The incubation effect occurs when someone works, takes a break in which there is no conscious effort to work, and comes back to work later.

Incubation is also one of the stages of creativity proposed by psychologist Graham Wallas in 1926. It can be maximized by working right before sleeping and working again right after waking up, but doing something that is not mentally demanding during the break might also work well. Perhaps this is because the subconscious mind is thinking about working while we are not thinking about it consciously. It processes the information differently and organizes it in a way that makes sense to the conscious mind. Often after a break people find that an epiphany comes to them when they return to work. Musicians often use this trick to practice more efficiently – they can learn the same pieces in fewer hours of practice. I have seen this happen in my own practice – I’ll play something slowly one day and when I practice the next day it is better, almost magically so. More for less is always good, right?

As pre-med students, we have to manage our time carefully, and often it doesn’t seem like there is enough time for everything we do. Using the incubation effect while studying, especially for courses with a lot of material or the MCAT, would make studying more efficient. The break would allow time for relieving stress – if not due to the break itself, maybe a fun activity or a snack. In addition, the fewer hours spent studying overall means there would be time for other things that can sometimes be put on hold when studying is crucial, such as communication with family and friends. The incubation effect is a more efficient way to study, but even further than that its efficiency could promote better mental health.