To Be More Creative, Maybe Take More Showers

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“The great Tao fades away.”

So begins one trans­la­tion of the Tao Te Ching’s 18th Chap­ter. The sen­tence cap­tures the frus­tra­tion that comes with a lost epiphany. Whether it’s a pro­found real­iza­tion when you just wake up, or moment of clar­i­ty in the show­er, by the time your mind’s gears start turn­ing and you grope for pen and paper, the enlight­en­ment has evap­o­rat­ed, replaced by mud­dle-head­ed, fum­bling “what was that, again?”

“Intel­li­gence comes forth. There is great decep­tion.”

The sud­den flash­es of insight we have in states of med­i­ta­tive distraction—showering, pulling weeds in the gar­den, dri­ving home from work—often elude our con­scious mind pre­cise­ly because they require its dis­en­gage­ment. When we’re too active­ly engaged in con­scious thought—exercising our intel­li­gence, so to speak—our cre­ativ­i­ty and inspi­ra­tion suf­fer. “The great Tao fades away.”

The intu­itive rev­e­la­tions we have while show­er­ing or per­form­ing oth­er mind­less tasks are what psy­chol­o­gists call “incu­ba­tion.” As Men­tal Floss describes the phe­nom­e­non: “Since these rou­tines don’t require much thought, you flip to autopi­lot. This frees up your uncon­scious to work on some­thing else. Your mind goes wan­der­ing, leav­ing your brain to qui­et­ly play a no-holds-barred game of free asso­ci­a­tion.”

Are we always doomed to lose the thread when we get self-con­scious about what we’re doing? Not at all. In fact, some researchers, like Allen Braun and Siyuan Liu, have observed incu­ba­tion at work in very cre­ative­ly engaged indi­vid­u­als, like freestyle rap­pers. Theirs is a skill that must be honed and prac­ticed exhaus­tive­ly, but one that nonethe­less relies on extem­po­ra­ne­ous inspi­ra­tion.

Renowned neu­ro­sci­en­tist Alice Fla­her­ty the­o­rizes that the key bio­log­i­cal ingre­di­ent in incu­ba­tion is dopamine, the neu­ro­trans­mit­ter released when we’re relaxed and com­fort­able. “Peo­ple vary in terms of their lev­el of cre­ative dri­ve,” writes Fla­her­ty, “accord­ing to the activ­i­ty of the dopamine path­ways of the lim­bic sys­tem.” More relax­ation, more dopamine. More dopamine, more cre­ativ­i­ty.

Oth­er researchers, like Ut Na Sio and Thomas C. Ormerod at Lan­cast­er Uni­ver­si­ty, have under­tak­en analy­sis of a more qual­i­ta­tive kind—of “anec­do­tal reports of the intel­lec­tu­al dis­cov­ery process­es of indi­vid­u­als hailed as genius­es.” Here we might think of Samuel Tay­lor Coleridge, whose poem “Kublai Khan”—“a vision in a dream”—he sup­pos­ed­ly com­posed in the midst of a spon­ta­neous rev­e­la­tion (or an opi­um haze)—before that annoy­ing “per­son from Por­lock” broke the spell.

Sio and Ormerod sur­vey the lit­er­a­ture of “incu­ba­tion peri­ods,” hop­ing to “allow us to make use of them effec­tive­ly to pro­mote cre­ativ­i­ty in areas such as indi­vid­ual prob­lem solv­ing, class­room learn­ing, and work envi­ron­ments.” Their dense research sug­gests that we can exer­cise some degree of con­trol over incu­ba­tion, build­ing uncon­scious work into our rou­tines. But why is this nec­es­sary?

Psy­chol­o­gist John Kounios of Drex­el Uni­ver­si­ty offers a straight­for­ward expla­na­tion of the uncon­scious process­es he refers to as “the default mode net­work.” Nick Stock­ton in Wired sums up Kounios’ the­o­ry:

Our brains typ­i­cal­ly cat­a­log things by their con­text: Win­dows are parts of build­ings, and the stars belong in the night sky. Ideas will always min­gle to some degree, but when we’re focused on a spe­cif­ic task our think­ing tends to be lin­ear.

The task of showering—or bathing, in the case of Archimedes (above)—gives the mind a break, lets it mix things up and make the odd, ran­dom jux­ta­po­si­tions that are the essen­tial basis of cre­ativ­i­ty. I’m tempt­ed to think Wal­lace Stevens spent a good deal of time in the show­er. Or maybe, like Stock­ton, he kept a “Poop Jour­nal” (exact­ly what it sounds like).

Famous exam­ples aside, what all of this research sug­gests is that peak cre­ativ­i­ty hap­pens when we’re pleas­ant­ly absent-mind­ed. Or, as psy­chol­o­gist Allen Braun writes, “We think what we see is a relax­ation of ‘exec­u­tive func­tions’ to allow more nat­ur­al de-focused atten­tion and uncen­sored process­es to occur that might be the hall­mark of cre­ativ­i­ty.”

None of this means that you’ll always be able to cap­ture those bril­liant ideas before they fade away. There’s no fool­proof method involved in mak­ing use of cre­ative dis­trac­tion. But as Leo Widrich writes at Buffer, there are some tricks that may help. To increase your cre­ative out­put and max­i­mize the insights in incu­ba­tion peri­ods, he rec­om­mends that you:

  1. “Keep a note­book with you at all times, even in the show­er.” (Widrich points us toward a water­proof notepad for that pur­pose.)
  1. “Plan dis­en­gage­ment and dis­trac­tion.” Widrich calls this “the out­er-inner tech­nique.” John Cleese artic­u­lates anoth­er ver­sion of planned inspi­ra­tion.
  1. “Over­whelm your brain: Make the task real­ly hard.” This seems counterintuitive—the oppo­site of relax­ation. But as Widrich explains, when you strain your brain with real­ly dif­fi­cult prob­lems, oth­ers seem much eas­i­er by com­par­i­son.

It may seem like a lot of work get­ting your mind to relax, pro­duce more dopamine, and get weird, cir­cu­lar, and inspired. But the work lies in mak­ing effec­tive use of what’s already hap­pen­ing in your uncon­scious mind. Rather than grop­ing blind­ly for that flash of bril­liance you just had a moment ago, you can learn, writes Men­tal Floss, to “mind your mind­less tasks.”

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2014.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy Cours­es

Where Do Ideas Come From? David Lynch, Robert Krul­wich, Susan Orlean, Chuck Close & Oth­ers Reveal Their Cre­ative Sources

How Walk­ing Fos­ters Cre­ativ­i­ty: Stan­ford Researchers Con­firm What Philoso­phers & Writ­ers Have Always Known

How To Be Cre­ative: PBS’ Off Book Series Explores the Secret Sauce of Great Ideas

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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