Why you do your most creative thinking in the shower, car, or bed

boingboing archimedes

"I guess the nice thing about driving a car is that the physical act of driving itself occupies a good chunk of brain cells that otherwise would be giving you trouble overloading your thinking," writes Douglas Coupland in Life After God. "New scenery continually erases what came before; memory is lost, shuffled, relabeled and forgotten. Gum is chewed; buttons are pushed; windows are lowered and opened. A fast moving car is the only place where you're legally allowed to not deal with your problems. It's enforced meditation and this is good."

I don't have a car, but those lines always come to my mind whenever I think about why my I get my best ideas — or rather, why my ideas combine into the most useful forms — while performing routine physical tasks like walking, riding my bike (and given the distances in Los Angeles, that certainly gives me thinking time), or even showering. If ever I feel like my thoughts need "compiling," I simply do one of those things. But why does it work?

"The sudden flashes of insight we have in states of meditative distraction—showering, pulling weeds in the garden, driving home from work—often elude our conscious mind precisely because they require its disengagement," writes Josh Jones in a post on the subject at Open Culture, citing especially Archimedes' habit, in his pre-shower era, of bathing to this end. "When we're too actively engaged in conscious thought—exercising our intelligence, so to speak—our creativity and inspiration suffer.

The intuitive revelations we have while showering or performing other mindless tasks are what psychologists call 'incubation.' As Mental Floss describes the phenomenon: 'Since these routines don't require much thought, you flip to autopilot. This frees up your unconscious to work on something else. Your mind goes wandering, leaving your brain to quietly play a no-holds-barred game of free association.'"

I've long thought about it in the terms "Pope of Modern Advertising" David Ogilvy once used on The David Susskind Show. Asked about where he gets the big ideas of his campaigns, he replied that "big ideas in all fields come from only one place: the unconscious. Nobody's ever had a big idea by a process of rational thought." He described his process of digesting as much research material as possible, followed by "a good dinner and a bottle of claret, and then I got the idea from my unconscious. I won't say I was totally unconscious after the claret, but I wasn't at my best — except my unconscious mind was working and sent a telegram to my conscious mind."

An appealing process indeed. Or you could do like Wired's Nick Stockton and keep a "Poop Journal." Hey, whatever floats your ideational boat.