[This is an excerpt from the Dance of the Possible: the mostly honest irreverent guide to creativity]
When you are known as a writer about creativity, people send you interesting things. Recently I was forwarded a link to AquaNotes, a waterproof notepad you can put in your shower. I’ve never used one, but I can tell you the science behind why people get ideas in the shower.
Technically we get ideas all the time – that’s what it means to be conscious. We have ideas for what to eat, say, and do in nearly every waking moment. It’s quite hard to stop thinking, as anyone who has tried to practice meditation can tell you. We are hard-wired for ideas.
More germane to showers, we rarely admit how much of who we are is driven by our subconscious. We know our dreams, which are owned and operated by our subconscious, can be incredibly creative. But on a busy day in modern times we are bombarded with information, and our conscious mind dominates. It’s only when we have quiet time, going for a walk, getting some exercise, or taking a shower, that our conscious minds quiet down enough for our sub-conscious to be heard. And that’s why you get ideas in the shower.
You’ll find many creative people have dedicated time to being “idle”. Going for walks, exercising at the gym, or even sitting in a park watching people walk by. Making time to let minds wander is an important part of working with ideas for a living.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to time where we allow our subconscious to work as Incubation. This is time away from the work itself where our subconscious minds are free to work on our behalf and deliver ideas back to our conscious minds.
Today we have fewer places in our lives where we are not bombarded by incoming information. For some people it’s yoga, going for a run, or going for a walk that quiets the conscious mind down enough for the sub-conscious to speak up. For other people it’s driving in the car. Everyone’s psychology is different and will relax in different environments, or at different times. The start of being serious about your own creativity is paying attention to when and where you feel creative.
At these times other inputs to your mind are quiet, or can be tuned out, and your body (which is connected to your brain) is relaxed, and the way is clear for the rest of your brain to bubble up interesting thoughts. (Chapter 1, 6 and 12 of The Myths of Innovation explores the science/history of, and advice on, how creativity works – sample chapters here (PDF)).
Of course there are other ways to engage the natural creativity of your sub-conscious. Taking an improv theater class is all about learning simple games that quiet your conscious brain, and let your creative instincts come through. Waking up early, staying up late, having beers with friends, all shift how your attention works and might provide the best kind of environment for you. Simply changing your habits alone can stimulate new questions and ways of thinking. Lastly, there are drugs and alcohol, substances artists have used for centuries to shift their thinking and allow other parts of the mind to have center stage. Don’t kid yourself: the caffeine in your coffee does all kinds of things to how your brain functions.
But part of the mythology around ideas and showers is somehow a truly great idea will, on its own, make you rich and change the world, a fantasy I can promise has never happened. Ideas are easy to find once you understand the basics of how they work (See ideas are made of other ideas). But it’s always what you do with your ideas after you get them that matters. And perhaps this Aquanote gimmick, which lets you leave the shower with the idea in your hand, isn’t such a silly idea after all.
Want more specific creativity advice? Read this essay on Creative Thinking Hacks.