The Blog

Why Your 'Eureka' Moment Will Probably Happen in the Shower

Don't get me wrong - it's great that I feel the need to jump out of the shower and grab my phone to type in some incoherent slew of thoughts. If only these outbursts happen in a productive environment.

It was whilst taking a shower a few days ago (...not the last time I had a shower, by the way), I became aware of my thoughts.

"Why do trains honk their horns?"

"Why do they paint coloured symbols on sheep?"

As you can guess, I was hardly attempting to solve an existential crisis. But my mind began to run wild.

I get most of my ideas in the shower - ideas for my next article, ideas on where to go that weekend, ideas on what to do with my life. Don't get me wrong - it's great that I feel the need to jump out of the shower and grab my phone to type in some incoherent slew of thoughts. If only these outbursts happen in a productive environment.

The thoughts that followed were slightly less embarrassing. I began to wonder why we come up with ideas and answers to problems whilst in the shower. I wanted to know why is it, that when I'm at work I can sometimes barely string a sentence together yet at home I'm like a modern-day Shakespeare? OK. Not Shakespeare, but you catch my drift.

I spoke to Dr Paul Howard-Jones, a reader in Neuroscience and Education at the University of Bristol to find out more.

So why do we come up with so many good ideas in the shower? "Things such as a change in context or change in environment are really helpful. Things that disrupt our normal way of thinking can be really supportive for coming up with new ideas because it prevents us from becoming too narrowly focused on just the obvious things that are associated with a particular problem" Paul explained.

Paul also pointed out that the relevance of water as an aid to relaxation could be influential for creating and collating our ideas, "Water has a long history of being relaxing. Trickling streams have always been associated with relaxation and I think that's probably key to understanding the effects of water on creativity".

The suggestion, therefore, seems to be that a change in environment and doing something enjoyable or relaxing could influence our thought processes. Many notable people have had ideas whilst in the bathroom setting. Archimedes, who famously coined the 'Eureka!' term, came up with a test for density whilst getting into his bath whilst Yoshiro Nakamatsu, one of the world's most prolific inventors, thinks up most of his inventions whilst diving underwater.

"There was actually a study done in the 90's where they let people float in flotation tanks and then they asked them to come up with as many ideas as they possibly could. I think it was the Guildford Brick Test. The people who had been in the floatation tanks, though, came up with many, many more ideas after they'd had a very long soak rather than those people who did not."

Paul also detailed how, as early as the 1920's, researchers proposed the idea of having an incubation period, a period of time spent away from external stressors, to help with the creation of ideas, "It was regarded as a very mysterious period that would ultimately lead to illumination and suddenly this idea would just come into your mind. You do often need this incubation period before an idea suddenly appears to arrive out of nowhere."

So, is there anything we can do to actively try and capture our ideas or influence our creativity?

Well, against some advice, don't take your notepad into the bathroom for a start. Paul thinks it's important not to make the bathroom into a workplace and stressed the importance of being able to travel mentally. "It would actually be better to have something on the walls. Things that take you to different places, to different parts of your life, different memories, maybe places you haven't been to and make sure they are widely spaced in terms of their meaning and their context. Include unrelated pictures which cover a diverse range of ideas and contexts and then change those pictures regularly."

I don't think that my suggestions for 'shower breaks at work' will make the cut just yet. Until then, I'll have to make do with playlists of oceans, rivers and watery sound effects.

(Oh and by the way - trains honk as a safety precaution when they are approaching level crossings and such and sheep are painted for identification purposes.)

To read the full interview with Dr Paul Howard-Jones, please visit my blog here.