“Shower thoughts”: a phrase now synonymous with wild but interesting ideas that only seem to arise when you’re having a shower (because you sure aren’t that creative when you’re actually trying to be). The mind seems to enter a different, more creative state when calmly having a shower, giving rise to questions you’ve never even considered before – but why is it always in the shower? Researchers from the University of Virginian think they’ve finally cracked it.
Zac Irving and colleagues have proposed in a new study that the secret to unlocking this advanced creativity is a moderately engaging task – neither too menial to disengage the brain completely nor too hard to take up too much processing space. When you enter a shower, the brain is still engaged and moderately active, but still allows for fresh thoughts on other problems. Irving believes this also explains why going for a walk also helps in this regard.
“Say you’re stuck on a problem,” Irving said in a statement. “What do you do? Probably not something mind-numbingly boring like watching paint dry. Instead, you do something to occupy yourself, like going for a walk, gardening, or taking a shower. All these activities are moderately engaging.”
If right, the idea could be used to increase how productive and creative our brains can be.
What evidence does the hypothesis have to support it? There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence, with almost everyone at some point saying to go clear our heads with a walk – but this is science, and there needs to be something more substantial.
Previous studies have explored this idea to a degree, but they only measured how distracted a person was and the creativity that followed, not how mind-wandering may be beneficial.
The researchers came up with a new study design, in which participants were asked to come up with an innovative new use for either a brick or a paperclip. While they did so, they watched different videos, including two men folding laundry (pretty dull), or a clip from When Harry Met Sally in which Meg Ryan shows how to fake an orgasm in a crowded restaurant (more engaging).
“What we really wanted to know was not which video is helping you be more creative,” Irving continued. “The question was how is mind-wandering related to creativity during boring and engaging tasks?”
The participants were asked about the creative task immediately after the video, but also how much their minds wandered during it. They discovered that there were significantly more ideas when the brain was wandering more, but only when the task was moderately engaging, not when they were watching the boring video.
Essentially, the results demonstrated it was more beneficial to creativity to do something that engages the brain slightly, as opposed to something that you have no interest in whatsoever.
The researchers now hope to expand on the results using virtual reality to increase the number of situations and move away from just videos, in an attempt to hone the best level of mind-wandering for creativity.
The research was published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.