Unless it’s our first time in the shower, we run on autopilot, and the distraction allows our minds to be uniquely productive. With so much competing for our attention, the shower is a soothing, sensory-deprivation paradise—a place where we can hear our thoughts above the water, find a positive feedback loop, and occasionally take to sharing our ideas on Reddit once we get out.
Quality thinking space is a precious resource that many of us struggle to find in our days filled with busy, noisy jobs, and active social lives. Even those of us who are alone most of the time will still wrestle with a flooded mind, wading through thoughts of tackling daily tasks, paying bills, answering emails, or turning Netflix back on.
But why do we get some of our best ideas in the shower?
Irving Biederman, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, doesn’t attribute this to any huge water-related phenomenon.
“The main thing when you’re taking a shower is, what else is there to do? All your actions are on autopilot, so unless it’s the first time you’ve ever taken a shower, you know how to soap your arms,” Biederman tells ATTN:
Biederman explains that the thoughtlessness of your shower actions contribute to the mind’s ability to work on other stuff (for reference, your striatum is the area of the brain handling automatic processes, while the basal ganglia handles motor movement). He also says there’s no conclusive evidence that this experience is unique to the shower, considering that your brain can experience the same liberation when you take a walk through familiar terrain, without having to think about where you’re going. Diversion is key to success here.
“Let’s say you’re trying to repair some device that requires a lot of concentration,” Biederman says. “At that point, you’re not thinking about anything else but the task.” In order to stop stumbling over the same points, Biederman explains, you need to walk away and zone out.
But others believe that unlike your average experience daydreaming while conducting monotonous tasks, the shower does hold unique, creative properties. Mental Floss proposes the shower contributes to creativity because we are relaxed, and our dopamine levels are elevated.
Whether you’re experiencing special creative juices or just the flow of repetition, the positive problem-solving effects of a shower aren’t limited to helping you find the next chapter in your Sherlock Holmes fan fiction. It’s also a great way to work on learning new things. Try giving yourself a complex problem before you hit the water.
Biederman likes to create challenges with maps. “I’ll pick out some country or some state—let’s say Hungary—and I’ll ask myself, what are the countries that border Hungary? It’s really interesting when I’m wrong to see what I’ve missed and how I got it wrong. It becomes interesting feedback, and then I learn [the answer] that way,” he says.
As is the nature of creative thought, there’s not a straightforward way to predict whether you’ll come up with something brilliant in the shower or even just a new post for your favorite subreddit thread. But at least you’ll smell nice, and many people find good hygiene inspiring.