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Curious George, Incubation Periods and a Recipe for Circles and Squares.

Stop being creative to be creative. Montessori teaches nose blowing and self-made bicycles have something in common.

The Prompt: “What is one of your favorite children's stories?”

The Paper: Active or Inert? An Experimental Comparison of Creative Ideation Across Incubation Periods. Emily Frith, Pamela Ponce and Paul D. Loprinzi in the Journal of Creative Behavior

The Recipe: Round and Square

Jeff Rabkin. President, Creative Director and Sprint Facilitator Wowza inc.

I recently pulled a slim paperback of Curious George from the Little Free Library at the end of my driveway. I took out the book and brought it back to the workshop to use the pictures for a collage on the back of a ukulele.

Curious George was a childhood favorite, but I can’t honestly say I remember any particular story from the books; not from my childhood reading, or from reading the book to my daughter.

I quickly scanned through the little book, tore out some pages, and tossed the rest in a pile of cut-up magazines. The pictures were enough to trigger a warm bit of nostalgia but not sufficient to shed light on any foundational life narratives or insights into the formation of my psyche.

The Curious George Wikipedia entry describes husband-and-wife children’s book authors Hans Augusto (H. A.) Rey and Margret Rey as a Jewish couple who fled Paris in June 1940 on self-made bicycles, carrying the Curious George manuscript with them. I love the reference to self-made bicycles. Thirty-some years after the Reys left France, my Jewish mother read me their stories from my room that looked onto a wooded lot and creek where I loved to explore—likely imagining adventures like the funny little monkey’s.

I doubt my mom knew this story survived the Second World War in the satchel of a couple of Jewish refugees. She would have loved that connection. My father would have loved that their freedom from fascism was aided by bikes they welded together themselves from scraps of iron in their garage.

The Curious George stories begin with the Man With The Yellow Hat taking George out of Africa to put him in a zoo. A current-day race theorist might read this as a metaphor for slavery and call for the books to be cancelled. But The Man With the Yellow Hat and George bond as besties, and little George is freed from zoo bondage. Stockholm syndrome. The prisoner falls in love with his captor. How can a spirited little monkey resist a kind-hearted trafficker with an awesome hat?

Adopting George is no great bargain for Yellow Hat Man, as George always gets into situations requiring adult human intervention. Children must like this sort of thing. The tension between freedom and dependence. Knowing that someone has your back. The opportunity to take risks within safe boundaries.

In his book, Wanting, author Luke Burgis tells a story about Maria Montessori. The Italian pre-school teacher was tasked with teaching a somewhat feral lot of little kids who constantly sniffled and sneezed, causing great annoyance and prompting teasing by intolerant adults. One day, exhausted by the unruly children, Montessori decided to pull out a handkerchief and deliberately teach the children the various ways to use it. How to wipe sweat off their brow, dab a tear, and blow their noses quietly. She taught them this simple, practical, civilizing skill that allowed them to be a bit more adult. Montessori was surprised by how enthralled and appreciative these little snot-nosed kids were to learn something so mundane. This accidental discovery led to one of the most innovative advances in education. Kids want to know what’s required to grow up. Who’d have thought?

I’m always impressed by people with the ability to recover detailed childhood memories. Memoirs blow me away. It’s impressive to recall places and conversations that happened decades ago. I remember very little. It’s interesting to think about how much we all vary in our short-term and long-term memory, analytic skills, creativity, language, intellect, and emotional intelligence. It’s like the distribution of toppings on a pizza, with each slice getting a different ratio.

Segue to a paper in the Journal of Creative Behavior: Active or Inert? An Experimental Comparison of Creative Ideation Across Incubation Periods. The authors, Emily Frith, Pamela Ponce, and Paul D. Loprinzi, conducted an experiment to see if being active during a break—an incubation period—in a deliberate creative task would increase creativity as compared to being sedentary during the incubation period. Spoiler alert: it doesn't really matter.

The value of incubation periods in creative work is well known. Anyone who does anything creative knows that when you take a break from a creative activity, you’ll come back to it with more or better ideas. If you’ve ever slept on a problem or come up with an idea in the shower, you know this to be true. It’s why there are ping pong tables in ad agencies.

In this paper, somewhere buried in the social-scientific jargon, is the idea that incubation periods are useful in the way that they help us to forget. It’s called recall failure. “Recall failure may actually serve as an asset in the context of incubation, as individuals will be inclined to forget inappropriate or irrelevant ideas.” Forgetting is apparently an important part of the creative process. This provides me with a nice way to reframe a lifelong perceived shortcoming—forgetfulness—into a strength.

I appreciate adding fancy new lingo to my vocabulary, but I’m still not clear on the point of this research and what the authors thought they’d discover.

There were two conditions to the experiment. In both, the subjects were given the creative task to think of ideas for objects that were round and square. One group took a break from the task and walked on a treadmill. The other group, the control condition, sat down and folded some paper. After the incubation period, both groups went back to circles and squares. The researchers recorded a bunch of data and did some math. Real math!

Think about what went into this study. Three authors had to coordinate their schedules and meet several times to discuss their ideas. There was likely a grant application or some kind of funding request they needed to write and edit. They had to design the actual study, make decisions on how it would be executed, think through issues like how many subjects to recruit, the screening criteria and all the study logistics. You can’t do a study like this without getting approvals and filling out lots of paperwork. Once approved and funded, they had to secure a location and buy a treadmill. Procurement officials, regulators, grad students, were involved. Someone had to open the lab, monitor the action, and carefully collect the data. Certainly, the subjects were paid. People don’t do this sort of thing out of sheer altruism. Beer money, yes, advancing science, not so much.

Three highly educated and intelligent academics set out to essentially answer this question: does walking between creative tasks yield more and/or better ideas than sitting? Did they seriously think there would be any meaningful difference? How must they have felt when the data was analyzed, and the results were in? You think they threw a party?

Please don’t misinterpret my tone here as mocking or cynical. I actually admire this kind of research. It reminds me of a time I visited the Walker Art Center many years ago. There was an exhibition by a woman artist who made intricate

sculptures that required hundreds of hours of repetitive work. I can’t remember her name or any of the specific sculptures, but I do remember the hundreds of hours of tedious repetition required to make them. Creativity, to whatever end, or toward no end at all, is okay by me.

Recipe to make stupid shit: Circles and Square

Here is a recipe inspired by the experiment referenced in the paper on inert incubation periods, where the test guinea pigs had to think of round and square objects:


  • A surface to draw or paint on. Paper is always a good choice. Wood, cardboard, tabletop, a wall...whatever.

  • A marker, pencil, paint. You get the idea

  • Anything else you might want to add.

  • A round object and a square one. One or more.

Find a round object and a square one you can use as templates to trace from. On paper, or wood, or whatever you have around, use any tool you want to trace shapes. Then, take a break. Go for a walk or sit around doing something else. It doesn't matter. After your incubation period, go back and continue to work on your picture. It’s done when you think it’s done.


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