Why is the shower great for creative ideas?

We’ve all been there, while in the shower the answer to that sticky problem, an idea that seems inspired, or even the perfect response to an earlier comment – just appears.  Why is that?

It’s not just the shower, it might be when we’re dropping off the sleep, while out walking, doing the washing up, and a big one for me, while out riding a bike – I often return desperate for a piece of paper to scribble down my thoughts before they disappear.

There’s a lot of work in social science on creativity, but I think one particular starting point is interesting here.  I’ll summarise it as control thwarts creativity.  When we are mentally taking charge of a track of thinking, the very act of taking charge is counter to the disparate linking of ideas that often occurs during creative insight.

Have you every seen sheep herding when a farmer and dog are trying to coax sheep into a pen – between them they funnel all the sheep in the same direction, through a gate, catching any dashes for freedom and bringing them back in line.  In our heads, the sheep are our thoughts and farmer and dog are played by our pre-frontal cortex, the bit of our brain just behind our forehead, often described as our executive control system.  It’s fundamental to our ability to think, to understand ourselves and to be human.  The kind of control it can provide is great when you need to get something done, it’s productive time, stopping yourself going off at tangents until you’ve managed to achieve your goal.

But it’s the sheep shooting off at tangents, running around the field seeking out new lush bits of grass that better mirrors creativity – a lack of control is the thing.  It’s been found that creative insight comes most easily when this part of our brain is relaxed.  Prof. Arne Dietrich, created the term transient hypofrontality to describe these moments – transient meaning temporary, hypo meaning reduced, frontality meaning pre-frontal cortex control.  Temporarily reduced control from the pre-frontal cortex.

Guess what are good ways to induce transient hypofrontality – yes, take a shower, go out for a walk, ride a bike, do the washing-up, get ready for bed… basically, things that occupy you, but don’t tax your brain.  So, this is why the advice to take a break when we’re struggling for insight is good, and why our best ideas often come when we’re enjoying a shower.

Be remarkable, take a shower,

ps. if you’d like to hear about Transient Hypofrontality from the Arne Dietrich himself, watch his fascinating TEDx talk.

One comment on “Why is the shower great for creative ideas?

  1. Bruce Lynn

    This prized 'shower' time has some significant implications in the 'knowledge' economy.

    FOCUS – Focus on a few key objectives has always been touted as good management practice. Transient Hypofrontality provides a scientific endorsement of it. If someone has lots of things on their mind, then such shower time is wasted because the mind doesn't have a one thing to focus the intensified creative energy on and it just gets dissipated. If, on the other hand, the person has a very clear focus in their role and objectives, then it the thing they wake up every morning thinking about (not the latest fire fight or tactical issue) and the best work starts even before they arrive at work in the shower.

    OWNERSHIP – This dynamic is one of the reasons why companies shy away from Portfolio Working. They realize that the great value that many of their smartest and highly skilled/trained staff bring is their creative input. The companies want to 'own' the totality of that creativity and realize that it can't just be turned on and off walking in the office building. As a result, a Portfolio Worker, who has several bosses and several domains of interest, won't necessarily be directing their creative thought processes to the company's own objectives during prized shower time when that mind is shared with other sponsors.

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