Why thinking in the shower may be an ideal model for “creative pause”
~ 12 November 2008 ~
Let’s be honest: Who doesn’t profit from thinking in the shower?
I imagine we’d be hard-pressed to find anyone reading these words who hasn’t had an epiphany, big or small, under the cadence of falling water.
There’s something about showering that tends to spawn new ideas which may not occur otherwise. And the frequency with which this occurs seems to suggest that perhaps the occurrence isn’t merely happenstance, but instead a decent model for what has been called “creative pause” — the shift from being fully engaged in a creative activity to being passively engaged, or the shift to being disengaged altogether.
Edward de Bono, who may have first coined the phrase, describes creative pause as a deliberate, self-imposed pause to consider alternative solutions to a problem — even when things are going perfectly fine — for “some of the best results come when people stop to think about things that no one else has stopped to think about” (Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas). He suggests these pauses can be as short as 30 seconds.
In his paper for International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Professor Lajos Székely describes creative pause as follows:
The ‘creative pause’ is defined as the time interval which begins when the thinker interrupts conscious preoccupation with an unsolved problem, and ends when the solution to the problem unexpectedly appears in consciousness. (“The Creative Pause”, 1967)
These two descriptions of creative pause suggest that deliberate interruptions, whether short or an unknown period of time, may be helpful to problem-solving.
While showering is often a daily, scheduled interruption, it’s an interruption nonetheless, and it’s deliberate in the sense that it’s self-imposed. But aside from the obvious that showering is a pause to another activity, following are some additional observations about why showering often yields unexpected ideas and creative thinking, and why it may be an ideal model for creative pause in general.
- There’s little opportunity for distraction. The confinement produced by the physical environment of a shower results in isolation from work materials, digital devices, and social interaction. You have no choice but to allow yourself to become engaged in a new activity in solitude, while either thinking freely about something entirely different or continuing previous thought without distraction.
- Minimal mental engagement is required for the the task at hand. The monotony and nearly subconscious nature of scrubbing, rinsing, and washing frees the mind to focus on things other than the physical activity of showering. You become preoccupied with entertaining yourself mentally.
- Showering creates a “white noise” effect. Though Suzanne and I never chose to use a white noise machine with any of our infant children, some parents swear by them. This is because white noise “can aid concentration by blocking out irritating or distracting noises in a person’s environment” (Wikipedia). In the case of an infant, the goal is typically sleep. In adults, however, the goal may be to better focus on the problem and its solutions. Water that is sprayed from a nozzle and falls to the ground may result in a white noise-like environment.
- A change of scenery sets the stage for the unexpected. Merely changing your view and perception of things sometimes results in new thinking. With showering, the change is the location, temperature, attire (or lack thereof), and the addition of water. Coincidentally, the solution for positioning mirrors on the Hubble Telescope during a 1993 servicing mission was conceived by electrical engineer James Crocker as he was showering and observed “European-style fixtures [that] included a shower-head on an arrangement of adjustable rods” (The Hubble Space Telescope Servicing Mission, Joseph N. Tatarewicz, pg. 376).
Of course, few of us enjoy the convenience, time, or even desire to hop in the shower any time we’re struggling with a challenging problem or want to think about the problem differently. But these observations suggest a model for other activities that may yield similar results if similar criteria are at play:
- Distractions are minimized, including noise
- The body is engaged in a monotonous, mundane, or repetitive activity, freeing the mind to think about other things
- The environment is changed
A number of activities similar to showering come to mind, but I’ll refrain from mentioning any to let you do the talking: How do you achieve creative pause?
(For additional reading, see Eric Karjaluoto’s article for .net magazine “Beat the creative block” (PDF).)
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