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The Power of the Shower

Can a relaxing shower help you solve problems, gain clarity, and even foster creativity? We asked Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science at the University of Virginia, Zachary C. Irving. Here’s what he had to say.

You’re stuck. It’s been hours since you uncovered that stubborn problem. But no solution has worked. Exasperated, you drop your pen and resolve to try again tomorrow. Later, you take a shower. As your shoulders relax, your mind begins to wander. Your attention flits aimlessly over idle memories, nascent plans, a joke, and … “Aha!” Suddenly, the solution falls upon you. You emerge, victorious and clean. 

This is an example of what researchers like me call the “The Shower Effect”*: moderately engaging activities such as showering, washing the dishes, or taking a stroll that can lead to a form of mind-wandering that facilitates creativity. I study the Shower Effect––and mind-wandering more broadly––in my research as a philosophy and cognitive science professor at the University of Virginia. Lush and I are collaborating on a campaign about the “Power of the Shower”.

“Wait…” you say. “A scientific and philosophical mind wandering-themed shower campaign?! That’s weird, right?!” 

Sure, it’s weird! But I’m super excited about what we’ve made for you. Lush’s product experts and I worked together on a three-part shower routine designed to invoke different types of spontaneous, wandering thoughts. This routine tackles an ancient philosophical problem––how to harness the wandering mind––that is more urgent now than ever, as our phones consume the hours we used to spend idly wandering. My hope is not only to curate an experience, but also teach you something about the nature and value of idleness and distraction. 

Let’s get to it. 

The power of mind-wandering

Multiple studies suggest that mind-wandering can have benefits for exploration and creativity. In one particularly fascinating study, writers and physicists recorded how they came to their most creative idea each day. About twenty percent of their ideas came while mind-wandering, rather than actively working on a problem. Mind-wandering was especially helpful when people were stuck on a problem, which they solved in a sudden “aha!” moment. In a way, this should surprise you. We’re often told that hard work is the germ of progress. But when it comes to our hardest problems, sometimes we have to let go instead.

“Just mind-wander?!” you say. “I never knew creativity was so easy!”

Not so fast. For starters, you can’t just make your mind wander. Mind-wandering is what philosophers call a “passive” experience: something that happens to you, not something you do. When your mind wanders, you lose control over your thoughts. How can you lose control on purpose? This seems almost paradoxical.

Furthermore, modern technology is making things harder. Our minds used to wander during idle times, such as waiting for a bus. Now we get trapped in our phones. These forms of distraction are polar opposites. When our minds wander, we shift from topic to topic with no direction, purpose or aim. This lack of focus is why mind-wandering facilitates creativity: while our minds wander, we hit upon unusual ideas that we would miss if our attention was narrower.

In contrast, phones are designed to narrow attention. Online content, especially on social media, draws and maintains our attention to hyper-salient topics, such as those that evoke moral outrage. This is what leads to phenomena like “doomscrolling” where we can’t pull away from a string of apocalyptic stories on social media. Phones may create a deficit of spontaneous forms of attention, like mind-wandering. 

“Gosh, mind-wandering sounds impossible,” you lament. “I never knew creativity was so hard!” 

Don’t despair! We still experience plenty of mind-wandering: as much as half our thoughts freely wander between topics. Furthermore, strategies like the Shower Effect can increase mind-wandering and, potentially, make it more conducive to creativity. 

Let’s talk about those strategies.

Where do my shower thoughts come from?

Many of us find that our best ideas come in the shower. In fact, this sentiment is so common that there’s an entire subreddit dedicated to shower thoughts. Here’s how I described this phenomenon in my paper on the Shower Effect:

“Creative breakthroughs often come when we are doing a moderately engaging activity, such as showering, doing the dishes, or taking a walk. Anecdotes of this phenomenon abound: Archimedes reportedly had his “Eureka!” moment while taking a bath, Alexander Flemming discovered penicillin upon returning home from vacation, and Virginia Woolf “made up” “To the Lighthouse” while “walking round Tavistock Square”. The idea that “taking a break” facilitates creativity also has a long history in psychology. In 1926, Wallas proposed that creative solutions to a problem often come during an “incubation period” when we engage in an unrelated activity like taking a walk.

Our research suggests that the benefits of showering, walking, and so on may be tied to the fact that they are moderately engaging. They hit a sweet spot, that is, where they’re neither too absorbing nor too boring to facilitate creativity. 

To understand this sweet spot, imagine that you’re stuck on a problem. You want to take a break and let your mind wander, in the hopes that you might think about the problem in a new way. 

What should you do in your break? Not something really engaging or difficult, such as playing a fast-paced video game or filling out complicated forms. Such tasks require all your attention, which stops your mind from wandering.

Not something really boring, such as watching a video of two dudes mumbling to each other while they fold laundry (scientists actually use this video to induce boredom. It’s what we used in our Shower Effect study!) Boring activities aren’t great for creativity for two reasons. First, they’re awful, so you’ll want to stop and pick up your phone. Second, they provide no grist for thought; mumbling laundry dudes won’t give you a spark of inspiration. 

