Dave Palmer

November 6, 2014

3 Min Read
Why You Need to Take a Break

This is the article your manager doesn't want you to read. Are you working on a tough engineering problem? Don't keep plugging away at it -- take a break and do something else for a while. Your manager will thank you later.

I recently wrote an article for Design News citing psychological research about the importance of analogies in engineering problem solving. A number of readers commented that, besides the use of analogies, taking breaks had helped them to solve problems. The solutions to seemingly intractable problems occurred to readers while doing housework, while in the shower, and even while sleeping. This is not a new phenomenon; Archimedes' legendary eureka moment, more than 22 centuries ago, occurred while the ancient Greek inventor was taking a bath. As it happens, this phenomenon -- known as "incubation" -- is also the topic of some recent psychological research, which I'll try to summarize here.

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The term "incubation" comes from British psychologist Graham Wallas' 1926 book The Art of Thought. In it, he argued that creativity has four stages: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. Preparation means becoming well versed in all aspects of the problem. Once you've learned everything you can, you need to spend some time away from the problem; this is the incubation stage. Eventually, you will have a sudden burst of insight -- illumination! However, even after the proverbial light bulb turns on, you still need to test your new idea to see if it works (verification).

Wallas thought that, during the incubation phase, your brain continues to work on the problem subconsciously. A competing theory proposed in recent years suggests that, during the incubation phase, you forget things -- including the things that were leading you away from the correct solution. Alan Penaloza and Dustin Calvillo, two psychologists at California State University in San Marcos, decided to test this theory. In a study published in Creativity Research Journal, they provided 152 adults with a series of word-association tests. Half of the subjects were asked to solve the problems without stopping, while the other half were given a two-minute break between problem-solving attempts, during which they were asked to read an article on an unrelated topic. Some of the subjects were given misleading clues; the rest were given no clues at all. The people who had received the misleading clues performed better after a break. Among the people who hadn't been misdirected, there was no difference in performance with or without a break. The authors concluded that the main benefit of breaks is to give you time to forget whatever caused you to fixate on an incorrect solution.

Other recent studies have also backed up the "forgetting fixation" theory. However, that doesn't mean that the "unconscious work" theory is down for the count. In a review published earlier this year in the journal Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, Dutch psychologists Simone Ritter and Ap Djiksterhuis discuss the latest findings. They cite magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies that have identified a brain region known as the default mode network, which is active when you allow your mind to wander. In contrast, a different brain region, known as the cognitive control network, is active when you are consciously focusing on a task. When one network is activated, the other is deactivated. It's possible that an incubation period gives the default mode network (which is associated with creativity) a chance to work on the problem while your conscious mind is occupied with something else.

Whichever theory is correct, there seems to be a lot of evidence that spending some time away from a problem increases your ability to solve it. So the next time your boss catches you slacking off, just explain that you're improving your problem-solving skills.

About the Author(s)

Dave Palmer

Dave Palmer is a licensed professional metallurgical engineer, specializing in failure analysis and materials selection. He lives in Waukegan, Illinois, and works as a metallurgist for a major marine engine manufacturer. He holds a BS in Materials Science and Engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology, and is completing his MS thesis at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. When not working or spending time with his wife and two teenage daughters, he teaches a U.S. citizenship class for legal permanent residents. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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