Element 28:

The Incubation Stage of Learning

“Like a fresh flower bud, newly learned information is very fragile. Precious, meaningful information gained in activity and placed into working memory must be cultivated before it can become a hardy part of your long-term memory networks.”
– JW Wilson, Advanced Learning Institute

thinkingman[1]Memory formation does not take place in one fell swoop (see “Memory Is Not an Event: The Four Stages of Learning“). Today, science recognizes that, once you have encountered data in the information, action, and feedback stages of learning, and the most meaningful of that data has been placed into your working memory, something else must take place before this information can be selected into your long-term memory banks.

That something else is a period of relaxed physical downtime, in which the brain’s neurochemistry is altered. This change in body state and brain chemistry provides for the incubation stage of learning. It is important to recognize that, like a fresh flower bud, newly learned information is very fragile. Precious, meaningful information gained in activity and placed into working memory must be cultivated before it can become a hardy part of your long-term memory networks. The incubation stage of learning provides the neurochemical brain states for this cultivation period. The interruption of this stage in any way compromises your ability to form long-term memories.

Another important benefit of the incubation stage of learning is that it supplies the neurochemical environment where creativity can flourish. The power of relaxed physical and mental downtime in the memory and creative processes prompts Bobbie DePorter, creator of the world-renowned accelerated learning program called Supercamp, to implore that, when dealing with a difficult problem, “Give yourself permission to do ‘nothing’ until incubation gives way to illumination.”

Incubating while awake and asleep

brainillustration2[1]There are two phases to the incubation stage. One happens when we are awake and the other takes place at night when we are asleep. About every 90 minutes during both the waking and sleeping phases (see “Sleep: The Most Powerful Incubation State“), the brain cycles in and out of different neurochemical combinations, which, in turn, create different brain wave states such as alpha, theta, delta, and REM. The chemical and brain wave cycles that occur in the different phases of incubation are important to our success in life for four main reasons:

  1. They allow information held in working memory to be passed into long-term memory.
  2. They promote the protein synthesis which provides for the construction of the physical structures of learning.
  3. They produce the brain wave rhythms that allow for heightened creativity.
  4. They replenish the aminergic system so that when we reenter the information, action, and feedback stages of learning we are more focused and attentive.

Yet today’s learning institutions and corporations inadvertently disrupt the learning and creative process by acting as if periods of relaxed downtime are the enemy of productivity. By keeping workers and students trapped in highly focused and attentive brain states for too long, organizations actually sabotage the very learning and innovations they are so desperately trying to implement.

Read on to get a deeper understanding about the incubation stage of learning

The World’s Great Thinkers and the Incubation Stage

eggshell[1]When asked in what brain state the most wonderful technical discoveries and inspirational ideas of our modern world have been made, most people would guess something like aggressively attentive, highly focused, wide awake states. But contrary to what seems obvious, neuroscience is proving that response wrong. If you research the literature, it is difficult to find any profound inventions, philosophies, or thoughts that were not uncovered in the relaxed incubation stage:

  • As far back as 400 BC, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, Socrates, advocated a period of relaxed downtime as paramount to gaining a better understanding of any concept or difficult problem.
  • From Gutenberg’s letters, we know he instinctively understood that he needed to let the information he had actively amassed have time to incubate in order to create wonderful things. He wrote, “For a month my head had been working; a Minerva, fully armed, must issue from my brain.” That Minerva turned out to be the printing press!
  • Sir Isaac Newton’s greatest discoveries of force and gravity came to him not anxiously performing experiments at Cambridge but instead during eight months of undisturbed meditation while he escaped the Great Plague in the English countryside.
  • The discovery of the sewing machine came to Elias Howe as he dreamed.
  • The great philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche said he produced his most profound ideas on leisurely strolls.
  • Sir Charles Darwin developed his “great discovery,” not in the hyperactivity of a buzzing lab but in restful seclusion at the graceful Down House in Sussex, England.
  • Thomas Edison came up with a large percentage of his 1,000 plus patents as he emerged from regular “power naps” of five minutes or longer.
  • After a party at the poet Lord Byron’s house, Mary Shelley had a dream that revealed to her the story line for the horror classic about Dr. Frankenstein and his monster.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson regularly willed himself to dream the story line of famous novels like Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
  • The great physicist Henry Poncare solved the problem of fuchsian functions in the half-wake/half-sleep state we often encounter just before we go to sleep or wake in the morning.
  • Gordon Gould, the inventor of the laser, says that his breathtaking idea came to him, not slaving away in his lab but during a relaxed drive in the country.
  • Fredrick August Kekule attributed his discovery of the ring structure of the benzene molecule to a dream of snakes biting their own tails.
  • The renowned physicist Stephen Hawking discovered the event horizon of black holes, not by poring over his notes but instead half asleep while climbing into bed.
  • Albert Einstein hit upon one of the most profound theories of the 20th century, the theory of relativity, while daydreaming on a grassy hill on a warm summer day. Showing his admiration for relaxed brain states, this great man, who got some of his best ideas while shaving, commented, “I never discovered anything with my rational mind.”

