You’re in the shower, lathering up, when Bam! Inspiration strikes. The perfect marketing plan, the solution to your woes, or a new and fabulous way to raise revenues rockets into your brain. The next thing you know, you’re streaking through your house all sudsy, frantically searching for something to write with, lest the idea slip away.
Why is it that the best ideas always seem to arrive in the shower?
It’s certainly not a recent phenomenon. In ancient Greece, the great mathematician Archimedes was
enjoying a soak in the tub when he figured out a method for determining whether a crown was made of pure gold. He was so excited, legend has it, that he ran through the streets of Athens naked, screaming “Eureka!” (“I have found it”).
So what’s the deal? Is there something magical about the water, the soap, and the stream? Scientists have a few theories. “Creativity requires an attitude that is paradoxical blend of attention and relaxation,” explains Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco based clinical psychologist. As it happens, the shower is a near perfect place to cultivate such an attitude. As we scrub, “our minds revert to a sort of neutral state in which we are receptive to issues or themes that bother us or that are unresolved,” says Steven M. Smith, a cognitive psychologist at Texas A&M. In other words, the mind begins to wander aimlessly, which makes it easier to entertain less than serious thoughts. In most cases, these playful thoughts lead to nothing, and you leave the shower all wet. But on occasion, you’ll hit on something really great.
There’s nothing particularly magical about the shower itself. But it is a place where we perform a relatively mindless and simple activity. This lack of anxiety is what helps kick out good ideas in the shower. It’s similar to what psychologists have discovered in treating sexual dysfunction, says Coleman. “Some of the techniques developed by Masters and Johnson are designed to help the individual shut off that part of the mind that is trying too hard to solve the problem,” he says. “If men or women think too much about their performance, their performance suffers. In other words, the analytical part of the mind can shut down the spontaneous part in the same way that a critical parent can shut down a child’s play.” Free from performance anxiety as you bathe, your mind is free to be creative.
Also, because you’re presumably showering alone, you’re in a personal space, free from negative feedback, quizzical stares, and other distractions. For most people, in fact, the shower is the only place where they are totally alone with their own thoughts.
To achieve that relaxed state of mind, it’s important to be removed from the context in which your problem occurs, Smith says. So if your company makes showerheads, shower caps, soap or bubble bath, the shower may not be the same relaxing place that it is for the rest of us. You’ll have to find another place to be private, get relaxed and let your mind wander. Clothing is optional.