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Scientists discover why we have our best ideas in the shower

A place for creative thought? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
A place for creative thought? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Scientists believe they have found an answer to why many people’s best ideas come to them in the shower.

Researchers at the University of Virginia have explained why a wandering mind comes up with creative solutions when engaged in a seemingly mindless task.

“Say you’re stuck on a problem,” Zac Irving, assistant professor of philosophy, asks in the “shower effect” paper published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. “What do you do? Probably not something mind-numbingly boring like watching paint dry.

“Instead, you do something to occupy yourself, like going for a walk, gardening, or taking a shower. All these activities are moderately engaging.”

Irving thinks previous studies’ attempts to get to the bottom of the “shower effect” have failed because they have assumed that the task must be mindless, when what’s actually required is a subtle balance between free and focusing thinking, with a moderate level of engagement.

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

Irving, along with University of Minnesota psychology professor Caitlin Mills and others designed two experiments involving two groups of 222 and 118 people.

Participants were randomly assigned one of two tasks. The first group watched an engaging, three-minute scene from the 1980s film When Harry Met Sally, while the second group watched a three-minute film of men folding laundry.

Meg Ryan in the hit 1980s film When Harry Met Sally
Meg Ryan in the hit 1980s film When Harry Met Sally

Following the video intermission, all participants were unexpectedly given an extra 45 seconds to add more ideas to their original task.

The creativity of their responses was scored by researchers based on the number and originality of ideas generated.

At the end of the task, participants reported how much their mind wandered during the tasks.

The scientists found that mind wandering was positively associated with more creative responses during the more engaging film.

Conversely, participants who watched the laundry film were found to have generated fewer ideas than the comparison group.

“Together, these results suggest that different kinds of thinking drive creative incubation during engaging and boring tasks,” the authors conclude.

“Whereas engaging tasks lead to productive mind wandering, boring tasks may be beneficial because they allow one to oscillate between periods of focused and unbounded thought.”