The list of examples is almost endless. But you get the point: contrary to what most of us believe, it is not active mental states but relaxed mental states that produce the most profound levels of learning and creativity.

Missed Opportunities

yoga[1]There may be many more unrealized Newtons, Darwins, and Einsteins among us, but because institutions keep the majority of students and workers trapped in active mental states for too long, we may never know how many. In his booklet, Neuro-Tour, brain-based educator Erik Jensen writes, “It may be the ‘downtime’ (which we know now is not really ‘down’) that’s most important for new information processing. Learning can become more functional when external stimuli is shutdown and the brain can link it to other associations, usages and procedures.” One of the most respected neuroscientist of our day, Antonio Damasio, notes, “Few things can be as salutary, once you find intellectual hurdle, as giving yourself a vacation from the problem.” In your own life you may be inadvertently inhibiting your learning, creativity, and even your potential in life by failing to give enough respect to the incubation stage of learning, when your brain goes “off line.”

The scientific definition of incubation is to maintain a chemical or biochemical system under specific conditions in order to promote a particular reaction. The incubation stage of learning does just that. In order for newly acquired information to gain durability and promote creativity, incubation bathes the brain in a neurochemical environment that is different from the one the brain experiences during the information, action, and feedback stages of the learning process. We know that, during the action and feedback stages, the brain’s major emphasis is focusing its attention upon the most meaningful external stimuli to be selected into working memory (see “Memory Is Not an Event: The Four Stages of Learning“).

A Change of Mind

In these active, external processing stages of learning, the aminergic system, made up of the neuromodulators norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, exerts control over brain function. During the incubation stage, our brains literally change their chemical minds. In general, it can be said that, as we go into deeper and deeper phases of incubation, the aminergic system begins to release its dominant control of the brain, and the cholinergic system, of which acetylcholine (ACH) is the primary neurotransmitter, begins to become more influential. In the day and night incubation phases of learning, when the monoamines ebb and ACH begins to flow forward, a neurochemical environment is created where the most meaningful information that has been packed into working memory can now be effectively selected for inclusion into our long-term memory banks.

In what is considered by many to be the most comprehensive text on the neurochemistry of relaxed states, Zen and the Brain, author James Austin writes of role of acetylcholine, stating simply, “ACH is a transmitter to remember.” The devastating memory loss caused by Alzheimer’s disease is directly linked to the massive loss of cells in the ACH system (primarily in the basal ganglia), which also disrupts the brain’s ability to effectively drop into critical incubation phases of learning. Drugs that boost ACH levels and the ability to efficiently enter the incubation phases of learning often improve the memory of Alzheimer’s patients.

Research shows that, if you neglect or disrupt in any way the neurochemical combinations that make up the incubation phase, you disrupt the ability of information to flow from your working memory into your long-term memory. This is why, when you miss sleep or work too long or too hard, thus limiting your ability to enter the day and night phases of the incubation stage, you are apt to forget much of what you want to remember. It is important to note that the shift in the neurochemical climate, which emphasizes internal communications over external processing, brings the added benefit of enhancing our creative processes.

Any individual or learning institution that desires to create profound learning and creativity will provide for periods of relaxed downtime intermixed with the action and feedback stages of learning.

In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:

How often you should enter and how long you should remain in the incubation stages of learning, in order to produce the most powerful levels of learning and creativity.

What orchestrated downtime is and why it is so important to your learning process.

How Robert Kyosaki, author of the Rich Dad Poor Dad book series (over 20 million sold) used orchestrated downtime to built an educational and financial empire.

Why, if you aggressively focus on a project or learning experience for too long, you may impede the very neurological systems that produce the learning, understanding and creativity you are so aggressively trying to produce.

How the incubation stage of learning causes physiological changes, such as decreased heart rate, reduced respiration rate, decreased blood flow to muscles and increased blood flow to digestive organs.

Why your brain and body must enter the incubation stage of learning in unison and how to accomplish this task.

