Incubating for ideas

July 15, 2014
How you ever found yourself at the end of a periodontal appointment and realize that you have been on autopilot? The scaling, polishing, and flossing were completed.

By Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA

How you ever found yourself at the end of a periodontal appointment and realize that you have been on autopilot? The scaling, polishing, and flossing were completed. Although you were there physically, you weren't there mentally. You were daydreaming, off in "la la" land. You were quasi-focused on your patient. But while your hands were busy, you were mulling something else over in your mind.

Understandably, it is a good practice to give our patients' our full attention, especially when we have sharp instruments in their mouths. The act of daydreaming, however, has its benefits.


More articles by Garlough


As it turns out, daydreaming (referred to as incubation in the creative process)1 is an important factor for linking new ideas or finding solutions to old problems. Consider staff meetings where the same issues are discussed week after week, month after month, or even year after year? You feel that you could simply turn on a recording from the last half-day staff meeting and get the same issues regurgitated. This repetition is wearing on the entire staff, enthusiasm evaporates, and, frankly, you feel that your time would be more productive anywhere other than at the staff meeting. The office needs a new way of dealing with challenges so that breakthrough occurs. It needs to drill down (no pun intended) the creative process to achieve solutions. It needs innovation.

Over the past few months, I have covered some of the skills required to navigate the "discovery process" for innovation. We have learned how to gather the necessary information by questioning, observing, and networking. These discovery skills expand our knowledge, educate us, and open our minds to new possibilities. With this increased body of knowledge and information, it is now time to incubate.

It has long been recognized that incubation is a vital part of the creative process. Creative inspiration can seem mysterious, but there are many ways in which we can encourage, foster, and nurture more and better ideas and insights. We may have a hunch or inkling that we are onto something,2 but we haven't yet grasped the connection. When we have a challenge or need to give birth to a new idea or solution, it is vital to take all the information that has been objectively gathered, mentally masticate it, and simply let it go. More often than not, this is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process. We set the challenge aside and then once again bring it forward, ruminating and mulling over the problem. As you gain additional information, you will continually incubate until resolution is reached.

Great minds throughout history have been proponents of the conscious mind letting go of the challenge at hand. Notables such as T. S. Eliot, Alexander Graham Bell, Mozart, and Einstein mindfully sought relaxation in order to enhance their mental acuity. They would intentionally turn thinking over to the subconscious mind, and then sit back and wait for the conscious mind to make new connections.

Incubating helps store the information in different areas of the brain. It also helps to consolidate memory, and it clears the neural pathways in the brain. When we have too much information coming in too soon and too fast, our pathways get clogged. Think of it as e-mails in our inboxes. When the maximum limit for e-mails has been reached, no more e-mails will be received until we file, delete, or clean out our inbox. We need to clear the pathways for the information to find a new link.

The key to success is to relax the brain, allowing the data to be stored and new connections to be made. Insights for new possibilities often arise from different activities for different people. Many of us have ideas bubble up from the unconscious mind to the conscious mind while showering. We may have ideas percolate into our minds from our dreams, or when walking or exercising. There is evidence that giving the conscious mind something useful to do (like scaling teeth) has a bearing on the unconscious mind making connections.

Determine what works for you and then make the effort to consciously relax the brain. My technique for relaxing my mind is through the practice of yoga. Resiliency is nurtured when I focusing on breathing and quieting my mind. Although being in silence sounds like an easy thing to do, it actually is difficult. In yoga, our active brain is referred to as "monkey mind," jumping from one thought to another in a turbulent sea of disturbance. Yoga brings me to a place of calm, where I turn off the issues of the day and allow my mind to relax, rest, and, most of all, rejuvenate. It never ceases to amaze me how solutions are revealed, creative ideas are formed, and plans of action are implemented after yoga.

Generating solutions is a process, and you should plan on an incubation period between defining the problem and building a strategy to address the problem. The length of time needed for effective incubation will vary with the time frame available and the complexity of the problem. Do not expect results immediately. Mull the issues over, let them go, and come back to the challenge later. You will be surprised at the insights gained!

As clinicians, there are many periods of silence while working in your patient's mouth. It is a good opportunity to work the process of incubation. You can visit a challenging issue in the office and then intentionally let it go as you return to your patient's needs. Practice this continually throughout the day, and you will be surprised at the insights that bubble up from your unconscious mind. You might be looking for a systematic flow from when the doctor orders the X-rays to discussing the clinical findings with the doctor and the patient. Or perhaps you want resolution to an ongoing frustration. The beauty of the discovery process is that when you arm yourself with its tools, you will achieve breakthrough.

Think about it and incubate it!

Steps for incubation

1. Gather data by exercising the discovery skills.
2. Relax the brain -- stop thinking about it
3. Bring the issue to the forefront of your thinking again
4. Assimilate additional information, run experiments
5. Incubate again

DOROTHY GARLOUGH, RDH, MPA, is an innovation architect, facilitating strategy sessions and forums to orchestrate change in both the dental and corporate worlds. As an international speaker and writer, Dorothy trains others to broaden their skill-set to include creativity, collaborative innovation and forward thinking. She recognizes that engagement is the outcome when the mechanisms are put in place to drive new innovations. Connect with her at [email protected] .


1. Thinkertoys – ISBN-13: 978-1-8008-773-5, Michael Michalko, Ten Speed Press, 2006

More RDH Articles
Past RDH Issues