The science behind why you have great ideas in the shower

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If you’ve ever stepped out of the shower or returned from a walk with your dog with a clever idea or a solution to a problem you were struggling with, it might not be a coincidence.

Rather than constantly tackling a problem or desperately seeking a flash of inspiration, research from the past 15 years suggests that people are more likely to have creative breakthroughs or epiphanies when performing a habitual task that does not require much thought. -an activity in which you are essentially on autopilot. This allows your mind to wander or engage in spontaneous cognition or “stream-of-consciousness” thinking, which experts say helps retrieve unusual memories and generate new ideas.

“People are always surprised when they realize they get interesting and innovative ideas at unexpected times, because our cultural narrative tells us that we have to do it by working hard,” says Kalina Christoff, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University. from British Columbia to Vancouver. “It’s a pretty universal human experience.”

Now we’re beginning to understand why these intelligent thoughts occur during more passive activities and what’s going on in the brain, Christoff says. The key, according to the latest research, is a pattern of brain activity – within what’s known as the Default Mode Network – that occurs when an individual is resting or doing usual tasks that don’t require much attention.

Researchers have shown that the Default Mode Network (DMN), which connects more than a dozen regions of the brain— becomes more active during wandering or passive mental tasks than when doing something that requires concentration. Simply put, DMN is “the state the brain returns to when you’re not actively engaged,” says Roger Beaty, a cognitive neuroscientist and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity Lab at Penn State University. In contrast, when you’re bogged down in a demanding task, the brain’s executive control systems keep your thinking focused, analytical, and logical.

A caveat: While the default mode network plays a key role in the creation process, “it’s not the only important network,” says Beaty. “Other networks come into play when it comes to editing, rejecting, or implementing ideas.” It is therefore unwise to blindly trust ideas that are generated in the shower or during any other period of mental wandering.

What is the default mode network

Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and colleagues discovered the network in default mode by accident in 2001 when they used positron emission tomography (PET) to see how volunteers’ brains were working. while performing novel, attention-demanding tasks. The team then compared these images to those made while the brain was at rest and noticed that specific brain regions were more active during passive tasks than during engaging tasks.

However, since the function of each brain region is not well characterized and a specific brain area can do different things in different circumstances, neuroscientists prefer to speak of “brain area networks”, such as the mode network. by default, which work together. during certain activities, according to John Kounios, a cognitive neuroscientist and director of the Creativity Research Lab at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Raichle named this network the “default” mode network because of its increased activity during periods of inactivity, explains Randy L. Buckner, a neuroscientist at Harvard University. But that’s a bit of a misnomer, as the default-mode network is also active in other mental tasks, such as remembering past events or engaging in self-reflection.

The network is also “involved in the early stages of idea generation, drawing on past experiences and knowledge about the world,” says Beaty. “When you’re not actively working on a problem, the brain keeps spinning, and you can get problem elements restructured, parts reshuffled, and something clicks.” The DMN, he adds, “helps you combine information in different ways and simulate possibilities.”

Researchers have found that when it comes to measuring creativity, there is a positive correlation between creative performance and gray matter volume network in default mode. In other words, when it comes to creativity, size matters when it comes to DMN.

Investigate changes in brain activation and connectivity between different regions of the DMN, the researchers asked the volunteers to alternate between activities involving high cognitive effort (naming colors), low cognitive effort (reading words), and no cognitive effort (resting). They found that the default-mode network was most active when participants were at rest and more active during the low-effort task than the high-effort one, according to the study in the April 2022 issue of Scientific reports. This suggests that DMN activity can swing up and down, as if on a dimmer, perhaps stopping at intermediate points along the way, depending on the level of cognitive challenge required.

The link with creative thinking has been demonstrated in a study published in January this involved patients who were awake during brain surgery so that surgeons could map the exposed cortical surface for language functions. While direct electrical stimulation was applied to their default mode network or another area of ​​their brain, patients were asked to perform an “alternative uses task” which involved inventing unusual uses for an everyday object – in this case, a paperclip – which is a way to assess divergent thinking abilities. The researchers found that the ability of patients to successfully perform the alternative use task depended on the strength of connections between network nodes in default mode.

“The default-mode network appears to be an important source of creativity, and it’s been strongly associated with mind wandering,” says Jonathan Schooler, a psychology researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Indeed, a study in the February 2022 issue of Mapping of the human brain found that positive and constructive daydreaming—“characterized by planning, pleasant thoughts, vivid, longing images, and curiosity”—is associated with activity in the default-mode network and creativity.

The benefits of mind wandering

Whether we realize it or not, we all engage in mind wandering on a regular basis, says Beaty, noting that there are different kinds. There is deliberate wandering of the mind, where you try to exercise some level of control or direction over your thinking; and spontaneous wandering of the mind, which occurs in the brain without our directing it. In a study in a 2020 issue of PNAS, researchers using electroencephalograms to track people’s brain activity have found that spontaneous mind wandering occurs 47% of the time.

It’s the spontaneous form, in particular, that lets you combine information and ideas in new ways. “When your mind drifts away from a situation into an internal daydream, that’s when you can come up with creative ideas,” Schooler says. “In this pleasant state, you allow thoughts to playfully pass through your mind.” Keep in mind, he adds, “sometimes you have to do the work to create problem space – which lays the groundwork for spontaneous ideas to emerge.”

This is often referred to as the “incubation effect”, which occurs when you spend time away from a particular problem or challenge and your mind is given the opportunity to wander and generate new ideas through unconscious association processes.

To find out when people get their most innovative ideas, Schooler and his colleagues asked professional writers and physicists to keep diaries for two weeks, in which they recorded their most creative idea of ​​the day, what they did when it happened and if it felt like an “aha” moment. According to study published in a 2019 issue of the journal Psychological Sciences. More importantly, ideas elicited during moments of mind wandering were more likely to be associated with overcoming a dead end on a thorny issue and be considered “aha” moments.

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