Shower thoughts explained! Scientists figure out why we get great ideas while washing

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Many people have been in the shower when that brilliant, light bulb moment suddenly strikes! It can seem like a strange place to have great ideas, but researchers say “shower thoughts” are pretty common. So, why do so many people get a spark of creativity while washing up?

While previous research has suggested that people get more creative when their mind wanders, a new study finds that those mindless tasks (like showering) aren’t so mindless after all.

Study authors say the mind actually works better when there’s a moderate level of engagement. Simply put, doing something that’s truly “boring” and doesn’t require any thought does not spark more creativity than a simple task which requires a small amount of the person’s attention.

“Say you’re stuck on a problem,” says Zac Irving, a University of Virginia assistant professor of philosophy, in a media release. “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.”

Does mind-wandering really spark great ideas?

The new study challenges past research that seemed to prove what many scientists thought about letting the mind wander. That study found that when people perform “undemanding” tasks, the brain tends to wander. When that happens, creativity starts to flow.

“There was this research in 2012, ‘Inspired By Distraction’ by Benjamin Baird and colleagues, that really blew up, both in terms of in science and in media and in the popular imagination, which was mind-wandering seems to benefit creativity and creative incubation,” Irving explains.

That team asked participants to come up with alternate uses for common items (like a brick) after an “incubation period,” where the participants engaged in different tasks with varying levels of mental demand. Results revealed that less mental demand led to more creative thought.

“Compared with engaging in a demanding task, rest, or no break, engaging in an undemanding task during an incubation period led to substantial improvements in performance on previously encountered problems,” the study’s authors wrote in the 2012 report.

However, follow-up studies failed to duplicate these results. Irving thinks he knows why.

“They weren’t really measuring mind-wandering,” the researcher explains. “They were measuring how distracted the participants were.”

Irving adds that many of these studies also used lab-friendly tasks which don’t really apply to the real world.

“The typical task that you use in mind-wandering research is called a Sustained Attention Response Test,” Irving continues. “And what that test involves is, for example, seeing a stream of digits, 1 through 9, and not clicking when you see a ‘3.’ That’s the typical mind-wandering study. They’re just not like anything in people’s daily lives.”

Mind-wandering might help in some contexts, like taking a walk, but not others, like a dull psych task,” Irving says of his theory.

A little engagement can kickstart the brain

To prove their theory about “shower thoughts,” the team created a new version of this 2012 experiment. They asked participants to come up with good ideas for using a brick or paperclip after watching three-minute videos that either bored or engaged them.

One group watched a “boring” video featuring two men folding laundry. The other “moderately engaging” video featured the famous clip from the 1989 film “When Harry Met Sally,” where Meg Ryan’s character fakes an orgasm.

“What we really wanted to know was not which video is helping you be more creative,” Irving explains. “The question was how is mind-wandering related to creativity during boring and engaging tasks?”

“The reason we used a video is because Caitlin is very much engaged in this movement within psychology to use naturalistic tasks,” the researcher adds.

After watching the videos, participants reported on how much their minds wandered during the task. Although mind-wandering led to a greater number of ideas, this only happened after people watched the “engaging” video. Researchers say the results provide a blueprint for studying how real-life tasks spark creative inspiration.

While the team may not test this theory on people actually taking a shower, they do plan to scale up their experiment to involve people engaging in other everyday tasks, like walking down a street.

The study is published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

Comments

  1. How about more Oxygen flooding your body and cells? Electrical charges from the water and the body? But mind wandering seems to have a legitimate purpose … those who smoke weeds, they sure come up with amazing stuff.

  2. While running, painting a wall or cutting the grass I’ve been struck with ideas out of the blue. Turn off the radio or other backround distractions when doing a boring task and the mind will often distract itself with a new idea.

  3. Who cares, totally meaningless waste of money study. I have an idea, lets waste taxpayer money next on why people are happier when the sky is blue and its sunny outside

  4. VERY misleading title and intro. Eventually, the truth: “While the team may not test this theory on people actually taking a shower”

  5. Completely misses the effects of ionization which falling water, lightning and crash beach waves all generate. See the book “The Ion Effect” from the 1970s. Sheesh.

  6. Poorly written content…
    Hard to follow…
    Left out the details of the 1 – 9 task…never mentioned it was on a computer…
    Rule of journalism…remember your audience doesn’t have a clue what you are talking about…unless YOU tell them…
    I was taught to write at the 5th grade level…to make it easy to digest what you are trying to convey…
    But hey…never mind…

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