Creativity: The Incubation Phase

Exploring Incubation

As I mentioned in my previous post, whilst studying various creative methodologies this week I became fascinated with the subtle power of the Incubation phase. ”Incubation involves pondering potential solutions, possibly over a long period of time.” (BATESON & MARTIN. 2013). It’s a phase that I instinctively practice, but hadn’t previously given it a name.

Incubation can look like going for a walk in nature or taking a coffee break, stretching out a design project so that we go back to reassess ideas a few days later. It’s admitting that as creatives we can’t necessarily sit at a desk and churn out new ideas on cue. Often ideas need time to percolate, and as we take rest, stop striving for results, the wonder of our subconscious mind can take over.

“Whether we are an artist or a problem solver, we must make peace with the invisible and prodigious force of our subconscious. We must find a way of tapping this most capable and potent ally” (PETTY, Geoff.)

Incubation and the subconscious

We’ve heard this described as a ‘lightbulb moment’, when the subconscious mind brings forth an idea for the project we’d been previously so focused on, at the most unexpected of times. ‘Sleep on it’ is universal advice when somebody is working on difficult thinking, and some artists are so taken aback by the power of their subconscious that they attribute their new ideas to god or a higher power. The ancient Greeks believed that creative inspiration came from the muses, or goddesses, whilst the bible describes poetry and musical inspiration as a gift from the Holy Spirit. (NIU, W & STERNBERG, R. J. 2006)

These esoteric beliefs surrounding creativity create a mysterious spiritual elitism, and may contribute to the modern popular belief that creativity is a gift beholden to the special few. I explored this idea in a previous blog post: Creativity, Nature or Nurture.

Trusting & Relaxing

Making the most of the incubation phase simply means switching off from the task at hand, relaxing and trusting that we will come to a solution. It has an element of strategy – the timing of the incubation phase should come after research, idea generation and inspiration, ideas should be recorded so that you can come back to them. However the main intention during incubation is to be distracted, to almost forget what we’re working on, to let the subconscious mind wander.

“Many psychologists believe that during incubation your unconscious is actively searching for useful material, in particular for analogies of the present problem” (PETTY, Geoff. 1997)

We may not always be presented with a lightbulb, or a spark of genius, yet as we let go of striving for a result, our subconscious brings lessons from the past to the forefront of our minds. Often when we distance ourselves from our work, allow ourselves to notice different perspectives, we will go back and evaluate our ideas more honestly and clearly.

Harnessing the power of the subconscious to generate creative ideas may be simple, but it isn’t easy, nor is it guaranteed that your subconscious will sling wonderful ideas to your conscious mind as you sleep. I’d like to dig deeper into the psychology behind the creative subconscious mind, perhaps I’ll share my findings in a future blog post.


PETTY, Geoff. 1997. How To Be Better At Creativity. Lulu Enterprises Inc. Available through Google books.

BATESON, Patrick, and MARTIN, Paul. 2013. Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation. Cambridge University Press. Available at: ProQuest Ebook Central.

NIU, W & STERNBERG, R. J. 2006. The philosophical roots of Western and Eastern conceptions of creativity. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. APA PsycNet. Available at: [accessed 14th June 2021].

Fig 1: Featured Image. Artwork by author. 2021.

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