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Inspiration, Intuition, & Incubation

To understand the critical role that the subconscious plays, we must first understand that:

The subconscious controls what we perceive.

The mind is made up of two major areas, the conscious and the subconscious. The conscious mind is responsible for everything we are aware of; the subconscious handles everything else. This is the critical part: the subconscious controls what we perceive. The five senses (hearing, sight, touch, taste, and smell) don’t filter out anything. They don’t have the capability of filtering anything; they are only capable of receiving data and passing it on to your brain. Due to the sheer volume of information, it is literally impossible for the conscious mind to handle all of the sensory data it is continually receiving. Next, we need to understand that:

The subconscious mind receives the data supplied by the senses, analyzes it to determine how critical it is, filters out that which is not critical, and brings critical information to the attention of the conscious mind.

How does the subconscious decide what is critical and what isn’t, what to filter out and what to allow to surface?  I suspect there are many different reasons the subconscious decides to filter or not filter, as well as when to make us aware of specific information. For example, if there’s a gas leak, it’s critical that you have that information immediately. However, if it’s a solution to a problem that isn’t particularly urgent, the needed information may not have as high a priority. In these instances, the information comes forward at a time when we are open to it, possibly in a relaxed state or thinking about something else that doesn’t take a lot of concentration. Knowing the subconscious is controlling the process, doesn’t help us understand how it works. If I was going to be able to help others use their powers of intuition effectively, I would need to know, or at least have a workable hypothesis about how the process operates and might thereby be best utilized. I got my first solid lead when I became involved with a data mining company and needed to have the basic concept of data mining explained to me.

It Works Like Human Intuition

In January of 1999, I became Chief Product Officer for Austin’s Dryken Technologies, a data mining company with research offices in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was picked because I’m good at creating product, not because I’m expert in the area of data mining. In fact, when I took the job, I didn’t have a clue what data mining was all about. My first task was to get to Knoxville as soon as possible and have a long learning session with the data-mining scientists.

The chief scientist, Dr. Nancy Grady, was still working at Oak Ridge National Labs at the time. I said, “Nancy, you’re going to have to start at the beginning. I don’t know anything about data mining.”

“No problem,” she replied. “Basically it works like human intuition. Our mind takes in a tremendous amount of data continually; data about everything we experience, in every way we experience it. It categorizes the data and determines relationships of which we are not consciously aware. Then at the appropriate time, it feeds only specific, relevant information to us in the form of intuition. Data mining works the same way. The algorithms look at massive amounts of disparate data, determining relationships that could never be determined by human analysis; then report out those specific relationships.”

I sat there in silence for a minute. If I understood what she was saying, this answered questions that I had concerning intuition. I looked over at her and said, “Let me tell you a story about myself; you tell me if it fits what you just described.” 

She nodded to go ahead.

“As the manager of a men’s store in San Jose, California, I developed a very interesting talent. I would watch a customer enter the store and walk toward me. I was usually standing in an area of the store about one hundred feet from the front door. When the customer reached me, I’d say, ‘The Shoe Department is down that aisle to your right,’ or ‘Can I help you find a suit?’ or ‘Looking for a gift?’

“The customer would often look at me and say, ‘How’d you know what I was looking for?’

“I couldn’t answer ... I didn’t know how I knew; I just seemed to know. I wasn’t right all the time, but I was right often enough to make me wonder what was going on. I wondered if perhaps an angel was standing beside me giving me this information, but I had trouble with this explanation. Angels must have more important things to do than tell me that Joe Blow is looking for the Shoe Department.

“I think you’ve finally given me the answer I’ve been looking for. From what you’ve said, it seems to me that from the moment the customer entered the store, my subconscious was categorizing and analyzing everything he did, where he looked, what he reached out and touched, how quickly he walked, what he was wearing, and on and on. It had done this hundreds of times as customer after customer entered the store and then made a request. At some point, through this natural data mining process, my subconscious figured out that people who behaved as this one was behaving usually were looking for the shoe department, or the suits, or for a gift … whatever.

“Then I would receive an intuitive thought, a thought stimulated by my subconscious but determined by the data my senses had provided as the customer walked through the store to where I was standing. Right?”

