What is the ‘shower effect’? How bathing yields the best ideas: study

What is the 'shower effect'?  How bathing yields the best ideas: study

Need a fresh idea? Try taking a shower.

Some think of brainstorming as simply a period of letting the mind wander — but to really boost creativity, thinkers should try to be “moderately engaged” in a physical task, such as showering or taking a walk, according to a new study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

Researchers at the University of Virginia were inspired by a 2012 study. Essentially, he asked volunteers to deliver creative ideas after having completed a range of unrelated easy or hard tasks.

Scientists then concluded that activities which allowed for more “mind-wandering seems to benefit creativity and creative incubation,” according to UVA assistant professor of philosophy Zac Irving.

However, the decade-old finding has yet to be replicated, as later work would yield inconclusive results on the creative benefits of mind-wandering.

The problem, Irving told UVAToday, is that “they weren’t really measuring mind-wandering. They were measuring how distracted the participants were.”

Meg Ryan’s character memorably faked an orgasm in 1989’s “When Harry Met Sally,” alongside Billy Crystal.
©Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett
Meg Ryan memorably faked an orgasm playing Sally Albright in 1989's "When Harry Met Sally."
Scientists described the notorious fake orgasm scene in “When Harry Met Sally” as “moderately engaging” enough for their study purposes.
Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

The new study asked participants to conjure an alternative purpose for one of two banal objects — a paperclip or a brick — and split up the group, each to view a different three-minute video. One as characterized as “boring” footage of two men folding laundry, while was deemed a “moderately engaging” clip: the iconic faking-an-orgasm scene from “When Harry Met Sally.”

After viewing, participants had to quickly list their ideas of alternative uses for their designated item, and self-assess how much their minds wandered while watching.

“What we really wanted to know was not which video is helping you be more creative,” Irving explained. “The question was how is mind-wandering related to creativity during boring and engaging tasks?”

Indeed, the eyebrow-raising “When Harry Met Sally” clip had successfully piqued participants’ imaginations far better than those who watched the folding of clothes.

“We find that mind wandering leads to more creative ideas, but only during moderately engaging activities,” the researchers concluded.

The team describes in their report the key to the “shower effect,” which requires a balance of “focused, linear thinking” on one end with “unbounded, random associations” on the other — and light mental and physical tasks may such as showering and walking may arrive at that happy medium.

They went on to suggest that while boredom may illicit a greater quantity of ideas “by affording time” and the headspace to ponder, more engaging activities encouraged more “productive mind wandering” — and, thus, higher quality thoughts.


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