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Why people sometimes get their best ideas in the shower, and how to duplicate the phenomenon while staying dry. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Let's talk about so-called "shower thoughts," also known as the "shower effect," in which people find that they come up with some of their most creative ideas and most insightful solutions while literally taking a shower.
I'll include some fun examples later in this newsletter. But for now, let's start from the observation that "shower thoughts" are such a common phenomenon that entire books have been written about them and subreddits devoted to them.
They also prompt two interesting questions:
Why do people seem to come up with great ideas in the shower, as opposed to so many more likely places?
How else can you inspire that kind of creative, problem-solving brain activity?
I mean: I like a good shower as much as the next person, but maybe sometimes you don't actually want to have to get naked, soap up, rinse off, and dry just to access that part of your mind.
Well, we have some good news. Writing in the peer-reviewed journal, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, researchers at the University of Virginia and the University of Minnesota say they set out to determine why certain apparently "mindless" tasks like showering can spark innovative thoughts.
In short, they found that "mindless" is a matter of degree, and that by calibrating background tasks to just the right amount of "mindlessness" (or lack thereof), it might well be possible to inspire yourself to come up with creative ideas and solutions.
"Say you're stuck on a problem," co-author and assistant professor Zac Irving of the University of Virginia explained. "What do you do? Probably not something mind-numbingly boring like watching paint dry. Instead, you do something to occupy yourself, like going for a walk, gardening, or taking a shower. All these activities are moderately engaging."
Building on previous research, Irving and colleagues including University of Minnesota psychology professor Caitlin Mills, theorized that constructive "mind-wandering" inspired creativity, but the degree of inspiration differed based on whether activities required zero mental effort or attention, or mild to moderate levels of attention.
As an experiment, Irving, Mills, et al. asked students at the University of New Hampshire to watch one of two videos, and then to brainstorm different uses for either a brick or a paperclip.
The first group of students watched an intentionally boring and "mindless" video of two men who were folding laundry.
The second group watched another video, but one that was a lot more engaging: specifically, the classic scene from 1989's When Harry Met Sally, in which Sally (played by Meg Ryan) loudly pretends to have an orgasm in the middle of a crowded New York City diner.
Afterward, the diner-scene video watchers came up with much more creative uses for the objects—and also reported that their minds wandered with less effort—than the laundry-folding video watchers.
So, where does this leave you, if you've got a specific challenge or dilemma that you need to solve, and want to try to inspire the most creative part of your brain to find some solutions? The answer seems to lie in thinking hard about the problem, and then setting it aside in favor of something that hits that sweet spot of engaged but mindless activity.
A few suggestions:
Doing household chores like cleaning up, mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, or other activities that require attention but not great creative effort.
Watching engaging television shows or movies, or else listening to music or reading—but again, with a focus on engaging but not necessarily challenging material.
Walking, biking, or driving, and allowing your mind to wander as you proceed—while keeping attention on where you're going, for safety's sake. (In fact, this last example—walking down a city street—will form the basis for the next chapter of research, Irving said, since it's such a common and realistic human activity.)
Does it work? Well, as promised, here are a few of those world's greatest shower thoughts to spark your own ideas:
Dean Kamen, who came up with the idea of "dynamic stabilization," which led to the Segway, after he slipped in the shower.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who claimed to shower as many as eight times a day in order to spark ideas while battling writer's block.
Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician who supposedly figured out how to determine the volume of unusually shaped objects while sitting in a bathtub. (Legend has it that he was so excited that he ran to the streets naked shouting "Eureka!")
So get wet. Or don’t, it's your prerogative. But if it helps you get more creative, maybe it's worth a try.
7 other things worth knowing today
The U.S. Supreme Court seems poised to outlaw affirmative action in college admissions, based on oral arguments Monday. Separately, the court let stand a lower ruling that says the federal government can require masks on planes and trains. (USA Today, American Journal of Transportation)
The Justice Department charged the man who allegedly broke into Speaker Pelosi's house and assaulted her husband with a hammer with attempted kidnapping and assault with intent to retaliate against a federal official. An FBI affidavit says David DePape, 42, admitted that he broke in through a back window, found Paul Pelosi in his bedroom, and was there because he wanted to "talk to Nancy" and "break her kneecaps." (NBC News)
Truckers and other protesters on Monday blocked some highways in Brazil in an apparent protest over the electoral defeat of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro to leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, authorities said. Burning tires, as well as vehicles such as trucks, cars and vans were blocking several points in the central-western agricultural state of Mato Grosso, which largely supports Bolsonaro, reported the company which manages the highway in the state. (Barrons)
Turtlenecks, shared showers and wetsuits for indoor pools: Europe grapples with its upcoming energy crisis. (LA Times)
Time is running out if you're hoping to book a relatively inexpensive flight over the holidays. Airlines say that demand is sky high and, as a result, airfares are soaring. For example, nonstop flights from Chicago to any of the New York airports for Thanksgiving (Nov. 22-27) are more than $500 round trip. Flights from Los Angeles to Seattle on the same dates are well above $500 round trip, too. (NPR)
Why New Jersey is almost alone in not allowing people to pump their own gas. (Short version: small gas stations managed to pass a law in the mid-20th century to protect themselves from bigger companies that wanted self-service because it's cheaper.) (CNBC)
Songs from Taylor Swift’s new album Midnights occupied the entire top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 on Monday, making her the first artist in chart history to do so, as Midnights racked up several groundbreaking accolades for the artist. Swift now has 40 top-10 hits to her name, surpassing Michael Jackson (30), Rihanna (31), the Beatles (34) and Madonna (38)—only Drake tops her, with 59. (Forbes)