Why You May Do Your Best Thinking in the Shower
A break from deliberate thought leads to surprising insights.
Posted March 4, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Seemingly mindless activities are mindful experiences that put us in the moment and can lead to the state called "flow."
- Ceasing from deliberate thought can yield unexpected insights from ideas incubating in the subconscious background.
- Solitary activities let us disconnect from the outside world. They can become meditative intervals that open us to new perspectives.
Ever wonder why a good shower relaxes your imagination and body or why it seems to release a stream of creative thoughts about a problem that may have vexed you?
The answer lies in the fixed amount of attention your brain has to work with at any given moment. This biological limit is why trying to multitask so often degrades performance and leads to mistakes.1
When the rational mind focuses on a problem, it eats up much of your allotted bandwidth, whereas letting the mind wander while you carry out a “mindless” task lets your subconscious thoughts roam beyond the activity at hand.
By "mindless," I mean a relatively automatic routine, such as walking, driving a habitual route, following your exercise workout, hiking in nature, or, yes, taking a shower.2 These are all solitary activities that let us disconnect from the outside world. They can become meditative, relaxing intervals that open us to new ideas and perspectives.
An additional benefit of the shower is that its white noise blocks outside stimulation. The roar of the water produces partial sensory deprivation, taking bandwidth that would have been used for other perceptions and shunting it to the mental space the mind uses to wander. Ideas incubating in the background can rise to consciousness and lead you past a creative impasse.
Carving out mental space and freeing the mind of deliberate thought is a proven incubator of creative insight. The lack of outside stimulation can lead to the state of “flow,” in which we are deeply, if absentmindedly, engaged with inner contemplations.
Two widely agreed features of “shower thoughts” are that they are insights from the subconscious and the result of not thinking deliberately about anything.3 Sometimes breakthroughs occur in an “aha” moment. Two features of this kind of insight are the need for relative mental quiet and the suddenness with which they arrive when not intentionally thinking about the problem at hand.
Walking is another mindless—or should I say mindful—activity that grounds us in the present moment. Famous walkers attest to walking’s benefits and shed insight on solitary activities. During her habitual, meandering walks, Virginia Woolf honed her ability to portray consciousness and the character of thought. In one of her last novels, The Waves, she refracts six separate consciousnesses into the mind of one character, the biographer named Bernard.
In her biographical essay, “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf said that her novel To the Lighthouse burst forth while walking “in a great, apparently involuntary, rush… Blowing bubbles out of a pipe gives the feeling of the rapid crowd of ideas and scenes which blew out of my mind. What blew the bubbles?… I have no notion.”4
In his essay, “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau explained that it is nothing like exercise and is “absolutely free from all otherworldly engagements.” Friedrich Nietzsche, too, walked so that he could think. In Twilight of the Idols, he wrote, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
In The Boy Detective, Roger Rosenblatt explored the flâneur—a stroller who saunters and observes, a walker without purpose. Wandering feet reflect a wandering mind, going wherever the chain of associations takes you. Rosenblatt develops the lovely concept that each of us has two personalities we take on our private walks, one “for the senses, one for the intellect.” The two never meet, yet live connected “parallel lives...and side by side move into infinity.”
Showers and walking can be meditative experiences and opportunities for introspection and reflection. They are also times when great ideas can pop into our heads.
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1. Cytowic, R., What Percentage of Your Brain do you Use? TED-Ed: Lessons Worth Sharing.
2. Irving, Z.C., et al., The shower effect: Mind wandering facilitates creative incubation during moderately engaging activities. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2022. 10.1037/aca0000516.
3. Ovington, L.A., et al., Do People Really Have Insights in the Shower? The When, Where and Who of the Aha! Moment. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 2018. 52(1): p. 21-34. https://doi.org/10.1002/jocb.126.
4. Woolf, V. and J. Schulkind, Moments of being: unpublished autobiographical writings. 1976, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich