Think about the last time and place you got a great idea, or solved a problem that’d been plaguing you. Where were you?
The answer is a cliché: You were probably in the shower.
Creativity doesn’t just come from the bathroom, obviously, but it sure does seem highly correlated with it. So what is it about the shower that leads to our “aha” moments and bursts of creativity? It’s that in the shower we’re simply staring into space, washing our hair on autopilot. We aren’t checking our messages or feeds, or writing a report. We’re just daydreaming.
We may think—mistakenly—that nothing much is happening in our brains when we aren’t consciously doing something, certainly that nothing much of importance is going on. But actually, our brain lights up like a Christmas tree when we’re zoning out. Many brain regions become active, far more than when we’re focusing.
Why? When we daydream, or relax our focus, our brain begins drawing connections between all the things that it previously didn’t see. Even more importantly, the brain networks that are responsible for creative insight come online.
There’s a neuro-biological story behind this. We have two primary attentional networks in our brain: task positive and task negative, and they function like a see-saw in that only one is active at a time. When we’re focused on something, or using our willpower to do something, the task-positive attentional network is “on.” (And the task negative—mind wandering, daydreaming, “time wasting”—network is “off.”) We give credit to our task-positive attentional network for all the great work we do in the world. When we’re focused, we write books. We build bridges. We raise children. Our culture tells us to focus, and that that’s the only way to get anything done around here.
But when you’re staring out the window, out into space, relaxing, or driving but not listening to the radio, and you let your mind wander, the task-negative brain becomes active. All those neurons start making connections between things you didn’t see before, usually at an unconscious level.
This is where our creative insight comes from. We can’t solve problems or do much of anything without the discoveries that come from that downtime. We certainly can’t fulfill our full potential without nurturing our ability to draw connections. This is why we often get our best ideas in the shower—it’s the only remaining place in the world where we let ourselves do nothing!
All of this explains other research that shows that conscious, effortful thinking does nothing to improve creativity, or to help people come up with innovative solutions to problems. For example, when researchers give people a task that requires creativity (such as instructions to come up with a list of ways to use a brick), people don’t generate longer or more creative lists if they have a few extra minutes to think before they start.
What does help? Spending those few extra minutes not consciously thinking about the task, or by diverting the research subjects’ attention with an unrelated task. This then gives the insight-generating part of the brain time to get to work making connections. Those new links are, essentially, innovations that improve our performance on creative tasks.
Here’s what I want you to take away from this: Creative insight is at the very heart of the sweet spot—that place of both power and ease, where we humans hit our home runs. Nothing is easier than an “aha” moment that pops effortlessly into your awareness, and nothing is more powerful.
What this means is that you will not find your sweet spot, or find flow, or do your best work, without cultivating stillness in your life, without spending a good part of your time just staring into space.
That’s such a counter-culture notion that many people feel guilty and anxious doing this. We feel important and productive when we’re busy, and insignificant and lazy daydreaming. But to be successful, we don’t just need to learn to tolerate stillness, we actually need to embrace it.
This article was originally published on Christinecarter.com. It has been republished here with permission.
Photo of man staring out window courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.
A sociologist and senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Christine Carter, PhD, is the author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Work and Home (2015) and Raising Happiness (2011). Drawing on the latest scientific research on positivity, productivity, and elite performance, Carter demonstrates a sweet paradox: By doing less we can actually accomplish more. A sought-after keynote speaker and executive coach, Dr. Carter also writes an award-winning blog and can be found on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.More from this Author