Illusory grey spots mysteriously appear at the points of intersection in the following black and white grid. However, the spot does not occur at the specific intersection on which you concentrate your attention.

.Grey dots intersection

Sometimes ideas, like the gray spots, do not appear when you are concentrating your attention and mysteriously appear when you are not. Modern science recognizes this phenomenon of incubation and insight yet cannot account for why it occurs. That this is a commonplace phenomenon was shown in a survey of distinguished scientists conducted over a half-century ago. A majority of the scientists reported that they got their best ideas and insights when not thinking about the problem. Ideas came while walking, recreating, or working on some other unrelated problem. This suggests how the creative act came to be associated with “divine inspiration” for the illumination appears to be involuntary.

The more problems, ideas and thoughts that you think about from time to time, the more complex becomes the network of information in your mind. Think of thoughts as atoms hanging by hooks on the sides of your mind. When you think about a subject, some of these thoughts become loose and put into motion in your subconscious mind. The more work you put into thinking about a problem, the more thoughts and bits of information you put into random motion. Your subconscious mind never rests. When you quit thinking about the subject and decide to forget it, your subconscious mind doesn’t quit working. Your thoughts keep colliding, combining and making associations. This is why you’ve experienced suddenly remembering names, getting solutions to problems you’ve forgotten about, and ideas out of the blue when you are relaxing and not thinking about any particular thing.

There’s a thing in mathematics called “factorial”, which calculates how many ways you can combine things. If you have three objects, then there are one times two times three, which leaves six combinations. The factorial of ten is over three million. Ten bits of information will combine and recombine in three million different ways in your mind. So you can imagine the cloud of thoughts combining and making associations when you incubate problems when you stop working.

There is an important Chinese term, “wuwei,” “not doing,” the meaning of which is not “doing nothing,” but “not forcing.” Things will open up of themselves, according to their nature. And they do.

Cognitive scientists have observed that people that after a period of incubation from a problem people are 39 percent more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas. Yet this enhancement of creative thinking exists completely beneath the radar screen. In other words, people are more creative after they forget about the problem for a period of time, but they don’t know it. It’s as if a period of incubation resets your mind. You’re taking a walk or taking a shower and realize “Wait a minute, there’s another way to do this.”

The famous philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell was quoted in The Conquest of Happiness as having said: “I have found, for example, that if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic, the best plan is think about it with very great intensity—the greatest intensity with which I am capable—for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months, I return consciously to the topic and find the work has been done. Before I discovered this technique, I used to spend time worrying because I was making no progress; I arrived at the solution none the faster for this worry and the worrying time was wasted.” When author Norman Mailer had writer’s block, he would instruct his subconscious mind to work on the problem and to notify him when it was resolved. Then he would leave the problem until the “insight” arrived in his consciousness.

Incubation usually involves setting a problem aside for a few hours, days, or weeks and moving on to other projects. The creative act owes little to logic or reason. In their accounts of the circumstances under which big ideas occurred to them, scientists have often mentioned that the inspiration had no relation to the work they happened to be doing. Sometimes it came while they were traveling, shaving or thinking about other matters. The creative process cannot be summoned at will or even cajoled by sacrificial offering. Indeed, it seems to occur most readily when the mind is relaxed and the imagination roaming freely.

I gave a seminar for an advertising agency that was under pressure from a major television network to come up with an innovative marketing campaign to introduce the networks new shows. I compared our subconscious mind to an egg. I said imagine an egg sitting in its nest of straw. It doesn’t do anything and makes no sound. It doesn’t change shape, it doesn’t change color. It doesn’t pulsate. It doesn’t roll around. You could look at it for days and days and you’d come away thinking that it was an inert object and there was nothing going on.

Yet inside the egg a riot of change is taking place inside the egg, a storm of re-organization, feeding and growth, of total activity as a bunch of random cells become an entity, which in turn becomes ever more defined and more complex, more organized in every way, more mature, more fantastic with every heartbeat, every breath that passes.

One day the egg that lay so motionless for so very long and seemed to be nothing but an inert shape will begin to rock, and then it will crack, and the a newly born bird will emerge, spread its wings for the first time and take its first small steps.

We talked a lot about the similarity between the subconscious mind and eggs. Then I asked them to perform a thought experiment which is to write a letter to their subconscious mind. (The guidelines for the thought experiment are at the end of the article.)

Bert, the creative director at the agency, wrote a letter which he addressed to his subconscious mind that he called “Secret Expert.”

“How are you Secret Expert,

I haven’t heard from you in some time, so I thought I would write you a letter. I need your help with a problem. I need to come up with an exciting new marketing program to introduce a new season of television shows. The shows include programs about criminal forensics, contests for prizes, lawyer shows and comedies. I’m interested in coming up with some kind of campaign that will capture the audience’s attention more than one time. The approach of the campaign should be unique and unexpected.

