Albert Einstein, Aristotle and Salvador Dali advocated for it. And recent scientific studies have confirmed that this mental state – and the resultant cognitive power of that state – can help litigators more fully excel at their craft. Those who study this optimal mental acuity call it “incubation time”.
Trial attorneys are very well schooled and hone immeasurable career experience into stellar case analysis, strategy formulation and presentation acumen. As they dive further into trial prep, attorneys bring to bear an intensive, 24/7 work ethic with all-consuming focus. But recently the fields of both Neuroscience and Psychology have identified an inherent neuro-means of maximal creative and analytic benefit, a means that many attorneys may find counter-intuitive to becoming more strategically adept at their art: Mental Incubation Time.
Make an empty space in any corner of your mind, and creativity will instantly fill it. – Dee Hock / Founder & former CEO of VISA
Conversely to the ardent focus on diligently & incisively working out brilliant stratagems, quality incubation time involves mental relaxation, “chilling out”. A Buddhist would call it “quieting the mind”. Studies in Neuroscience and Psychology confirm mental relaxation – incubation – is an optimal creative state of the mind that allows that mind to do what it has evolved to do best – recognize patterns and associations.
Neuroscientist Alice Flaherty at the Harvard Medical School points out that the byproduct of a relaxed state of mind is an increased release of dopamine. Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter. More relaxation makes for more dopamine. More dopamine makes for more creativity. Why?
Psychologist John Kounios of Drexel University explains that our brains have evolved to catalog all in-coming information by context – the perceived relationships among all stored data. Most simply stated, the fundamental operation of the brain is to 1.) take in information and 2.) recognize patterns among that information. Our neural pathways linking the cataloged information are formed by these associative connections. Over 1,000 new pathways form every second. Yet when we focus and apply ourselves to a task, we tend to think linearly, shutting out our default mental aptitude to recognize potentially revelatory, associative connections or lines of inquiry.
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really ‘do’ it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. – Steve Jobs / Founder & Former CEO of Apple
Published in July of 2013, this recent large review by Cognitive Psychologist Rex Jung and colleagues provides an insight on how creative cognition might function. Their review suggests that when you want to unbridle your possible mental associations, allow your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities, and (most importantly) silence the inner critic, it’s good to reduce activation of what cognitive psychologists call your “Executive Attention Network” (but not completely) and increase activation of the Imagination and Salience Networks. This is where incubation comes in as a beneficial working tool.
Dopamine is the litigator’s friend. During a period of relaxed, mental incubation, increased levels of dopamine fires up those neural pathways that link the billions of associative bits of knowledge and memory, seeking – and finding – meaningful patterns that the linear thought process did not. Dopamine triggers an unconscious, yet powerfully analytical, mental process.
We have all experienced or heard the anecdotes of revelatory moments – when, while out for a run, cutting veggies for dinner prep or sitting under a Bodhi Tree, an “Eureka!” moment strikes. Dr. Flaherty and Dr. Kounios would recommend going a step further, to purposefully building “unconscious thinking” into your work process – incubation time. At intervals, divorce yourself from the task, relax and let your dopamine-charged neural pathways mine for valuable associations and new lines of inquiry. It’s robust investigative teamwork harnessed inside one already sharp mind.