How machines that measure electrical brain waves are used to indicate what stage of learning you are actually in.

That the reason brain waves are used instead of measuring neurochemical levels is because, in order to get efficient neurochemical readings in the brain, painful spinal taps must be performed or holes must be drilled into the skull and probes inserted into neural tissue.

That, to avoid these painful procedures, researchers find it easier to measure the different electrical waves patterns (EEGs) given off by the brain.

That, over the last 10 years, research using this type of brain wave measure has produced a wealth of new data on the different stages of learning.

That when your brain is in the action and feedback stages of learning, the aminergic system (dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine) dominates, producing very fast frequency, low amplitude, unsynchronized brain waves called beta, which range from 13 to 30 cycles per second.

That in the incubation stage of learning, as the aminergic system begins to wane and acetylcholine (ACH) becomes more dominant, your brain waves shift to synchronized, slower frequency, and higher amplitude alpha (8 to 12 cycles per second [cps]), theta (4 to 7 cps) and delta (0.5 to 3 cps), often called slow wave states.

Why every 90 minutes or so in both waking and sleeping states the brain must cycle in and out of its different wave rhythms or learning cannot take place.

That shifting between these different brain cadences represents meaningful information being integrated into your long-term memory banks.

How we learned from electroconvulsive shock therapy (ECT) that the brain needs to enter alpha, theta, and delta slow wave states for memory to become cemented.

Why different regions of your brain can be in different wave states at the exact same time.

How the “no time to rest” society keeps your brain trapped in beta wave state.

How being trapped in active, focused beta brain wave states for too long without allowing your brain to drop into slow-wave alpha, theta, and delta states knocks information out of your working memory.

That this “too much beta” effect is called neural knockout.

That there is very positive benefit to letting your mind “space out,” daydream or wander every hour and a half.

How the incubation stage of learning allows new brain connections time to fix and strengthen, free from competition from outside stimuli.


Why alpha, theta and delta brain wave states are the wellspring of profound creativity.

Why, once you understand the science behind how the incubation stage of learning generates creativity, you will have the confidence to enter this stage more often.

How some researchers, who might be called on “the edge,” note that our creative slow-wave brain states resonate with many frequencies found in outer space, and what that means to you.

Why accelerated learning pioneer Gary Wyler says beta fast wave states are useful for amassing information, “but they inhibit access to deeper levels of the mind. … It is in alpha-theta states that the great feats of super memory along with heightened powers of concentration and creativity are achieved.”

How, even though researchers have found that reflective cognitive styles of learning are associated with greater levels of intelligence than impulsive quick-action styles, surveys indicate that most people still wrongly assume that faster is not only better but smarter.


Why scholastic, government, and corporate institutions wrongly design learning systems as if relaxed and reflective activities are the enemy.

That, in order to keep their students’ little heads continually whirling in beta wave states, many preschool programs have even eliminated nap time!

How Waldorf Schools incorporate the incubation stage of learning into their curriculum.

How, by embracing the “chain gang style of management,” corporate America damages its ability to produce profound learning and creativity within its walls.

How we can produce waking incubation states by listening to music, taking long drives, gardening, doing yoga, going on leisurely walks, or engaging in sports and hobbies that demand little attention, like knitting and jogging.


That studies show that meditators have up to 62 percent better memory retention than non-meditators.

Why meditators have faster reaction times than non-meditators.

That meditation causes not only the back and front of the brain but both sides of the brain to fire in the same harmonic rhythms.

What the benefit of this brain synchronicity is.

Why meditation may be one of the most effective ways to immediately change the chemical climate of your brain, allowing you to drop into slow-wave alpha, theta, and delta, thus increasing your learning and creativity potential.

How orchestrated down time, slow wave states, and the incubation stage of learning:

  • Enhance the availability of the CREB activator molecule, which is necessary to cement learning into long-term memory;
  • Allows the hippocampus to pass meaningful data from working memory to our long-term memory banks;
  • Produces the brain wave rhythms that allow for heightened creativity; and
  • Replenish the aminergic system (dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine) so that when we reenter activity we can be more focused and attentive.

To help you understand more about the incubation stage of learning, click on other Elements:

The Environment Is Everything to Increasing Your Adaptability / Intelligence Factor

Why Experience Beats Linguistic Learning Every Time

Memory Is Not an Event: The Four Stages of Learning

Sleep – the Most Powerful Incubation Phase

The Grinches Who Stole Experience From Our Learning Institutions

Stress – the Death of Learning