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Is it possible to facilitate incubation as well as consciously think about a different problem at the same time, in effect multitasking, in order to gain insights more quickly, without having to stop and take a break.

For context, see this question on incubation:

How is it that taking a break from a problem sometimes allows you to figure out the answer?

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  • $\begingroup$ I've read that complete change of activity produces superior incubation results, compared to still working on related problems. Following this line of thinking, incubation while working on the same problem would produce the worst results. You can look up "non induction" lucid dreaming technique, where the subject of incubation is completely ignored- not even thinking of it, following intense training $\endgroup$ – Alex Stone Dec 2 '14 at 2:03
  • $\begingroup$ There was a little bit of ambiguity in the question. Given that the question refers to "multitasking", I gathered that the poster meant a different problem. I disambiguated the question in this sense. Actually, working on the same problem would not be incubation, which is defined as taking a break from a problem. Please change the question back if I am wrong. In this case, the question would be more of a terminology question. $\endgroup$ – user7759 Oct 6 '15 at 10:19
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This is an interesting question because it relates to different mechanisms that may be responsible for incubation effects:

  • Does incubation occur because creative insight is helped by unconscious processes? (Processes that are best left undisturbed by not consciously thinking about the problem?) In this case, the most important thing would be to focus on something else.
  • Or does taking a break simply reduce mental fatigue as some have claimed (e.g., Posner, 1973, as cited in Sio & Ormond, 2009)? In this case, just taking a break from thinking might be best.
  • Or is it because of certain patterns of conscious thought during incubation? In this case, the kind of problem one thinks about consciously during the incubation phase would matter.

Sio and Ormond (2009) have looked at this question as part of their meta-analysis of incubation studies:

  • They found that performing low cognitive demand tasks were associated with stronger incubation effects than just taking a break and doing nothing
  • However, high cognitive demand tasks were associated with smaller incubation effects

These results are not in line with a simple mental fatigue account of incubation. Instead, they suggest that creative insight profits more from distracting tasks that are low in cognitive demand.

One explanation for these findings is that low demanding tasks allow and promote mind-wandering (Baird et al., 2012).

Conclusion: So based on this research, when trying to generate some creative insight, it might be good to take a break after an intense preparation period. However, instead of occupying your mind with another hard nut to crack, it might be better to do so with something that is not very demanding. Try cleaning up your desk and water those sad-looking plants in your office!

References

Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M. D., Kam, J. W. Y., Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J. W. (2012). Inspired by distraction: Mind wandering facilitates creative incubation. Psychological Science, 23, 1117–1122. doi:10.1177/0956797612446024

Sio, U. N., & Ormerod, T. C. (2009). Does incubation enhance problem solving? A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 94–120. doi:10.1037/a0014212

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