Have you ever had a great idea pop into your head while you took a shower? Most people have, and professors Zac Irving, a University of Virginia assistant professor of philosophy, University of Minnesota psychology professor Caitlin Mills decided they wanted to discover why.
The secret seems to be that doing a mindless but not boring task allows the brain to wander. After doing research, a paper on the “shower effect” was published Friday in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.
“Say you’re stuck on a problem,” Irving said. “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.”
The study affirms this anecdotal evidence, elevating Irving’s experimental model for the effect.
According to a university press release, to test this theory, Irving and Mills, along with their research associates, asked study participants at the University of New Hampshire to come up with alternate uses for either a brick or a paperclip. The researchers then split participants into two groups to watch different three-minute videos that would serve as the incubation models for the participants’ new creative ideas.
One group watched a “boring” video: two men folding laundry.
Another group watched a “moderately engaging” video. They saw a cheeky scene from the classic 1989 film “When Harry Met Sally,” in which Meg Ryan’s character demonstrates – while seated at a crowded restaurant – how to convincingly fake an orgasm.
“What we really wanted to know was not which video is helping you be more creative,” Irving said. “The question was how is mind-wandering related to creativity during boring and engaging tasks?”
He added, “The reason we used a video is because Caitlin is very much engaged in this movement within psychology to use naturalistic tasks” – meaning things people might do in real life.
Following the videos, participants were asked to quickly jump back into the process of listing alternate uses for the hypothetical brick or paperclip they were issued previously, working from ideas formed while watching the videos.
Participants also reported how much their minds wandered – that is, moved freely from topic to topic – during the videos.
What the researchers found is that mind-wandering helps, but only sometimes. Specifically, mind-wandering led to a greater number of ideas, but only when participants were watching the “engaging” video rather than the “boring” one.
During the engaging video, in other words, there was a positive correlation between the amount of mind wandering and the creative ideas generated. Mind-wandering made participants more creative.
The results form the basis for a model that can now be used on other types of real tasks to demonstrate how they might invite greater creative inspiration.
While the researchers may never study showering per se, for obvious reasons, they said they intend to continue to scale up from video watching. One of their future projects, for example, will use virtual reality to study mind-wandering in realistic contexts, such as walking down a city street.
Inc offered a few suggestions to get your brain going that don’t involve taking eight showers a day which Aaron Sorkin claimed to do to break his writer’s block.
Here’s what they suggested:
- Doing household chores like cleaning up, mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, or other activities that require attention but not great creative effort.
- Watching engaging television shows or movies, or else listening to music or reading — but again, with a focus on engaging but not necessarily challenging material.
- Walking, biking, or driving, and allowing your mind to wander as you proceed — while keeping attention on where you’re going, for safety’s sake. (In fact, this last example — walking down a city street — will form the basis for the next chapter of research, Irving said, since it’s such a common and realistic human activity.)
Of course, if turning on the water and busting out the shampoo is more your style, well, we’re not going to stop you.
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