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August 03, 2016

Infrequently Asked Questions: Why do we think so well in the shower?

You're lathering up, tilting your head back into the water stream, when suddenly the lightbulb is aglow: You've found just the right pitch for your client, an idea for a book or the true meaning of life. 

And sure, while the latter realization might be slight hyperbole, it's really not that far from the truth. Recognizing so many of us relate to having insights in the shower, we reached out to John Kounios, director of the doctoral program for Applied Cognitive & Brain Sciences at Drexel University, to explain why we so consistently have ideas in the shower. 

Why do we think so well in the shower? I've had some solid ideas — and dumb ones along the way — just by scrub-a-dub-dubbing with the water hitting my back.

Sure. This is a topic [Mark Beeman and I] discussed in our recent book ‘The Eureka Factor.’ Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter, has said in interviews that he takes six or seven showers a day just to get ideas for his writing. It’s not an unusual phenomenon at all. What it is, is when you go into a shower — let’s start with the general principle. Sudden insights are more likely when you're in a particular brain state. And that particular brain state involves, for one thing, focusing your attention inwardly, rather than outwardly. Focusing on your own thoughts rather than what’s going on around you. 

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It also involves broadening or expanding the focus of your attention, rather than a narrow focus. When you go into the shower, the water is warm and there's white noise. The sound is white noise, you can’t see much and there’s not much really going on anyway; the water is about the same temperature as the skin, so you don’t feel the boundary between what’s inside the body and outside. That causes your attention to expand and you naturally focus on your own thoughts. And also it feels pleasurable, which is another factor that initiates a particular brain state. When you’re in a positive mood, ‘aha!’ moments are much more likely than when you are in a slightly negative or anxious mood. Anxiety, a small amount of anxiety, is good for analytical thought, but it is anathema to creative insight. So, a shower — a nice, warm shower — is a great way to initiate that brain state. Plus, there are no interruptions. When you’re in the shower, you’re not going to get a text or a phone call or whatever. So you naturally flow into this brain state where you're not worrying about what’s going on outside of you; you’re focusing on your own thoughts. And I think that’s also why people tend to take long showers: They lose track of time. They lose track of the external world. That’s a factor that makes it easier to have these insights and ideas. You can get the same sort of thing in a lesser fashion without necessarily taking a shower. For example, a lot of good, creative figures like to take walks in the country. That’s not as intense an experience as a shower — intense in terms of how powerfully it impacts creative thinking. But it’s pretty good. Take a walk in the country and, again, there are no external distractions. If you take a walk in the city, you have to watch out for cars and pedestrians and all that. You get in a positive mood; it’s pleasant, you focus on your own thoughts, those kinds of things. Isolation, sensory deprivation. 

So taking a shower is almost as much sensory deprivation as going into one of these sensory-deprivation flotation tanks, where people can really cut themselves off from the world.

Is there an anti-anxiety element to showering?

Well, what it is, is it’s so physically pleasurable to be warm and wet, it relaxes the muscles and all that, that it elevates a person’s mood, undoubtedly. Which you can’t be in a good mood and be anxious. So by putting you in a good mood — it’s a similar thing, a lot of people who are avid runners get good ideas when running. Personally, I run a little bit; I’m not much of a runner, so it's more of a struggle than anything else, but the people who get in the zone often say they have a lot of ideas while running. Exercise — physical exercise — elevates mood. It puts people in a positive mood. In that case, it’s not really sensory deprivation, but you're getting the positive mood. There are studies that have shown exercise is about as effective as antidepressant medication for people who have mild to moderate depression. You can see why exercise is a powerful way to stimulate creativity as well.

Is there a way to enhance the shower experience for ideas, or rig it? Is there a right environment?

I think if you have a shower where the temperature is just right, for example. You want it neither too hot — not so hot you really feel the heat intensely, you don’t want it to be too cool so that you feel the water, you want it just right so that you start to lose the sense of your own body. If you get it just right so the water temperature is about the same temperature as your body, that’s where the sensory deprivation comes from. I don’t know exactly what the right temperature is, but you get just the right temperature so you don’t feel it on your body. The rest, I think, is natural for a shower. A shower makes white noise, you can’t be interrupted, there's not much to see. If you have distracting things to look at in the shower, that probably would reduce the effects. If you’re looking at lots of bottles of shampoo or something like that. Some people even play music in the bathroom while in the shower; that would diminish the effect also.

There are waterproof screens now for showers. Seems to really defeat the purpose, no?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. And waterproof radios and all this stuff. What’s the point? That's for people who are just so addicted to stimulation or connectivity that even when they’re in the shower they just can’t bear to be disconnected. We all need that kind of isolation from time to time.

Where do your good ideas come from?

When I take the train to work, I have my noise-canceling headphones, I put on sunglasses and I sit there on my R5 SEPTA train, and I just think of some issue or problem I’m working on and sort of space out and I don’t focus my attention on the environment so much. And I get ideas. Right now, when I’m getting ideas, there or in the shower, it’s for a grant proposal I’m writing to try and get additional funding for my research. That’s what I’m most preoccupied with at the moment.

Anything to add?

There’s another anecdote in our book, ‘The Eureka Factor,’ that’s relevant. The novelist Jonathan Franzen, what he does sometimes, is when he’s writing, he’s in total darkness and he puts on a blindfold, earmuffs, the whole thing, to completely cut off sensory stimulation. And he’ll sit there and think and write and imagine things. Sensory deprivation is an important tool to getting ideas.

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