Why do we have our best ideas in the shower?

That lightbulb moment you have in the shower or when on a walk? Here’s the (simplified) science behind why that happens.

Ah, the elusive "aha!" moment, when the lightbulb finally clicks on. The answer to that work problem we've been struggling with for days (or weeks) pops into our heads. And usually that happens when we’re in the shower or on a walk. As it turns out, there's a science behind why that is.

The brain solves problems in two ways

Our brains are all unique and we find creativity in different ways. Some of us like to brainstorm in groups, some prefer to find inspiration whilst alone in a quiet room. But all our brains use the same pathways to think.

1. The analytical method

This is active thinking. We methodically think through a problem to come to a solution. We lay out the material facts and actively work through ways to work out the answer. A maths calculation is an example of this: you are focusing on the question and working actively to solve it.

2. The insight method (default mode)

The second method is ‘inactive’ thinking or the Default Mode Network - in simple terms, daydreaming. This is when your brain is in a relaxed state: you’re less aware of your surroundings and you’re not actively focusing on anything. This “brain blink” allows our subconscious to make connections between information that is already stored in the brain. This is why many of us close our eyes when we try to think: we’re removing any visual stimuli to help us make those connections.
“When you’re not actively working on a problem, the brain keeps spinning and you can get restructuring of elements of the problem, pieces get reshuffled, and something clicks.” Roger Beaty, Cognitive Neuroscientist

The shower acts as a sensory incubator

So why do we tend to have our best ideas in the shower, rather than at our desks? When you stop thinking deliberately and narrowly, your subconscious becomes the main character as it daydreams.
No distractions When you’re in the shower, there are no distractions: no emails, no social media, no to-do list. This removal of distraction and stimulation allows your brain to ‘blink’ and activate the insight pathway to solve problems. Our brains have a limited amount of attention, so when we rest our attention in a seemingly mundane activity or environment, our brains bring forward ideas and thoughts that are too hard to find when you’re sat in front of your screen.
The shower also acts as a sensory incubator. The sound of running water acts like white noise and the feeling of warm water creates a sensory deprivation environment that allows our brains to enter a meditative state. This shift in state is what allows the brain to wander and explore new connections that it may not have linked together when actively focused.
You’re in a relaxed state Being in nature or listening to the sound of running water can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for slowing the heart rate and relaxing the body. This helps to reduce stress and allows the mind to wander and explore new ideas.
"You become less aware of your environment and more aware of your internal thoughts…Ideas bounce around, and different thoughts can collide and connect.” John Kounios, Author of The Eureka Factor

Walks in nature have the same effect

The same principle applies when we’re on a walk in nature. Your attention is gently held The principle of ‘soft-fascination’ is when your attention is held gently, where thoughts are able to pass through and meander around freely. Walks in nature is the perfect environment for you to let your brain reach this state.
Nature boosts your mood Exposure to nature has a positive impact on our mood and mental wellbeing. Research has shown that positive mood can enhance creative problem solving and flexible thinking. Spending just 120 hours a week in nature can help boost your mood and good health. Movement sparks ideas When we're walking, our bodies are also in a state of low-level physical activity, which has been shown to stimulate the creative part of our brains. Your subconscious kicks in as you’re softly taking in the surrounding nature.
"So all I have to do is take more showers and go for more walks and I'll be the next Elon?" Basically. While showering and walking can certainly help to spark new ideas, use it as an idea generator. Jump out, write the ideas down and put them into practice when you’re at your desk.
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