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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

Why Do Our Best Ideas Come in the Shower?

ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

You’re in the shower, mindlessly scrubbing your toes when—bam!—a prophetic thought pops into your head. Maybe you finally solve that glitch bugging you at work. Or maybe you learn something terribly more important. The meaning of life, perhaps. Or what the 23 flavors in Dr. Pepper are.

Those aha! moments aren’t locked inside a bottle of Irish-scented shampoo. Soaking yourself in suds, though, does have a lot to do with it. The shower creates the perfect conditions for a creative flash, coaxing out your inner genius. Oh, and it makes you clean, too. 

Mind Your Mindless Tasks

Research shows you’re more likely to have a creative epiphany when you’re doing something monotonous, like fishing, exercising, or showering. Since these routines don’t require much thought, you flip to autopilot. This frees up your unconscious to work on something else. Your mind goes wandering, leaving your brain to quietly play a no-holds-barred game of free association.

This kind of daydreaming relaxes the prefrontal cortex—the brain’s command center for decisions, goals, and behavior. It also switches on the rest of your brain’s “default mode network” (DMN) clearing the pathways that connect different regions of your noggin. With your cortex loosened up and your DMN switched on, you can make new, creative connections that your conscious mind would have dismissed.

That’s why the ideas you have in the shower are so different from the ideas you have at work—you’re a pinch more close-minded at the office. Thinking hard about a problem deactivates your default network. It boosts your prefrontal cortex’s control. This isn’t a bad thing—it tightens your focus and gives you the power to stop gawking at cat pictures and hit that deadline. But it can also dig you into a creative rut. Because when you’re deeply focused on a task, your brain is more likely to censor unconventional—and creative—solutions.

Strange as it sounds, your brain is not most active when you’re focused on a task. Rather, research shows it’s more active when you let go of the leash and allow it to wander. Shelley Carson at Harvard found that highly creative people share one amazing trait—they’re easily distracted. And that’s the beauty of a warm shower. It distracts you. It makes you defocus. It lets your brain roam. It activates your DMN and encourages wacky ideas to bounce around. So when the lather rinses off, your light bulb switches on. 

And Relax!

But what makes the shower different from a boring board meeting? Doesn’t your mind wander there, too?

Well, yeah. You probably have the doodles to prove it. But a shower is relaxing. It’s a small, safe, enclosed space. You feel comfortable there. (Comfortable enough to be in the buff!) On top of that, you’re probably alone. It may be the only alone time you get all day. It’s your chance to get away from any stresses outside.

When you’re that relaxed, your brain may release everyone’s favorite happy-go-lucky neurotransmitter, dopamine. A flush of dopamine can boost your creative juices. More alpha waves will also ripple through your brain—the same waves that appear when you’re meditating or happily spacing out. Alphas accompany your brain’s daydreamy default setting and may encourage the creative fireworks. 

Wait! There’s more! The time you shower also plays into the equation. Most of us wash up either in the morning or at night—when we’re most tired. According to the journal Thinking and Reasoning, that’s our creative peak. The groggy morning fog weakens your brain’s censors, keeping you from blocking the irrelevant, distracting thoughts that make great ideas possible. It’s likely that your shower gushes during your creative sweet spot.

There you have it. You’re distracted, relaxed, and tired. Your prefrontal cortex slackens its power as your default network switches on, your dopamine supplies surge, and your alpha waves roll. The shower creates the perfect storm for the perfect idea. 

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
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AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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