“Right!” Nancy responded. “That’s exactly what happened and exactly what data mining is all about. Our algorithms look at massive amounts of disparate information and discover, through the use of neural networks and other advanced data mining technologies, relationships that cannot be determined in any other way.”

This was fascinating … I sat down to learn about data mining and discovered invaluable information about the human mind and how it operates, what intuition is and how it works.

The subconscious mind “mines” the data it receives for unknown relationships and then delivers that information, at the appropriate time, to the conscious mind as realization, insight, inspiration, or intuition.

This was the answer I’d been looking for: A theory of the intuitive process that worked and could be used to enhance intuitive skills in others. This took intuition out of the realm of mysticism and provided a strong scientific basis for its existence. This was an explanation even the most doubting could accept.

This means the subconscious mind is a critical partner in the area of creativity; this is especially true in regard to Incubation and Intuition.  To start, let me remind you of the role of the subconscious. The subconscious mind is in complete control of what we perceive. Remember, we only see, hear, etc. what our subconscious mind allows us to see, hear, etc. This is a survival mechanism at both the individual and species levels.

The conscious mind provides clues to our subconscious as to what information is important, should be considered, and what information is unimportant and should be ignored. This is what I call the “codependent relationship” between the conscious and the subconscious. As in most codependent relationships, there is not always a positive outcome.

The subconscious performs “data mining” on all information that it retains for these purposes, essentially everything the conscious mind hasn’t told it to ignore, and then supplies, to the conscious mind, valuable information, needed for successful survival, in the form of intuition, inspiration, or insight.

This information is critical for a complete understanding of the role of incubation in the creative process. It now should become obvious that we dramatically limit our potential for significant intuition, inspiration, or insight if we do not allow the subconscious the time it needs to analyze the data to determine critical information needed. While this process can take place almost immediately as “flashes of inspiration,” it most often needs time to incubate.

It’s probably a good idea to talk about what we mean by incubation. First, it doesn’t have anything to do with consciously thinking about the issue or problem. In fact, it means “forgetting about it” for the moment. Often, I have assigned “off-focus” tasks to team members just to get them to stop thinking about a problem for awhile (1 to 2 days) so that their subconscious would have some uninterrupted time to work out a solution. I have had phenomenal success with this practice over the years.

Many find it difficult to justify a decision based on intuition. They think this kind of decision-making seems too “soft” for management who needs to “know” what the facts are; feelings just don’t carry the day. I will not disagree with this judgment. Often traditional managers have a very difficult time dealing with issues they can’t justify with “facts.”

You should by now, at the very least, be considering seriously that the subconscious is critical in the area of creative problem solving. That the subconscious needs time to evaluate and analyze before it can provide the conscious with intuition, inspiration, or insight. And, that it provides this information in just that way. The subconscious doesn’t take the time to provide your conscious mind with all of the facts or information that it used to reach its conclusions … it just provides the bottom-line result.

Again, I am sure that this is a survival characteristic. As humans, our survival is often dependent on our ability to make quick, on-the-spot decisions and then act on them. It is only after the fact that we might be able to reason out why we did what we did, when we did it. In fact, and I can’t give you the reference, a recent study on the fighting of wild fires showed that intuitive decision-making was the most powerful and accurate of all decision-making. The best firefighters often said things like, “My training told me to go one way, but that just didn’t feel right so I went the other way, and that was what saved us.”

What this means to us as leaders is that we need to listen not only to our own intuitive feelings, but also to the intuitive pronouncements of our team. I said, “listen to” not “make decisions based on.” It is always wise to analyze the intuition as much as possible, to try and determine what information we’ve had that has led to this insight. Sometimes, this must be done after the fact, because of a great sense of urgency … most often, you have time to consider the issue carefully, so that you can find the facts/information that supports the intuitive feeling.

This is one of your most important roles as a leader—helping your team members uncover the information that their subconscious used that led to their creative insight. You must first assure them that you are taking this insight seriously … but, that you need their help in determining where it came from. They need to understand that down deep they know where it came from and that it’s very possible for them to uncover this knowledge. This is a creative process in and of itself, a process that the subconscious can play a very real role in. Once the subconscious realizes that more information is needed … it will supply it … again, as additional insight, or, in this case, realization.

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Copyright 2007, Brad Fregger