The Surprising Reason the Best Ideas Come to You in the Shower

New research explains why a shower may just be the perfect storm of relaxation and inspiration.

showerAntonio Guillem/Shutterstock

The humble shower is widely recognized as a place not only where germs die, but where ideas flourish. Look no further than the Reddit forum called “Shower Thoughts” for proof of this, and you’ll hear many a mid-lather epiphany, such as “If mosquitoes sucked fat, not blood, the world would be perfect” and “As an introvert, house arrest sounds more like a privilege than a punishment.” What is it about the shower that fosters such free-flowing thinking? Is it something in the water? Or is it just something in our brains? An emerging body of research gives us the quick-and-dirty answer.

For starters, we now know that a little distraction can be a good thing for creativity. While intense, uninterrupted focus is still important for persnickety tasks like filing a tax return or taking a multiple choice test, too much focus can also prevent your brain from exploring beyond the obvious. Sometimes, a gentle distraction can occupy just enough of your cognitive resources to let your imagination run a bit wilder. Showering is a perfect example of this in action. You’re probably so used to washing up that you don’t even think about the regimen of physical tasks you accomplish every day in the stall. While an absentminded part of your brain focuses on scrubbing your pits, the rest of your mind is free to explore unusual ideas it might otherwise ignore. “Shampooing hair and lathering up doesn’t take a lot of cognitive focus,’’ explains Mark Fenske, associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Guelph, “other parts of the brain can start to contribute.’’

With part of your brain focused on outer stimuli, the rest of your mind loosens up to consider a wider range of ideas and inspiration. This same idea explains why working in a coffee shop can make you more productive, or why taking a run is a great way to think through a problem.

That brings us to another huge perk of thinking in the shower: chances are you’re used to doing it early in the morning or late in your night when your brain is groggiest and most open to creative thought. Research shows that thinking during off-peak times in our natural sleep rhythm usually leads to the most creative insight—that’s likely because when our brains are groggiest, our internal censors are weakened, again opening the door for more left-field thoughts and ideas to come floating into the forefront. If the first thing you do in the morning is haul your half-sleeping self into the shower, your brain is probably still operating on its least self-critical, most creative level. Ditto if you shower right before bed when your brain is slowly closing up shop for sleep. You are literally more creative when you’re tired.

So, you’re sleepy, you’re distracted, your mind is wandering—couldn’t that all be achieved in a tedious office meeting? Maybe, but it’s still missing something. The final pieces of the creativity puzzle that showering provides: relaxation and solitude. For many of us, taking a shower might be our single longest stretch of alone-time all day. In this isolation, we are far more comfortable with our own thoughts than one might be in a boardroom or classroom. And when we are alone, comfortable, and enrobed in warm, steamy water, we will relax. And when the body relaxes, so does the mind.

The next time you shower, embrace the moment for the ultimate mental free-for-all it is. You’ll be glad you did. And if you’re looking for something to occupy all that mental capacity mid shower, you can always focus on these 30 things you’ve probably never thought about—until right now.