howe, and the formulation of the theory of relativity by Albert Einstein.
August Kekulé, a German chemist, had been wrestling with the problem of the structure of the benzene molecule, which didn’t fit into any known patterns. Unlike chains of carbon atoms that characterized many organic compounds, benzene’s molecular structure was a mystery.
After years of contemplation and failed attempts, Kekulé fell into a daydream or reverie in which he saw atoms dance around and form strings, moving in a serpentine manner. Then, one of the molecular ‘snakes’ appeared to seize its own tail in its mouth, creating a closed circle.
When Kekulé awoke, he interpreted this dream as a hint to consider a cyclic structure for benzene. This was a radical departure from the linear or branched structures that characterized organic chemistry at the time. He hypothesized that the six carbon atoms of benzene form a ring, with each carbon atom also bound to a hydrogen atom.
This circular structure, or aromatic ring, explained the unique properties of benzene and its derivatives, perfectly fitting the molecular formulas and chemical behaviour that had been observed in the laboratory. This was a significant breakthrough in organic chemistry and established the foundation for the understanding of aromatic compounds. Kekulé’s dream of a snake biting its tail remains a classic example of how the incubation phase can lead to significant scientific breakthroughs.
Similarly, Elias Howe, while wrestling with the problem of designing an effective sewing mechanism, found his solution in a dream. In his dream he was captured by savages who took him to a king. The king commanded Howe to finish his sewing machine on pain of death. Try as he might, Howe could not figure out the missing piece to his invention.
In his dream, just as he was about to be executed for failing to complete the task, he noticed that the spears the savages held had holes near their pointed tips. On waking, Howe realized the dream had offered a solution to his problem.
Until that point, Howe had been attempting to thread the needle at the shank end, similar to the way hand sewing is done. Inspired by his dream, he decided to thread the needle at the pointed end, creating the eye-pointed needle. This key innovation allowed for the creation of the lock-stitch mechanism, the basis for all modern sewing machines. Howe’s dream is an excellent example of the incubation phase leading to a critical insight, ultimately leading to a transformative invention.
Albert Einstein, arguably one of the greatest physicists in history, demonstrated the power of the incubation phase when developing the theory of relativity. Einstein had been puzzling over the problem of why light always appears to travel at the same speed, regardless of the observer’s movement. This was contrary to the classical understanding of physics at the time. The breakthrough reportedly came from a thought experiment that he conjured: he imagined what it would be like to ride alongside a beam of light.
Einstein later described this mental exercise as the “happiest thought” of his life. This thought experiment led him to the realization that space and time are inextricably linked in a four-dimensional structure now known as spacetime, a foundational concept of his special theory of relativity.
While there’s no record of Einstein directly attributing his insights to a dream, his method of using thought experiments demonstrates a type of incubation period where conscious and subconscious thoughts interplay. His method of letting his mind wander, to visualize and conceptualize abstract ideas, bears resemblance to the subconscious thought processes we engage in during dreams.
The Multiplicity of Problems – A Catalyst for Creativity
The brain’s capacity to handle multiple issues at once is a testament to its flexibility and adaptability. It becomes increasingly active and creative, drawing on resources and mechanisms that might otherwise remain dormant in the face of a singular problem.
Wallas’ theory suggests that as we juggle various issues, our brain engages in an intellectual dance of sorts, switching between different problems, exploring various perspectives, and constructing unique solutions. Our mind, in this hyperactive state, benefits from the stimulus of variety and challenges, resulting in enhanced problem-solving abilities and innovative solutions.
It may sound counterintuitive, but there’s brilliance hidden within this chaos. When the brain juggles multiple problems, it is essentially cross-fertilizing ideas. A solution for one problem could spark a revelation for another. This cross-pollination of ideas can result in innovative solutions that may have otherwise remained elusive.
Moreover, multiple problems keep the mind active, engaged, and in a constant state of flux, never allowing it to settle into comfortable routines. This encourages mental agility, cognitive adaptability, and the ability to approach problems from fresh perspectives.
The Power of Incubation in Daily Life
While we often associate significant breakthroughs during the incubation phase with great scientists and inventors, it’s important to recognize that this powerful cognitive process isn’t reserved for the Einsteins and Howes of the world. Each one of us can tap into the power of the incubation period to overcome daily challenges and find creative solutions.
Think back to a time when you were struggling with a complex problem, only to find the solution popping into your head while you were taking a shower, going for a jog, or even drifting off to sleep. These experiences, often brushed off as mere coincidences, are in fact instances of the incubation phase at work.
The unconscious mind is an underutilized tool in our daily problem-solving arsenal. It processes information differently from our conscious mind. While the conscious mind is logical and analytical, the unconscious mind is intuitive and associative, drawing connections between diverse pieces of information in novel ways.
Practically speaking, what does this mean for you? It means giving yourself permission to step back from a problem instead of continuously wrestling with it. It means valuing relaxation and downtime, recognizing these moments as crucial parts of the problem-solving process. It means being open to the insights that come during these off-guard moments and embracing the possibility that they can contribute meaningfully to your problem-solving efforts.
Remember, your brain is always working, even when you’re at rest. By recognizing and harnessing the power of the incubation phase, you can turn moments of relaxation and even sleep into productive problem-solving periods. And who knows, you might just wake up one morning with the solution to your problem served up by your dream, waiting to be put into action.