Why do we get some of our best ideas in the shower?
We've all had this experience:
You've been thinking about a problem or trying to understand something for some time.
And it's just not working out. No solutions. No progress in understanding.
Finally, you give up. You take a break. You go for a walk or a jog or a swim or just a shower.
And that cliched lightbulb goes off in your head:
You saw the problem in a way you hadn't before
You came up with a new idea that never struck you, no matter how hard you were thinking before. In fact, you might have developed more than one idea.
You suddenly recalled a past concept or solution that you seemed to have forgotten
You are able to draw links between different fields that did not seem related. Some view or advice from someone or some knowledge you learnt in the past suddenly comes to mind and can be applied to your current situation.
Ah, you've just experienced transient hypofrontality, a concept developed by Dr Arne Dietrict
At this point, every article you can find on the internet starts making a big fuss over the name. There's nothing really that complicated about transient hypofrontality - it pretty much self-explanatory:
Transient is a fancier word for temporary
Hypo is a lack of (just like hypothermia is simply a lack of heat); and
Frontality refers to our pre-frontal cortex
Recall some of the best ideas you had in life. Were you really thinking about them? Or did they just appear in your brain suddenly, they just came to you?
Chances are, you will recall more cases of the latter.
Why is this so?
The reality is that our consciousness is merely a small part of larger machinery. Think about how even when you sleep, you produce some of the most remarkable dreams - some are quite weird, but others play out like an actual movie, transporting you to a different world.
Similarly, in coming up with an idea, we assume that we thought about it on the spot. But what usually happens is that your brain had been subconsciously thinking and wiring different concepts for some time. This wiring gets triggered when there is a stimulus like a question, and the idea comes to you.
The consciousness is merely when we become aware of what has already gone on in our heads.
When we agonise over a problem, what is also happening is that we are concentrating our brains on what is conscious to us. As this is taking place, we are leaving fewer resources for our subconscious to think, to redefine, to draw links which we might miss.
This works well if the solution we are seeking is well-defined, something we have good knowledge about, and requires concentrated thinking. But for creativity - coming up with something novel and new - concentrating too much can ironically make it worse.
If we periodically stopped concentrating on our problem, it allows for transient hypo-frontality to kick in. Remember what it means? A temporary lack of usage of our pre-frontal cortex. Or to put more crudely, taking a break from conscious thought. Let whatever you were thinking about gestate and ferment in your subconscious. And then come back to it.
Here's an experimental example. Wharton's Adam Grant invited people to submit business ideas, which would be evaluated by an independent panel for their creativity. The people were divided into 3 groups - 1) those who had to start right away with no distractions, 2) those who could play games (i.e. minesweeper) for 5 minutes while they were thinking and, 3) those who could play minesweeper for 10 minutes. And as the picture below shows:
People who went straight into coming up with ideas with no distractions had the least creative ideas.
People who played the game for too long was just marginally better. But the risk of playing for too long is that your brain starts tuning in to the playing instead of the thinking.
Those who played the game for a moderate period of time before getting back to their task was judged to be on average 16% more creative.
By distancing ourselves from a problem for a short while, we in fact boost our ability to come up with a better answer.
3 final things to note about transient hypo-frontality:
1) You should take a break after thinking about your problem for some time, having taken in some information. It's not going to work if you just randomly go for a walk hoping for lightning bolts of brilliance to illuminate your brain.
2) It seems to work best when you do something routine, which require little conscious thought. For example, running, swimming, taking a bath, smoking, driving, taking a walk, ironing. Something repetitive. Something easy.
3) There is individual difference in this. Some folks get better ideas when they take a walk or they go for a run. For example, I find running excruciatingly boring and meaningless, which causes me to feel frustrated and... no ideas. If I am taking a walk or driving while listening to a podcast, it also doesn't work. So I try to dedicate time to walking or driving later at night where there are fewer people/cars around, in silence, without any stimulus.