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Put it more formally, how to let your mind subconsciously work on a research problem when you are not actively thinking about it, e.g., during sleep, dinner, walking, or shower?

Often I hear stories where a person gets stuck on a problem for months, only waking up and finding the problem works itself out in the shower. There are many great researchers echoing this ability , such as "creativity comes out of your subconscious" by Richard Hamming . Also, many professors I know seem to master such skill, including my advisor. Having seen some occasional discussions like here at SE, I am wondering if this ability is innate or can be learned. If the latter, what are the techniques to help cultivate this ability?

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  • $\begingroup$ I sometimes have that, like in the shower or when driving the car. But it's not subconsciously, I'm actively thinking about it, but just in a non-work environment. Sometimes when you take distance from something, go for a walk, get back and have dinner, you'll be more "fresh" and able to solve the problem, seemingly over dinner. $\endgroup$ – Dylan Meeus Oct 16 '14 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ Marginally related (but interesting anyway): Have you solved problems in your sleep? at MO. $\endgroup$ – Martin Oct 17 '14 at 8:44
  • $\begingroup$ I don't have a source for this but I do remember watching a documentary several (10?) years ago which mentioned research where the test group were allowed to view a problem before sleeping for the night (the control group was not allowed). The test group outperformed the control group in the morning solving the problem. The researcher believed that seeing the problem before sleeping allowed the brain to re-orient itself to solve the problem. It did not seem to be learned it was just automatic. If this is right, you might want to review a piece of the problem before sleeping. $\endgroup$ – earthling Oct 17 '14 at 9:38
  • $\begingroup$ Psychology & Neuroscience has the domain experts for this sort of question $\endgroup$ – EnergyNumbers Oct 20 '14 at 7:18
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    $\begingroup$ For the sleep part, I think this question might be a duplicate of the earlier: Can one incubate on a specific idea in one's sleep? for the "dinner, walking, or shower" part, you should take a look at this question: How is it that taking a break from a problem sometimes allows you to figure out the answer? $\endgroup$ – Artem Kaznatcheev May 19 '15 at 21:18