Eureka! Finally, the real answer Why your best ideas come in the shower

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Written with Caitlin Mills, professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, and others, the article on the “shower effect” was recently published in the journal Psychology of aesthetics, creativity and the arts.

“Say you’re stuck on a problem,” Irving said. “What are you doing? Probably not something boring like watching paint dry. Instead, you do something to keep yourself busy, like going for a walk, gardening, or taking a shower. All of these activities are moderately engaging.

The new study confirms this anecdotal evidence, elevating Irving’s experimental model for the effect.

So what is the proof? Don’t let your mind wander. It takes a bit of setting up.

Wander in the wrong direction

Research published about ten years ago in the journal Psychological sciences seemed to confirm what many people suspected. When we perform an “undemanding” task, our brain tends to wander; and when our brain wanders, creativity tends to flow.

“There was this research in 2012, ‘Inspired By Distraction’ by Benjamin Baird and colleagues, which really exploded, both in terms of science and media and in the popular imagination, which was mind wandering seems to benefit creativity and creative incubation,” Irving said.

Zac Irving studies wandering minds and the boundary between unproductive thinking and creative thinking. Credit: Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications

In this research, scientists asked participants to come up with creative alternative uses for everyday objects – a brick, for example – after an “incubation period” that involved tasks of varying levels of mental demand. According to the results, the lower the mental demand, the better the participants performed on the creativity test.

“Compared to engaging in a demanding task, rest or no break,” the study authors wrote, “Engaging in an undemanding task for an incubation period led to substantial improvements performance on previously encountered problems”.

However, follow-up studies have yielded inconsistent results. Some research has seemed to find a link between mind wandering and creativity, including among physicists and writers. Yet other studies have failed to replicate the original finding that received so much press. Irving has a theory as to why.

“They weren’t really measuring mind wandering,” he said. “They were measuring how distracted the attendees were.”

Irving said another problem with the study, and others like it, is the variety of lab-friendly tasks participants are asked to perform. They may tax the mind, but they don’t translate well to the real world.

“The typical task you use in mind wandering research is called a sustained attention response test,” he said. “And what this test entails, for example, is seeing a stream of numbers, from 1 to 9, and not clicking when you see a ‘3’. That’s the typical study of mind wandering. They unlike anything in people’s daily lives.

This is important because the shower effect probably depends on the context you are in.

“Mind wandering may help in some contexts, like taking a walk, but not in others, like a boring psychic task,” Irving said of his theory.

Brainstorming under a new design

To test this theory, Irving and Mills, along with their research associates, asked study participants from the University of New Hampshire to come up with alternative uses for a brick or paperclip. Next, the researchers divided the participants into two groups to watch different three-minute videos that would serve as 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 – as she sits in a crowded restaurant – how to convincingly fake an orgasm.

“What we really wanted to know was not which video helps you be more creative,” Irving said. “The question was, how does mind wandering relate to creativity during boring and engaging tasks?”

He added: “The reason we used a video is that Caitlin is very committed to this movement within psychology to use naturalistic tasks” – that is, things that people might do in the real life.

After the videos, participants were asked to quickly go back through the process of listing alternative uses for the hypothetical brick or paperclip they had previously received, working from ideas formed while watching the videos.

Participants also reported how their minds wandered – that is, moved freely from one topic to another – during the videos.

What researchers have found is that mind wandering helps, but only sometimes. Specifically, mind wandering led to more ideas, but only when participants watched the “engaging” video rather than the “boring” one.

During 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 of a model that can now be used on other types of real-world tasks to demonstrate how they might invite greater creative inspiration.

While the researchers may never study the shower itself, for obvious reasons, they said they intend to continue to transition from watching videos on a larger scale. For example, one of their future projects will use virtual reality to study mental wandering in realistic settings, like walking down a city street.

Reference: “The Shower Effect: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation During Moderately Engaging Activities” by ZC Irving, C. McGrath, L. Flynn, A. Glasser, and C. Mills, September 29, 2022, Psychology of aesthetics, creativity and the arts.
DOI: 10.1037/aca0000516

The data for the study was collected by Mills student Catherine McGrath for her honors thesis. Lauren Flynn and Aaron Glasser are the other authors of the study, respectively from the laboratories of Mills and Irving.

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