It’s been said before that people have their best and most creative ideas in the shower. But have you ever stopped for a moment and wondered why that is the case?
While tapping into the creative process seems to be somewhat of a myth (how many times have we heard musicians, writers or artists talk about how the “creative spark” just hit them out of nowhere at three in the morning), it is, in actuality, a very distinct process triggered by a few key factors.
Leo Widrich, co-founder of the Buffer blog, explains in his most recent blogpost the science of creativity and why ideas are so plentiful in the shower.
While the inspiration for Widrich’s piece didn’t actually come to him in the shower, it came via a research study on the science behind freestyle rapping by Allen Braun and Siyuan Liu.
In this study, Braun and Liu found:
“Artists showed lower activity in part of their frontal lobes called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during improvisation, and increased activity in another area, called the medial prefrontal cortex. The areas that were found to be ‘deactivated’ are associated with regulating other brain functions.”
And with that, Widrich was able to conclude that the areas in our brain, that we use to make decisions is largely inactive. The “medial prefrontal cortex” area, which is responsible to learn association, context, events and emotional responses however was extremely active on the other hand.
As Widrich notes for seemingly the first time, here was an activity that was both deeply creative and also fairly straightforward to measure (according to Braun, other such activities that fall under the same window of creativity as freestyle rapping include writing, drawing, solving programming problems).
With that in mind, another key ingredient relative to creativity is dopamine. Alice Flaherty, one of the most renowned neuroscientists researching creativity, has surmised that the more dopamine that is released, the more creative we are.
To wit she says:
“People vary in terms of their level of creative drive according to the activity of the dopamine pathways of the limbic system.”
According to Flaherty, typical triggers for events that make us feel great and relaxed and therefore give us an increased dopamine flow are taking a warm shower, exercising, driving home, etc. The chances of having great ideas then are a lot higher.
Jumping into the shower can turn into what scientist call the “incubation period” for your ideas. The subconscious mind has been working extremely hard to solve the problems you face and now that you let your mind wander, it can surface and plant those ideas into your conscious mind.
This graphic below shows beautifully how dopamine gets taken up by certain brain areas which then get increasingly active and trigger more creative wanderings:
Lastly, after you have received an influx in dopamine, can be easily distracted by an extremely habitual task like showering or cooking, a relaxed state of mind is absolutely important to be creative:
“When our minds are at ease–when those alpha waves are rippling through the brain–we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere. In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve. While this pattern of attention is necessary when solving problems analytically, it actually prevents us from detecting the connections that lead to insights.”