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Scientists have worked out why your best ideas come to you in the shower

Scientists have worked out why your best ideas come to you in the shower

A team of scientists led by the University of Virginia’s Caitlin Mills and Zac Irving delved into the phenomenon in a new study

Scientists think they can explain why our best ideas regularly come to us in the shower, saying there’s a perfectly straightforward reason for it. 

Many of us often find we have those unexpected lightbulb moments when having a scrub in the shower, whether it’s a good idea for dinner or a particularly effective argument for a disagreement with someone. 

A team of scientists led by the University of Virginia’s Zac Irving and the University of Minnesota's Caitlin Mills decided to delve further into this phenomenon to try and work out why it happens.

They shared their findings in a new study titled ‘The shower effect: Mind wandering facilitates creative incubation during moderately engaging activities’, published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts

While showering may seem like the least inspiring location to dream up your biggest and best thoughts, according to the researchers, this is something that actually works in your favour while washing away. 

Let your ideas run free.
dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo

Zac Irving, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the university, explained: "Say you're stuck on a problem. 

"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." 

Irving, Mills and their research associates built on previous research published a decade ago, which seemed to confirm that when we perform an undemanding task, our brains tend to wander, in turn allowing creativity 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 said. 

But he explained that that study wasn’t really a measure of mind-wandering, it was a measure of ‘how distracted participants were’. 

Irving also used going for a walk as an example of a moderately engaging activity.
The Canadian Press/Alamy Stock Photo

In the new study, participants were asked to come up with alternate uses for either a brick or a paperclip, with researchers splitting them into two groups – one watching a ‘boring’ video of two men folding laundry, the other watching a ‘moderately engaging’ video of a clip from When Harry Met Sally

The team found that, during the engaging video, there was a positive correlation between the amount of mind wandering and the creative ideas that were generated. 

“People often seem to generate creative ideas during moderately engaging activities, such as showering or walking,” the authors wrote in the study. 

“One explanation of this shower effect is that creative idea generation requires a balance between focused, linear thinking (which limits originality) and unbounded, random associations (which are rarely useful).” 

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Featured Image Credit: joeschmelzer/Stockimo/David J. Green/Alamy Stock Photo

Topics: Science