The science behind why you get great ideas in the shower

If you’ve ever gotten out of the shower or come back from walking the dog with a smart idea or a solution to a problem you’ve been struggling with, it might not be a coincidence.

Instead of constantly mulling over a problem or desperately searching for a flash of inspiration, research over the past 15 years suggests that people are more likely to achieve creative breakthroughs or insights when they perform a routine task that doesn’t require much thought—an activity that, in which you are basically on autopilot. This allows your mind to wander, or engage in spontaneous cognition or “stream of consciousness” thinking, which experts say helps recover unusual memories and generate new ideas.

“People are always surprised when they realize that interesting, novel ideas come to them at unexpected times, because our cultural narrative tells us that we have to do it through hard work,” says Kalina Kristoff, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia. in Vancouver. “It’s a pretty universal human experience.”

“Now we’re starting to understand why these intelligent thoughts occur during more passive activities and what’s going on in the brain,” Kristoff says. According to recent research, the key is a pattern of brain activity—in the so-called default mode network—that occurs when a person is resting or performing routine tasks that don’t require a lot of attention.

Researchers have shown that the default mode network (DMN), which connects more than a dozen brain regions, becomes more active during mind wandering or passive tasks than when you’re doing something that requires concentration. Simply put, the DMN is “the state the brain returns to when you’re not active,” explains Roger Beaty, a cognitive neuroscientist and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity Lab at Penn State University. In contrast, when you’re stuck on a difficult task, the brain’s executive control systems keep your thinking focused, analytical, and logical.

A caveat: While the default network plays a key role in the creative process, “it’s not the only network that matters,” Beaty says. “Other networks are involved in changing, rejecting, or implementing ideas.” So it is unwise to blindly believe ideas that are born during the shower or during any other wandering of the mind.

What is the default network mode

Marcus Reichl, a neuroscientist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and his colleagues accidentally discovered the default mode network in 2001 when they used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to see how volunteers’ brains functioned during a novel task. that require attention. The team then compared these images to those taken while the brain was at rest, and noticed that certain areas of the brain were more active during passive tasks than during engagement.

However, because the function of each brain region is poorly characterized, and because a particular brain region may perform different actions under different circumstances, neuroscientists prefer to speak of “networks of brain regions,” such as the default mode network, that function together during a particular activity, as according to John Kunios, a cognitive neuroscientist and director of the Creativity Research Laboratory at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Raichle called this network the “default” mode network because of its increased activity during idle periods, says Randy L. Buckner, a neuroscientist at Harvard University. But this is something of a misnomer, as the default mode network is also active in other mental tasks, such as recalling past events or engaging in self-reflection.

The network also “engages in the early stages of idea generation, drawing on past experiences and knowledge of the world,” Beaty explains. “When you’re not actively working on a problem, the brain continues to cycle, and you can get elements of the problem restructured, pieces get rearranged, and something clicks.” DMN, he adds, “helps you combine information in different ways and simulate possibilities.”

The researchers found that when it comes to measures of creativity, there is a positive correlation between creative performance and gray matter volume of the default mode network. In other words, as far as creativity is concerned, size matters when it comes to the DMN.

To investigate changes in brain activation and connectivity between different regions of the DMN, The researchers asked volunteers to alternate between activities involving high cognitive effort (naming colors), low cognitive effort (reading words), and no cognitive effort (resting). They found that the default mode network was most active when participants were at rest and was more active during a low-effort task than during a high-effort task, according to the study, published in the April 2022 issue of . Scientific reports. This suggests that DMN activity can be switched up and down as if on a dimmer switch, perhaps pausing at intermediate points along the way, depending on the level of cognitive challenge required.

The connection to creative thinking was demonstrated in a study published in January in which patients were kept awake during brain surgery so that surgeons could image the exposed cortical surface for language functions. When direct electrical stimulation was applied to the default mode network or another area of ​​their brain, the patients were asked to perform an “alternative use task,” which involved inventing unusual ways to use an everyday object—in this case, a paper clip—which is a way of assessing the abilities of divergent thinking. The researchers found that patients’ ability to successfully perform alternative use tasks depended on the strength of connections between default network nodes.

“The default network seems to be an important source of creativity, and it’s definitely related to mind wandering,” says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Indeed, research in February 2022 Mapping the human brain found that positive, constructive dreaming—”characterized by planning, pleasant thoughts, vivid and desirable imagery, and curiosity”—was associated with default network activity and creativity.

Benefits of mind wandering

Whether we realize it or not, we all have regular mind-wandering, Beaty says, noting that there are different kinds. There is intentional mind wandering when you are trying to exert some level of control or direct your thinking; and spontaneous mind wandering that occurs in the brain without our control. In the study in the 2020 issue PNAS, Researchers, using electroencephalograms to track people’s brain activity, found that spontaneous mind wandering occurred 47 percent of the time.

It is the spontaneous form, in particular, that allows you to combine information and ideas in a new way. “When your mind drifts away from the situation into internal brooding, that’s where you can get creative ideas,” Schooler says. “In this pleasurable state, you allow thoughts to playfully wander into your head.” Keep in mind, he adds, “sometimes you have to work to create a problem space that sets the stage for spontaneous ideas to emerge.”

This is often referred to as the “incubation effect,” which occurs when you spend time away from a particular problem or task and your mind has the opportunity to wander and generate new ideas through unconscious associative processes.

To find out when people come up with their most innovative ideas, Schooler and his colleagues asked professional writers and physicists to keep a diary for two weeks in which they reported their most creative ideas of the day, what they were doing when they came up, and whether they felt itself as an “aha” moment. According to a 2019 study published in the journal, about 20 percent of their most important ideas came during activities other than work, or when they were thinking about something unrelated to the creative idea. Psychological science. More importantly, ideas generated during mind-wandering moments were more likely to be associated with overcoming an impasse in solving a vexing problem and were seen as “aha” moments.

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