In order to validate their theory regarding “shower thoughts,” a group of researchers redesigned a 2012 experiment.
Many have experienced that brilliant, light bulb moment while they are in the shower. Though showers may seem like an odd place to have such ideas, researchers say they are actually quite common.
So why do so many people find their genius there?
A new study says that seemingly mindless activities, like taking a shower, are actually not as mindless as previously thought. This is despite previous research suggesting that people become more creative when their minds wander.
According to the study’s authors, the brain functions more effectively when there is a moderate level of engagement. Simply put, performing an activity that is truly “boring” and doesn’t require any thought does not inspire more creativity than performing an activity that is straightforward and only requires a small amount of attention.
Zac Irving, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, asks the public: “Say you’re stuck on a problem. What do you do? Probably not something as 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.”
The new study casts doubt on earlier studies that appeared to support the notion that letting one’s mind wander was healthy. According to that study, people’s brains tend to daydream while performing “undemanding” tasks. When that occurs, inspiration begins to flow.
“There was this research in 2012, ‘Inspired By Distraction’ by Benjamin Baird and colleagues, that really blew up, both in terms of in science and in media and in the popular imagination, which was mind-wandering seems to benefit creativity and creative incubation,” Irving stated.
After a “incubation period,” where participants performed various tasks with varying levels of mental demand, the team asked participants to think of alternative uses for common items, like a brick. Results showed that less mental effort resulted in more original thought.
“Compared with engaging in a demanding task, rest, or no break, engaging in an undemanding task during an incubation period led to substantial improvements in performance on previously encountered problems,” the study’s authors wrote in the debated 2012 report.
However, subsequent research were unable to duplicate similar findings. Irving believes he knows the reason.
“They weren’t really measuring mind-wandering,” the researcher explains. “They were measuring how distracted the participants were.”
According to Irving, many of these studies also employed lab-friendly tasks that had little real-world application.
In order to validate their theory regarding “shower thoughts,” the researchers redesigned the 2012 experiment. After watching three-minute videos that were either boring or engaging, they invited participants to think of creative ways to use a brick or paperclip.
Participants were asked how often their thoughts wandered while completing the task after seeing the movies. Even though respondents came up with more thoughts when their minds wandered, this only happened after they saw the “engaging” film. The findings, according to researchers, offer a framework for exploring how real-world tasks inspire creative inspiration.
The team intends to broaden their experiment to include people performing other common activities, such as walking down a street, even if they may not test this notion on people actually taking a shower.