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Photo by Mark Roberts, from The second in the dreaded self-portrait series.
Photo by Mark Roberts, from The second in the dreaded self-portrait series.

Dirty Thoughts: If I go to the bathroom, I’ll figure it out

Photo by Mark Roberts, from The second in the dreaded self-portrait series.

 

I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done it. You’re in the shower, lathering up, when suddenly a prophetic idea sprouts. Whether song lyrics, a novel plot, a radical invention or the remedy to cancer or world peace. In that moment, you pause. You think to yourself in the midst of shampoo still in your hair, soap still in your hands, or sitting on the toilet, “Wow, I’m a genius! I have to write this down.”

Yes, showers and sleep are important, but the ideas that form from these mindless tasks in life can sometimes create a mind full of ideas. Why do we come up with the best ideas in the bathroom or when we’re drifting off into a slumber? There’s a more scientific reason behind this phenomenon than many would think.

In an interview published with TIME Magazine, Francine Russo interviews Washington University psychologist R. Keith Sawyer, author of “Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation”. Sawyer shares his discoveries and suggests people can enhance their creativity in everyday life.

“When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we’re doing and our context, and that can activate different areas of our brain. If the answer wasn’t in the part of the brain we were using, it might be in another. If we’re lucky, in the next context we may hear or see something that relates—distantly—to the problem that we had temporarily put aside,” said Sawyer.

Creativity uses the same mental building blocks you use in everyday problem solving. Activities like daydreaming relaxes the prefrontal cortex—the brain’s command center for decisions, goals, and behavior and switches on the rest of your brain’s “default mode network” (DMN) clearing the pathways that connect different regions of your brain. With your noodle all loosened up, and your DMN switched on, you can make new, creative connections that your conscious mind would have dismissed.

In short, tedious activities spark great ideas. Since these routines don’t require much thought, your brain switches to autopilot, freeing the unconscious to wander.

As ironic as it sounds, to come up with a good idea, sit back, relax, and don’t think. After all, Sir Isaac Newton discovered the laws of gravity resting under an apple tree.

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