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Incubation: A Neglected Aspect of the Composing Process?

Posted: 2004-06-19

Steve Krashen does us a great service by pulling together illuminating observations on procrastination and incubation in writing. Reading how creative people work makes our test prep curriculum all the more disastrous.

Remember when you were staring at the ceiling in elementary school, and the teacher asked you whether the answer was on the ceiling? Maybe it was.

"Composition is not enhanced by grim determination." (Frank Smith, Writing and the Writer).

In a discussion of possible therapies to remediate writing apprehension, Daly (1985) includes these suggestions:

"One potentially appropriate therapy for procrastination lies in teaching something akin to time management.The writer learns to go to a specific location each day at a certain time and do nothing but write: No distractions are permitted ... What may be appropriate for (blocked writers) is ?forced? writing, where something must be put down on paper whether it is meaningful or not (e.g. writing whatever comes to mind, free-flowing brainstorming)." (p. 71).

In other words, procrastinators need to have a set time when they do nothing but write, and blocked writers need to do forced writing.

There is a problem with these recommendations. It denies what I think is one of the most important parts of the composing process: incubation, a term introduced by Wallas (1926) for the process by which the mind goes about solving a problem, subconsciously and automatically. Elbow (1972, 1981) refers to incubation as "cooking."

Incubation seems to happen best when we take a break from creative work. During this time, we need to do something completely different, something that does not involve conscious and deliberate problem-solving. Wallas suggests that "in the case of the more difficult forms of creative thought ... it is desirable that not only that there should be an interval free from conscious thought on the particular problem concerned, but also that that interval should be so spent that nothing should interfere with the free working of the unconscious or partially unconscious processes of the mind. In those cases, the stage of incubation should include a large amount of actual mental relaxation" (p. 95).

Examples of incubation

Wallas (1926) reports that he first heard of the idea of incubation from the physicist Helmholz. In a speech delivered in 1891, Helmholz described how new thoughts came to him: After previous investigation, "in all directions," .. " happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration ... they have never come to me when my mind was fatigued, or when I was at my working table ... They came particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day" (p. 91).

Einstein clearly knew about incubation: According to Clark (1971), Einstein would "allow the subconscious to solve particularly tricky problems. 'Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work,' his eldest son said, 'he would take refuge in music, and that would resolve all his difficulties.'" (p. 106). Clark notes that for Einstein, "with relaxation, there would often come the solution" (p. 106).

Csikszentmihalyi and Sawyer (1995) interviewed nine "creative" individuals, all of whom had made creative contributions in their field, were 60 or older, and were still actively involved in creative work. All mentioned that insights occurred during idle time, and several mentioned that they occurred while they were doing something else, during a "repetitive, physical activity" such as gardening, shaving, taking a walk, or taking a bath (p. 348).

Mind on, mind off

This is not to say, of course, that hard work is unnecessary. Quite the opposite is true. Many studies confirm that high achievers put in a tremendous amount of work, far more than less accomplished colleagues. They engage in the "preliminary period of conscious work which also precedes all fruitful unconscious labor" (Poincare, 1924). This preliminary work is labeled "preparation" by Wallas, and as "wrestling with ideas" by Elbow (1972, p. 129). Wallas notes that the educated person "can 'put his mind on' to a chosen subjects, and 'turn his mind off' ...." (p. 92). The educated person knows how, in other words, to prepare and then incubate.

Of course, the "illumination" that is the result of incubation needs to be followed by more conscious work. Ideas that arise as a result of incubation need to be evaluated (Smith, 1994); our new insight may not be right.

Long and short incubation periods

Incubation sometimes requires a very long break: Feynman noted that "You have to do six months of very hard work first and get all the components bumping around in your head, and then you have to be idle for a couple of weeks, and then - ping - it suddenly falls into place ..." (Csikszentmihalyi and Sawyer, 1995, p. 350).

Incubation can also occur with breaks of shorter duration. Piaget told Gruber (1995) that after he worked for a few hours, "he would go for a walk, not think about very much, and when he went back to his desk his ideas would be clearer ..." (p. 526). And it can also happen in very short breaks, a few minutes or even moments. In my experience, extremely short breaks are all that is necessary to solve many problems and loosen many blocks. In agreement with Wallas, I have found that these breaks work best when they are devoted to something fairly mindless: washing just a few dishes, filing just a few papers, or doing some light exercise.

published in ESL Journal 4(2): 10-11.


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