We’ve had several meetings but keep coming up with the same old traditional marketing campaign ideas. What do people need and keep? Is there something they need that we can advertise on? What kind of goods, products, foods and services should we investigate? What producers, distributors and retailers should we study? Can we combine our services with another company? Do we need to share revenue? I need a fresh approach to advertising. Your mission is to give me a new idea on how to advertise television shows. I need the idea in two days. Help!!!

Thanks, Bert”

Bert mailed the letter to himself and two days later received it. When he read what he had written, he got his brainstorm, which was to advertise on “eggs.” Did the connection come from our discussions about eggs and the subconscious? Or did it come from an association between “foods,” “need,” “producers,” and “fresh approach,” as in “fresh eggs?”

He arranged to place laser imprints of the networks logos, as well as some of its shows on eggs—some thirty million. Some of the slogans that will be imprinted on the eggs are “Crack the Case on CSI,” “Scramble to win the great race,” “Hard-boiled drama,” “Leave the Yolks to us,” and “Funny Side UP.”

The consumers look at a single egg at least a few times. When they open the carton at the store, when they transfer them to the refrigerator, and when they crack them open. It’s unlike any other ad medium in the world, because you’re looking at it while you are using it. Egg producers, distributors and retailers all love the concept as they will all share in the ad revenue.

Ideas are free to combine with other ideas in novel patterns and new associations in your subconscious mind. It is also the storehouse of all your experience, including things you can’t easily call into awareness. When I use this technique and don’t receive an answer within the allotted time frame, I’ll say “Oh well, let me know as soon as you think of something.” Without exception, I will get the answer sooner or later.

Here is another example of this technique. The marketing director for a soft drink corporation wanted to come up with a novel way to package soft drinks. He spent time listing all the ways products and liquids can be packaged. He then turned off his self-censor by giving himself an idea quota of 120 ways to package things. This forced him to list every single thought he had no matter how obvious or absurd. The first third were his usual ideas, the next third became more interesting and complex and the last third became fantastical and absurd as he stretched his imagination to meet his quota.

Finally, he wrote the following letter he addressed to MacGuyver (He calls his subconscious mind MacGuyver after the TV character who solves cases by improvisation.)

Dear MacGuyver,

How are you? I haven’t heard from you in a long time, so I thought I would write you a letter. I need some innovative ideas about packaging our soda. A package that would create a new experience for the consumer. Right now, as you now, our soft drinks are packaged in bottles and cans. I’m trying to think of ways to make our packaging innovative and fun in such a way that it will heighten consumer attention. So far, I’ve researched the methodology of packaging, brainstormed for ideas, and have asked everyone I know for their thoughts.

Reviewing my list of ideas I’ve noticed a theme of environmental concerns. Citizens have become aware and sensitive to what happens to discarded bottles and cans. So I think the package should be environmentally friendly. Another theme, I noticed, is “put to other uses.” In other words, how else can the consumer use the package? A cousin of mine told me about the time he was in the peace corps in a very poor section of Guatemala. Soft drinks in bottles were too expensive for the natives. He told me popular domestic sodas are instead poured into sandwich baggies and sold.

I need your help. Please deliver your ideas to me within three days.


The Idea he received from MacGuyver is to create a biodegradable plastic bag in the shape of a soda bottle. This bag will save buyers bottle deposit money and retains the drink’s fizz and experience, while simultaneously being more environmentally friendly. Being new and fun, it actually creates a new brand experience adapted to cultural environmental tendencies that local consumers are sure to appreciate. Additionally, the plastic bags afford greater flexibility in storage options and can also be re-used by the consumer as a storage container for other foods and liquids. Additionally, the product adapts itself to new markets in impoverished countries.


  • Work on a problem until you have mulled over all the relevant pieces of information. Talk with others about the problem, ask questions, and do as much research as you can until you are satisfied that you have pushed your conscious mind to its limit.
  • Write a letter to your subconscious mind about the problem. Make the letter as detailed and specific as possible. Describe the problem definition, the attributes, what steps you have taken, the problems, the gaps, what is needed, what you want, what the obstacles are, and so on. Just writing the letter will help better define a problem, clarify issues, point out where more information is needed, and prepare your unconscious to work on a solution. The letter should read just like a letter you would send to a real person. Imagine that your unconscious is all-knowing and can solve any problem that is properly stated.
  • Instruct your unconscious to find the solution. Write, “Your mission is to find the solution to the problem. I would like the solution in three days.”
  • Seal the letter and put it away. You may even want to mail it to yourself.
  • Let go of the problem. Don’t work on it. Forget it. Do something else. This is the incubation stage when much of what goes on occurs outside your focused awareness, in your unconscious.
  • Open the letter in three days. If the problem still has not been solved, then write on the bottom of the letter, “Let me know the minute you solve this” and put it away again. Sooner or later, when you are most relaxed and removed from the problem, the answer will magically pop into your mind.


(Michael Michalko is the highly-acclaimed author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses;  Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.




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