The answer is a cliché: You were probably in the shower. Creativity doesn’t come from the bathroom, we know, but it sure does seem highly correlated with it. So what is it about the shower that leads to our “aha” moments and bursts of creativity?
It’s that in the shower we are simply staring into space, washing our hair on autopilot. We aren’t checking our messages or feeds, or writing a report. We’re just daydreaming.
We may think — mistakenly — that nothing much is happening in our brains when we aren’t consciously doing something, certainly that nothing much of importance is going on. But actually, our brain lights up like a Christmas tree when we’re daydreaming. Many brain regions become active, far more than when we are focusing.
When we daydream, or relax our focus, our brain begins drawing connections between all the things that it previously didn’t see as all that connected. Importantly, the brain networks that are responsible for creative insight come online.
There’s a neuro-biological story behind this. We have two primary attentional networks in our brain: task-positive and task-negative, and they function like a see-saw in that only one is active at a time.
When we are focused on something, or using our willpower to do something, the task-positive attentional network is ON. (And the task-negative — mind wandering, daydreaming, “time-wasting” — network is OFF.) We give credit to our task-positive attentional network for all the great work we do in the world. When we are focused, we write books. We build bridges. We raise children. Our culture tells us to focus, and that that’s the only way to get anything done around here.
But when you’re staring out the window, out into space, relaxing, or driving but not listening to the radio and you let your mind wander, the task-negative brain becomes active. All those neurons start making connections between things you didn’t see before, usually at an unconscious level. This is where our creative insight comes from. We can’t solve problems or do much of anything without the insights that come from that downtime. We certainly can’t fulfill our potential without filling our need for creative insight, without nurturing our ability to draw connections. This is why we often get our best ideas in the shower…it’s the only remaining place in the world where we let ourselves do nothing!
All of this explains other research that shows that conscious, effortful thinking does nothing to improve creativity, or to help people come up with innovative solutions to problems. For example: When researchers give people a task that requires creativity (such as instructions to come up with a list of ways to use a brick), people don’t generate longer or more creative lists if they have a few extra minutes to think before they start.
What does help? Spending those few extra minutes not consciously thinking about the task, by diverting the research subjects’ attention with an unrelated task. This then gives the insight-generating part of the brain time to get to work making connections. Those new connections are, essentially, innovations that improve our performance on creative tasks.
Here’s what I want you to take away from this:
Creative insight is at the very heart of the sweet spot — that place of both power and ease, that place where we humans hit our home runs. Nothing is easier than an “aha moment” that pops effortlessly into your awareness, and nothing is more powerful.
What this means is that you will not find your sweet spot, or find flow, or do your best work, without cultivating stillness in your life, without spending a good part of each just staring into space.
That’s such a counter-culture notion that many people feel guilty and anxious staring into space. We feel important and productive when we are busy, and insignificant and lazy day dreaming. But to be successful, we don’t just need to learn to tolerate stillness, we actually need to cultivate it.
Photo courtesy of Malloreigh via Flickr.