From Open Pattern Repository for Online Learning Systems
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Contributors Christian Kohls
Last modification May 15, 2017
Source Kohls (2014)[1]; Kohls (2016)[2]
Pattern formats OPR Alexandrian
Learning domain

Let your subconscious do the work. Switch between projects, forget about your problem and wait for the Eureka!

You have already gathered a lot of information and data about your current challenge. In theory, you should be well equipped to find a good solution, a new sparkling idea.

However, something is missing, or you cannot see the solution among all the details.

You may have already the answer within all the data but you are looking at the wrong spots. It’s also common to have the right data but miss the non-obvious connections. Consciously making new connections is hard because we focus too much on single datum or stick to existing connections. Some impulse is missing. Some restructuring of the problem is required. But you don’t know how to do it. Isn’t the big Eureka! moment due? Sometimes the best ideas don’t come to you when you are looking for them but when you aren’t looking for them: when you are under the shower, in the morning when you wake up or when you take a hike. The reason is that your subconscious continues to work on your challenges. Even when you are dreaming. When your problem is “on-hold” somewhere in the back of your brain it can be re-activated once you get coincidently new inputs from new experiences.

Therefore, once you have gained a lot of knowledge (data, rules, habits, theories, common sense, metaphors, attitudes, paradigms etc.) in a problem field, let go of the problem and incubate a solution subconsciously. Be prepared for the Eureka! moment when it comes.

  1. Prepare: Before your subconscious can work out a solution it needs input. Therefore the first step is to prepare your mind by collecting as much information as you can get.
  2. Instruct: To trigger your subconscious thought processes you can instruct it. For example think about finding the solution before you go to bed.
  3. Incubate: Let go. Don’t actively look for solutions. Relax. Focus on a different project. Go to sleep.
  4. Eureka: Wait for the big idea to come. This can be the next day, the next week the next month or year.
  5. Catch: Ideas come to the prepared mind. Good solutions or ideas might pop up in your thoughts at any time – it is important to recognize them once they are there. You should also write them down in your PERSONAL JOURNAL.

It is important to understand that there is no guarantee that the big idea will come. Nor can anything be said how long it takes – it might be a day, a week, a month or even years. However, very often you may feel an intuition about that there is a solution around. This is a good indicator that your subconsciousness has already started or nearly finished connecting the dots.


  1. Most people get a lot of inspirations when they go for a walk. Walking is productive time for the mind.
  2. Ever had a great idea under the shower?
  3. Tricky problems resolve themselves after a good sleep.
  4. Sometimes a solution to a difficult problem shows up once we have focused on other projects. It may take months or even years but then a new approach comes into our mind.
  5. Meditate.

In his book “Imagine” John Lehrer provides some hypotheses why we generate more ideas when we are relaxed. We seem to generate more ideas when we produce more alpha waves in our head; and there are more alpha waves generated if we relax, e.g. taking a warm shower. He discusses studies that trying to force an insight can actually prevent us from insight[3].

Jack Foster[4] has collected several examples and quotes from famous people about this phenomenon (quoted from Foster[4] p. 167):

  • “Hermann von Helmholtz said: ‘So far as I am concerned they [ideas] have never come to me when my mind was fatigued or when I was at my work table.’
  • Albert Einstein said his best ideas came to him while he was shaving.
  • Henri Poincaré tells of working hard to solve a math problem. He failed, so he went on a holiday. As he stepped on a bus, suddenly the answer came to him.
  • ‘I have found,’ Bertrand Russel wrote, ‘that if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic, the best plan is to think about it with very great intensity – the greatest intensity of which I am capable – for few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is proceeded underground. After some month I would return consciously to the topic and find that the work had been done’”

Michalko[5] argues along the same lines with his creative thinking strategies relaxation, intuition and incubation. He refers to the three B’s: bus, bed and bath. A prominent example is the Greek mathematician Archimedes who thought several days without success about ways to measure the purity of gold. He got the solution when he relaxed in a hot bath. He observed that the bathwater was overflowing and that the purity of gold would determine how much water would be displaced in a container. This led to the now famous Eureka! (I found it!) shout out. The four-phase model of creative thinking[6][7] identifies preparation, incubation, illumination and verification.

According to Kounios & Beeman[8] the moment of insight can actually be measured in brain activities. They have shown that insights are indeed sudden and not the result of continuous analytical thinking (consciously or subconsciously). When people relax, they can switch into an “insightful frame of mind”. In this state even far-fetched ideas are considered. The right side of the brain shows more activity, and concepts that are note closely linked are combined.

New findings in the field of sleep research suggest that the mind explores new solutions when sleeping[9]. While this field of research is still at the beginning it could provide answers why sleep is actually an important ingredient for creative thinking.

An anecdote Richard Gabriel shared with me during the shepherding process: “I was working on a difficult algorithm for my current project, and I was stumped. One night I had a dream in which I was writing the Lisp code for what my dream indicated was the solution. I remember in the dream trying to force myself to look closely at the code. When I awoke immediately after typing in the code in my dream, I went to my computer and typed in the code. And it worked and is still in the system.”

Digital Tools to support Incubation

You can use apps for relaxing music, to get Yoga instructions, or to play singing bowls.

Fig Incubation-OG.png
Figure 1. iOS Apps to relax.


  1. Patlet published in Kohls, C. (2014). Dream teams at the right place. In Proceedings of the 19th European Conference on Pattern Languages of Programs (EuroPLoP 2014) (p. 3). New York:ACM.
  2. Pattern published in Kohls, C. (2016, April). Creativity patterns: 5 Habits. In Proceedings of the 10th Travelling Conference on Pattern Languages of Programs (VikingPLoP 2016) (p. 9). New York:ACM.
  3. Lehrer, J. (2012). Imagine: How creativity works. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Foster, J. (2007). How to get ideas. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
  5. Michalko, M. (2006). Thinkertoys: A handbook of creative-thinking techniques. Berkeley, Calif: Ten Speed.
  6. Wallas, G. (1926). The art of thought. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
  7. Brunner, A. (2008). Kreativer denken: Konzepte und Methoden von A-Z. (Kreativer denken.) München: Oldenbourg.
  8. Kounios, J., & Beeman, M. (2015). The Eureka factor: Aha moments, creative insight, and the brain. New York: Random House.
  9. Klein, S. (2014). Träume: Eine Reise in unsere innere Wirklichkeit. Frankfurt a.M: S. Fischer.