Incubation and Creative Problem-Solving

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

 Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

Although it often seems as though creative ideas come out of the blue, in most cases they are the result of a lengthy process.  Certainly, there are moments of inspiration as well as periods of creative productivity lasting hours, days or even weeks; but for the most part, the creative process is a slow but steady one.  It is punctuated by discovery, insight and revelation to be sure, but just as often it consists of time spent on the trial-and-error like generation and evaluation of ideas,  on reflection and contemplation and on what psychologists refer to as incubation.

Incubation refers to what is, in fact, commonly observed in creative problem-solving as a period of quiescence or down time; when the mind is not actively engaged in working on a particular problem, at least at the conscious level.  Incubation begins after you’ve worked intensely on a creative project and haven’t come up with anything that “works.”  You might be exhausted, you might have grown sick and tired of the whole thing and for whatever reason, decide to take a break; that break might be a day, a week – even a month or so.  Then all of a sudden, one day, out of the blue (or so it seems) comes the creative idea that solves the problem; that is, there appears a “spontaneous” manifestation of the problem’s solution in conscious thought. In everyday parlance this is referred to as the “Aha!” or the “Eureka!” moment.

Research on creativity tells us that the creative process works at both the conscious and unconscious level; that is, when we’ve been consciously engaged for a period of time, often the creative problem-solving continues on an unconscious level, during which time a solution is “incubating.”  The insight that often eventually arrives is the conscious manifestation of unconscious creative problem-solving and is triggered in mysterious ways. Be mindful, though, that incubation doesn’t always occur and when it does, it’s only after considerable conscious effort on your part has been made to come up with a solution to begin with.

Self-mentoring lesson learned: when you’ve been working on a creative solution to a problem after period of “going nowhere” with it, rather than persevering – our natural inclination in the face of an impasse – it may be wiser to “give it a rest” and see what novel solution might emerge from (deep) within…

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Figurative vs. Operative Knowledge

“Much knowledge does not teach wisdom.”

Heraclitus (c. 540 – 480 B.C.)

 Piaget (1968) coined the term figurative knowledge to refer to knowledge that can be gained without understanding and the term operative knowledge to refer to knowledge based on understanding.  Another way of putting this is that figurative is knowledge about the static world (e.g., Paris is the capital of France) and operative knowledge is knowledge about the how and why – that is, the dynamic properties of things in the world and the ways in which they can be understood, manipulated or acted upon. The distinction between figurative and operative knowledge is vitally important.

We certainly do not need, nor are we able, to understand everything we know.  Yet it is easy to assume that knowing and understanding somehow always go together.  In fact, we can know a lot without understanding much – or any – of it.  Knowledge, is necessary but not sufficient for understanding.  To illustrate how easy it is to learn without requiring any understanding at all, try the following two quizzes:

Quiz #1:  The Nonk

Alpha-woopies enter the dinglefog through the weezer and then pass through the chamber of doyobongos, the twinklebin and finally through the umpendoopster, the three major structures of the dinglefog.  Alpha-woopies then womp onto the rooter, which is made up of two types of alpha-woopie receptorsqwonks and ponksPonks are most sensitive to fevons, while qwonks are sensitive to weekeens and deekeens. The greatest concentration of ponks is in the splunch.  In the Nonk, qwonks and ponks turn alpha-woopie energy into impulses sent, via the fizzer, to the bozo organ where they are qaumilated first by the weezapop granulator and then by the yololator.

Please answer the following questions:

1. What are qwonks and ponks?
2. Where are ponks most highly concentrated?
3. In what order do alpha-woopies pass through the major structures of the dinglefog?
4. Where are impulses sent to the bozo organ quamilated?

Quiz #2:  Our Pal The Eye

Light rays enter the eye through the cornea and then pass through the aqueous humor, the iris and finally through the lens, the three major structures of the eye.  Light rays then project onto the retina which is made up of two types of photo receptors:  rods and conesCones are most sensitive to colors, while rods are sensitive to light and dark.  The greatest concentration of cones is in the foveaRods and cones turn light energy into nerve impulses sent, via the optic nerve, to the brain where they are processed first by the lateral geniculate nuclei and then by the occipital lobe

Please answer the following questions:

1. What are rods and cones?
2. Where are cones most highly concentrated?
3. In what order do light rays pass through the major structures of the eye?
4. Where are nerve impulses from the eye processed in the brain?

The answers:

Quiz #1

1. Qwonks and ponks are alpha-woopie receptors located in the rooter.
2. Ponks are most highly concentrated in the splunch.
3. Alpha-woopies enter the dinglefog through the weezer and then pass through the chamber of doyos, the twinklebin and finally through the umpendoopster.
4. Impulses sent to the bozo organ are quamilated first by the weezapop granulator and then by the yoyolator.

Quiz #2

1. Rods and cones are photo-receptors, located in the retina.
2. Cones are most highly concentrated in the fovea.
3. Light rays enter the eye through the cornea and then pass through the aqueous humor, the iris and finally through the lens.
4. Nerve impulses sent to the brain are processed first by the lateral geniculate nuclei and then by the occipital lobe.

