The Art of Creativity

In 1926, English social psychologist and London School of Economics co-founder Graham Wallas wrote The Art of Thought — a theory outlining the four stages of the creative process, based on his own observations as well as the accounts of famous inventors. The book is long out of print, but the idea of his model has been preserved in a chapter of the 1976 treasure The Creativity Question — a selection of approaches to creativity by some of history’s greatest minds.

In his theory, Wallas outlines four stages of the creative process including preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification.

1. Preparation. During the preparation stage, the problem is “investigated in all directions” as the thinker readies the mental soil for the sowing of the seeds. It’s the accumulation of intellectual resources out of which to construct the new ideas. It is fully conscious and entails part research, part planning, part entering the right frame of mind and attention.

Wallas wrote, “The educated man has, again, learnt, and can, in the Preparation stage, voluntarily or habitually follow out, rules as to the order in which he shall direct his attention to successive elements.”

2. Incubation. Next comes a period of unconscious processing, during which no direct effort is exerted upon the problem— this is where the “combinatory play” that marked Einstein’s thought takes place. Wallas noted that the stage has two elements — the “negative fact” that during Incubation we don’t consciously deliberate on a problem, and the “positive fact” of a series of unconscious, involuntary mental events taking place.

He wrote, “Voluntary abstention from conscious thought on any problem may, itself, take two forms: the period of abstention may be spent either in conscious mental work on other problems, or in a relaxation from all conscious mental work. The first kind of Incubation economizes time, and is therefore often the better.”

3. Illumination. Following Incubation is the Illumination stage, which Wallas based on French polymath Henri Poincaré’s concept of “sudden illumination” — that flash of insight that the conscious self can’t will and the subliminal self can only welcome once all elements gathered during the Preparation stage have floated freely around during Incubation and are now ready to click into a new form.

According to Wallas, this Illumination can’t be forced. If we so define the Illumination stage as to restrict it to this instantaneous “flash,” it is obvious that we cannot influence it by a direct effort of will because we can only bring our will to bear upon psychological events which last for an appreciable time.

4. Verification. The last stage, unlike the second and the third, shares with the first a conscious and deliberate effort in the way of testing the validity of the idea and reducing the idea to an exact form.
Wallas wrote: “It never happens that unconscious work supplies ready-made the result of a lengthy calculation in which we only have to apply fixed rules… All that we can hope from these inspirations, which are the fruit of unconscious work, is to obtain points of departure for such calculations. As for the calculations themselves, they must be made in the second period of conscious work which follows the inspiration, and in which the results of the inspiration are verified and the consequences deduced...they demand discipline, attention, will, and consequently, conscious work.”

But, most important of all is the interplay of the stages and the fact that none of them exists in isolation from the rest, for the mechanism of creativity is a complex machine of innumerable, perpetually moving parts.
Wallas wrote, “In the daily stream of thought these four different stages constantly overlap each other as we explore different problems.”

Amanda Ciccatelli, Social Media Strategist at IIR USA in New York City, has a background in digital and print journalism, covering a variety of topics in business strategy, marketing, and technology. She previously worked at Technology Marketing Corporation as a Web Editor where she covered breaking news and feature stories in the tech industry.  She can be reached at Follow her at @AmandaCicc.
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