Activities like showering or walking hit a sweet spot between video games and laundry dudes. Unlike video games, showering isn’t too difficult, so your mind is free to wander. Unlike laundry dudes, showering isn’t excruciatingly boring, so you don’t feel compelled to pick up your phone. Furthermore, showering induces a wide range of interesting experiences: water rushing down your back, interesting scents, silky and scratchy textures, and so on. These experiences can provide “grist for the mill” of thought: they can spark associations in your imagination and memory, which can lead to novel insights.

For the Power of the Shower campaign, I worked with Lush to celebrate, evoke, and––hopefully––enhance this Shower Effect.

Building a mind-wandering shower routine

At the heart of the campaign is a shower routine designed for mind-wandering. Like most science, the routine was a collaboration: I supplied the science, while the team at Lush provided wizard-tier product knowledge. We spent hours discussing and testing the products (never was a philosopher so exfoliated … ). 

Our routine consists of three products, which you use in sequence to help you harness the wandering mind. It’s not a traditional shower routine but rather a mental exercise. 

The overarching thematic metaphor is that you move from the darkness of night (Dark Angels Fresh Cleanser) through the freedom of sleep (Sleepy Shower Gel), to an insight that you experience when awakening to the morning sun (Not Sleepy Shower Bomb). Having a theme was important, in order to activate distant, metaphorical associations (e.g. between insight and the sun). Distant associations are central to creative memory processes and provide “grist for the mill” of creative showers.

Each step also had more specific goals, each based in the science of mind-wandering:

Step 1  aims to interrupt your daily worries. We began with a bit of a “shock” to free you from ruminative thought patterns that you were previously stuck in. As I explained above, your mind can’t wander from topic to topic if it is stuck on a single thing. Dark Angels Fresh Cleanser is our shock: the darkness and grit of charcoal and rhassoul mud, mixed with herbal and woodsy fragrances of sandalwood and rosewood oil. These bold sensations are cut with cold-pressed avocado oil, so it’s still pleasant and soothing. It’s like rubbing night––or the forest floor––into your skin. Past research suggests that products like this, which induce intense positive emotions, can temporarily interrupt rumination.16 This may be why these emotions are correlated with high rates of mind-wandering in daily life.

Step 2 aims to let your mind wander. Now that you’re in the moment, we want you to relax, let go, and allow your mind to drift from one thing to the next. To make you relax, we went with Sleepy Shower Gel, which might be my favorite Lush product. The silky, rich texture harmonizes with the lavender color and scent of the gel. You can just sink into it. Consistent with this, my lab found that neutral emotions reliably lead your mind to wander.

The transition from Step 1 to 2 is important. Sleepy is the polar opposite of Dark Angels: it’s silky, rather than gritty, calming rather than intense. This rapid shift of sensations was partly meant to accentuate the relaxing qualities of sleep. Moreover, it encourages you to shift mindsets. This may help induce mind-wandering, whose defining characteristic is how it shifts between dramatically different ideas and experiences over time.

Step 3 aims to simulate something akin to a creative “Aha!” moment, where you think about a problem in a new and unusual way. To accomplish this, we used the Not Sleepy Shower Bomb. Not Sleepy was meant to emulate two central characteristics of the “Aha!” moment. 

First, “Aha!” moments lead you to approach a problem in a new way. Psychologists call this “breaking frame”: all of a sudden, you frame the problem differently, which allows you to overcome where you were stuck. Not Sleepy was meant to simulate breaking frame, because it changes forms. As you hold the solid shower-bomb under the water, it explodes into a lather, wafting citrus all around you.

Second, “Aha!” moments come upon you all at once. Rather than come to a solution gradually, you have a sudden insight, which immediately alters how you conceive of a problem. The dramatic shift from Sleepy to Not Sleepy was meant to emulate the suddenness of insight. All of a sudden, you are surrounded by lemon rather than lavender; you hold a solid rather than silk; you feel awake rather than restful.

How social media keeps you from mind-wandering

If you try this shower routine, I hope you find it inspiring! Regardless, there is something arguably more important I want you to get from The Power of the Shower. 

I have raised a concern: digital devices may be creating a Spontaneity Deficit. Part of the solution to that problem is to turn off your phone: in the words of Lush’s anti-social media campaign, “Be Somewhere Else”

But that’s not enough, because where you go next matters. Say you turn off your phone, and switch to a mode of uninterrupted, single-minded concentration called “deep work”. That might make you more productive! But it ain’t mind-wandering. Filling our days with intense productivity, instead of digital distractions, may even deepen the Spontaneity Deficit by leaving less time to let your mind wander. 

The problem here is ethical: it’s about what you value. If we believe idleness and mind-wandering are worthless, we’ll find things to replace them: social media, deep work, and so on. I hope this campaign encourages you to reflect on the value of carving out space to let your mind wander. Perhaps that is walking through the city or the forest, with headphones out, thoughts in. Or perhaps that is having a spontaneous daydream in the shower. 

*Adam Pickard and Martin Stinnissen, independent creatives in Toronto, came up with the initial idea to build a routine around the Shower Effect. Caitlin Porter, Jas Ellis, and Carleen Pickard have led the project internally at Lush. Erica Vega plumbed her vast knowledge to suggest products that would achieve our scientific aims. The team at Lush Boulder tested and discussed the products with me. 

**The views expressed are those of Zac Irving, not the University of Virginia.

Click here for the list of scientific and philosophical articles that we drew on to make the Power of the Shower Campaign.

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