It is likely that you think you understood something after completing Quiz #2 because “Our Pal, the Eye” pertains to something real and familiar; however, that sense of understanding is illusory: note that you can answer each of the questions on both “The Eye” and “The Nonk” correctly without understanding anything at all! Further, even though Quiz #1 is utter gibberish, it should look familiar, not only because it an exact copy of the Quiz #2 (with only key nouns and verbs changed), but because both typify the kind of exercises that are relied on all too frequently in education; namely, learning exercises that put too much emphasis on increasing (and easily “evaluating”) learner knowledge (i.e., figurative knowledge) and not enough on learner understanding (i.e., operative knowledge).

From a self-mentoring persepctive, consider the following:

  • We know far more than we understand
  • It is far easier to gain knowledge than understanding
  • Never confuse knowledge for understanding (often easier said than done…)
  • When learning on your own or teaching others, bear in mind the above, and carefully reflect on what needs simply to be known and what needs to be understood – remember, an ounce of understanding is often worth a pound of knowledge

Refrence: Piaget, J. (1968). Genetic Epistemology. Columbia University Press: New York.

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Change Has a Pattern and It Can Be Visualized

The smoothness of the trajectory curve belies the complexity of the change process.  The fact is, change often follows a pattern of taking two steps forward and one step back.  This is true whether we are talking about the learning process, project management or even relationships.  Some points to bear in mind:

  • In setbacks we often fall faster than we climb.
  • Falling back in our progress is discouraging – it can even be terrifying!
  • When coping with setbacks, be mindful that no matter what the depth of your fall, what matters more is the speed of your recovery from it.
  • Also, always keep in mind the long term picture (a.k.a. the big picture) – every time you have a setback, focus on how for you’ve come rather than how far you’ve fallen.
  • Remember, setbacks are temporary; it’s giving up that’s permanent.


Pattern of Change Picture1
Pattern of Change Big Picture

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Time is the Unsung Handmaiden of Change

There are many aspects of time that are helpful to be mindful of.  One aspect is the concept of trajectory which reminds us to never forget that even the smallest step, the slightest change, or even the most seemingly insignificant decision can have an impact that lasts a lifetime.

b+w cropped fin newnew trajectory

The principle of trajectory works when new opportunities and options materialize as a result of just a single action or event. These new opportunities and options – and the choices we make in response – then lead to even better options and choices presenting themselves.

So, over time, step by step, new options and new choices have the effect of gradually moving us along the path of a new trajectory and away from a trajectory that might have been.

Self-mentoring principle: Always strive to make the change that’s going to make the greatest difference.

Food for thought:

Can you think of one special moment in your life when the right person said the right thing, in the right way and at the right time – and in so doing, changed the course of your life – that is, its trajectory – for the better?

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On Self-Mentoring and Change

Whatever the form, change has several characteristics:

•  it is unavoidable (even if we don’t look for change, inevitably, change comes looking for us…)

•  it is easy to think of change as taking a dramatic, and sometimes even magical, form – and sometimes it does – but upon reflection, it is clear that change in our lives usually occurs gradually, in modest increments, punctuated by periods of moving forward and of setback

•  most change involves an element of both internal and external influences; for example, even change we initiate ourselves is often sparked by external or precipitating events we could not have predicted

•  change is risky; for example, when we try to change we risk failing to change, failing to cope effectively with change, or being disappointed with the results of change even if we succeed

•  change never occurs in social isolation: we change relative to others; we can change because of or despite the expectations of others; and we can also change with or without the support of others

•  change has a ripple effect: one change opens the door to another, and another, and another… so you never know where a change can lead you.

As I reflect on the many individuals and organizations who’ve been my clients over the years, I must say that from early on, I noticed certain key themes, concerns and solutions emerge time and time again when people and organizations experience transition. As a result, I have come to believe that developing the capacity for self-mentoring has several benefits:

1. Whether thrust upon us by circumstance, or actively sought out by us, our ability to cope with change or our ability to change ourselves, has lasting effects on the direction our personal and professional lives take, and on the fulfillment that both can bring – in fact sometimes surmounting change can transform ordinary people into extraordinary people!

2. In the end, the most transferable skill of all is the ability to effectively cope with change

3. We can develop many skills when dealing with change – skills that we don’t readily pick up at other times – and we can continue to learn from these experiences, but only if we make a conscious effort to do so

4. A great deal of time and energy is spent (and alas, can be mispent) when coping with change; by deepening our understanding of ourselves and of the dynamics of change, we empower ourselves to be more self-directed and self-motivated, to take more responsibility for the manage-ment of change, to be more task focused, and ultimately, to be better prepared for the next time we face change.

5. All the above is true whether we are changing ourselves, or promoting change in others, or whether we are talking about change within individuals, between individuals, or within organizations; hence, as we strengthen ourselves, we can also strengthen those around us.

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