Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why We Get Our Best Ideas In the Shower

Ever wonder why so many ideas come to you while taking a warm shower? How about the time you spent hours working on a problem with no avail? Then, while doing something as mundane as working on the lawn or relaxing with friends, the moment of insight came in a flash. The solution popped into your head from nowhere! You rushed back to work and sure enough, problem solved! Why didn't I think of that earlier? According to scientific research, the answer was in your head all along but you were too focused on the problem to see it. In this post you will learn how to access those moments of inspiration more deliberately.

This is something that puzzled me for years. Why do we get our best ideas literally while taking a shower? I briefly discuss this point in chapter 8 of my book. In this chapter titled "Striking Balance," I discuss the importance of stepping back from work in order to let insight and inspiration happen. Here is an excerpt:

"Outdoor activities are ideal because you get to exercise and socialize at the same time. This also helps to quiet the mind. Flashes of inspiration or solutions to problems may surprise you during these times. Pay close attention if this happens..."

Why make such a point of this in a book on entrepreneurship? Because it happens so often that it cannot be ignored. It is one of those things you just know but you cannot prove. If you want to solve a problem and find a breakthrough, step away and do a relaxing activity unrelated to work. 

Then, I read the book "Imagine" by Jonah Lehrer, which provides the scientific explanation for this phenomenon. From the book: 

"Why is a relaxed state of mind so important for creative insights? When our minds are at ease--when those alpha waves are rippling through the brain--we're more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere. In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we're trying to solve. While this pattern of attention is necessary when solving problems analytically, it actually prevents us from detecting the connections that lead to insights. 'That's why so many insights happen during warm showers,' Bhattacharya says. 'For many people, it's the most relaxing part of the day.' It's not until we're being massaged by warm water, unable to check our e-mail, that we're finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been their all along--we just weren't listening."

This is an astounding discovery. What was once cloaked in mystery and maybe even a bit of superstition, can now be invoked deliberately. If you find yourself banging away at code but still not making progress, step away. Take a warm shower if possible, listen to some soothing music, pray, meditate. Anything that will take your mind off of the problem. 

I Have a Dream

Another great way to induce inspiration is by looking for guidance in dreams. Okay, before you think I've gone esoteric and mystical on you, consider the case of Elias Howe, inventor of the modern day sewing machine. After struggling unsuccessfully with figuring out how to automate the sewing process, Howe fell asleep and had what he thought was a nightmare. However, this "nightmare" provided him with the clues that lead to his breakthrough. Here is an accurate account from Wikipedia:

"His original idea was to follow the model of the ordinary needle, and have the eye at the heel. It never occurred to him that it should be placed near the point, and he might have failed altogether if he had not dreamed he was building a sewing machine for a savage king in a strange country. Just as in his actual working experience, he was perplexed about the needle's eye. He thought the king gave hime twenty-four hours in which to complete the machine and make it sew. If not finished in that time, death was to be the punishment. Howe worked and worked, and puzzled, and finally gave it up. Then, he thought he was taken out to be executed. He noticed that the warriors carried spears that were pierced near the tip. Instantly came the solution of the difficulty, and while the inventor was begging for time, he awoke. It was 4 o'clock in the morning. He jumped out of bed, ran to his workshop, and by 9, a needle with an eye at the point had been rudely modeled. After that it was easy. That is the true story of an important incident in the invention of the sewing machine."

A technique employed by many creative types and those familiar with the science of the unconscious, is to make the intention to dream about the problem they wish to solve. Try it sometime. Simply concentrate intensely on the issue just before bed. When you awake, quickly right down the details of any dreams you had and look for clues. Do not expect to get a full blue print or hundreds of lines of neatly type code. It doesn't quite work that way. There is just way too much stuff piled up in our unconscious minds and it has a way of getting all mixed together in our dreams. Like Elias Howe, your clues will be buried somewhere in the details.

Nothing to Lose

So, does this still sound esoteric and mystical? If you are currently struggling with solving a complex problem or in search of your next breakthrough, try taking a warm shower. Then, try to induce a lucid dream. The worst that will happen is that nothing will happen. In which case you are no worse off than before. On the other hand, perhaps you will get chased by warriors through a forest and stumble upon the next big thing. Give it a shot and let me know how it turns out. Oh, and if it works, a small thank you would be welcomed!

Godspeed and I look forward to seeing you in The Players Lounge.

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