It’s a universally recognized but little understood truth: great epiphanies happen in the shower.
There is a all dedicated Reddit subreddit for effect. So why does this hot, scorching environment seem to be stirring up such interesting thoughts?
For years, scientists have argued over the so-called “shower effect” and why it occurs. Now two new experiments have helped clear up some of the more nebulous findings.
The latest experiments were conducted by Zac Irving, who studies and teaches the philosophy of cognitive science at the University of Virginia, and they imply that unwavering focus on a task can be the enemy of creativity.
Instead of mulling over a problem until it’s solved, the results suggest you’re better off taking a break and participating in another mildly engaging task, like taking a shower. This environment can allow your mind to wander freely, without purpose or direction, but with certain constraints.
As your thoughts drift, researchers think you’re more likely to come up with something clever.
A totally boring task, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to constrain your thoughts enough to generate creative ideas. You are more likely to get distracted or keep thinking about the original problem.
“Say you’re stuck on a problem”, Irving Explain.
“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 .”
Historically, experiments on the shower effect have produced inconsistent results. Some studies found an “undemanding task” lets the brain wander and lets creativity run wild. But other studies failed to reproduce the results.
Irving thinks it’s because of flaws in the experimental design. Many previous studies have confused mind wandering with boredom, when in reality, generating unusual ideas may require a fine balance between free thought and focused thought.
“They didn’t really measure mental wandering,” argue Irving. “They were measuring how distracted the attendees were.”
A study in 2015, for example, found that when a person has too many thoughts unrelated to a task, it can make creative inspiration harder to come by. In other words, at some point, unconstrained thoughts become unproductive.
Additionally, many past experiments have used different kinds of distraction tasks in the lab that don’t translate well to the real world, like clicking numbers on a computer screen.
Irving and his colleagues designed two new experiments to compensate for these limitations.
The first experiment was based on 222 participants, most of whom were women. In a first trial, these participants were given 90 seconds to come up with as many alternative uses as possible for a “brick” or “paper clip”.
Participants were then randomly assigned to one of two tasks. The first group was tasked with watching a captivating three-minute scene from When Harry met Sally. The second group, meanwhile, watched a three-minute video of men folding laundry.
After the video intermission, both groups were unexpectedly given an extra 45 seconds to add more ideas to their original task.
The creativity of their responses was scored by the researchers based on the number of ideas they generated, and the novelty of the ideas based on originality.
At the end, participants reported how their minds wandered during the video segments.
Ultimately, the authors found that during engaging video, mind wandering was positively associated with more creative responses.
Boredom benefits, on the other hand, did not appear to be driven by mind wandering. After watching the laundry video, participants came up with fewer unusual ideas than the other group.
“Together”, the authors conclude“These findings suggest that different types of thinking stimulate creative incubation during engaging and boring tasks. While engaging tasks lead to productive mind wandering, boring tasks may be beneficial because they allow for oscillating between periods of concentration and limitlessness.”
The second experiment repeated the first experiment among 118 participants, but this time half of the group was specifically told that they would return to the original task after the video, while the other half only received a “vague” indication that it might be happening.
Next, participants indicated how engaging they found the videos.
The results of the second experiment confirm the central conclusions of the first experiment. Namely, they suggest that wandering the mind – or thinking in free motion – facilitates the generation of new ideas, “but only during a moderately engaging activity that imposes constraints on thought.”
Interestingly, when participants knew they had to go back to the initial task, they generated more ideas during the boring video, but with lower creativity scores.
This suggests that they were still thinking about the original task during the laundry scene. The movie scene, on the other hand, was just entertaining enough to allow participants to make interesting connections between the two tasks.
More research is needed to explore the “why” of the showering effect, but these new findings give us a better idea of ”how” mildly engaging tasks, like showering, can help us generate creative thoughts in the real world.
The study was published in Psychology of aesthetics, creativity and the arts.