Archives for category: The Shower Principle

Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly) the internet is not the fount of all knowledge. Sometimes if you really want to find out the truth about something, you have to read a book. Fortunately for me, I love to read. Unfortunately for me, the book I’ve recently been reading, Imagine by Jonah Lehrer (read this as a disclaimer about Mr. Lehrer’s less than ethical writing practices and the controversy about this particular book) is not as factual as most non-fiction books are required to be.

If we can trust that other than fabricating some Bob Dylan quotes, Jonah Lehrer’s book (which has been pulled from the market by the publisher) is generally factual, he has provided some substantial evidence to prove that not only is “The Shower Principle” (which I previously wrote about, here) a real thing, but it’s actually being studied by real scientists and not just Dr. Spaceman. (It turns out that the anterior superior temporal gyrus is a real part of the brain and not Jack Donaghy nonsense as I hastily suggested. But, it sounds made up, right?).

The reason I couldn’t find anything about “The Shower Principle” on the internet is because it is usually just referred to as insight, inspiration, the “Eureka!” moment, “Aha!” or creativity. This is what the publicly disgraced Jonah Lehrer had to say about these moments of spontaneous inspiration:

Why is a relaxed state of mind so important for creative insights? When our minds are at ease – when those alpha waves [the precursor measured on an EEG up to 8 seconds before the moment of insight] are rippling through the brain – we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations [between seemingly unconnected things, i.e. seeing the big picture instead of just the pieces] 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 [one of the aforementioned real scientists – a psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London] 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 email, 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 there all along – we just weren’t listening.

But, given Mr. Lehrer’s penchant for making up quotes, I wasn’t entirely sure that I could trust this information about “The Shower Principle”. So, I looked into Joydeep Bhattacharya and he is in fact a Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths and he is studying “Eureka/Aha!”. The same scientists; Joydeep Bhattacharya, Mark Beeman, and John Kounios, cited in Imagine, were also cited in these fascinating articles in the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and Scientific American, basically saying the same thing but without the reference to showering.

I suspected after watching “The Shower Principle” Episode of 30 Rock that it was a real thing, as I previously wrote about, but I could not find any evidence. I now have the opportunity to set the record straight, it’s not just true based on my own experience, there’s real science behind it too.

Now Jonah Lehrer has presented me with a new problem. I am a recent convert to non-fiction, having previously read strictly fiction. Lately though, I’ve devoured one non-fiction book after another (Quiet, Escape From Camp 14, Behind the Beautiful Forevers are all excellent, if you’re looking for something good to read.) But, if I can’t trust what I read to be true in a factual book, then I think I’d rather stick to books where I know that nothing I read is true.


[Me hard at work, courtesy of The Boy]

On the most recent episode of 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy, spoke of a lesser known scientific principle:

The Shower Principle is a term scientists use to describe moments of inspiration that occur when the brain is distracted from the problem at hand, for example when you’re showering . . . if the cerebral cortex is distracted by showering or putting [as in golf], then another part of the brain, the anterior superior temporal gyrus is activated. This is the site of sudden cognitive inspiration.

I wondered, giddy with excitement, how I had not heard of this enlightening principle. Then I remembered, Jack Donaghy is a fictional character and even in the fictitious world of 30 Rock his theories and practices are generally suspect. Not to mention, that last bit of the “scientific” principle (which I’m willing to bet was developed by Dr. Spaceman) is obvious nonsense. And yet, I still wanted to believe in The Shower Principle. I even googled it, just to be sure. I am telling you now, to save you some time, it is not a real thing (For a correction and UPDATE please see this post: “The Shower Principle Revisited”). However, I did find some interesting information (here and here) on a study by Jackie Andrade, that indicates you will pay better attention during a boring meeting or class if you doodle. (You’re welcome for that useful tip.)

So why, you may be asking yourself, was I so desperate for The Shower Principle to be true? Because . . . that is exactly how I get the inspiration for my manuscript. My very first idea came when I was driving and over the next two years all of my ideas came as I sat at my job sticking bar codes on thousands of DNA samples for hours at a time. It became such a regular thing that I wouldn’t move to my DNA “station” without taking my writing notebook with me. I even worried when I left my job, to move to Chicago, that I wouldn’t have that magic window into my imagination any longer. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that inspiration can happen anywhere at any time, I just have to be doing something mundane, mindless or repetitive. Driving, riding my bicycle, knitting, cleaning, cooking and yes, showering too. If I am doing a task over an extended period of time, (it usually has to be something that is almost second nature and does not require intense concentration) I am almost always struck by inspiration about scenes, dialogue, and characters. Then when I finally have a chance to sit down to write, I use that inspiration I developed while under the influence of “the shower principle.” It may not yet have scientific evidence, but I’m pretty sure it’s a real thing. If I have writer’s block I just have to go into my kitchen, turn on some music and start chopping vegetables. Within minutes my problem is solved. And based on the doodling study, it makes sense scientifically (although I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of how the brain works.) The theoretical reason doodling helps you pay better attention is because it occupies your mind so that you can’t daydream. Jackie Andrade explained:

It takes a large cognitive load to daydream. That has a big impact on the task you’re meant to be doing. Doodling takes only a small cognitive load, but it’s just enough to keep your mental resources focused on the main task.

Using that logic, if you take away the doodling, you’re left to daydream which is exactly what I do when I’m writing a story. There was a time in my life (well into adulthood, I might add) when I believed all of the people around me were ceaselessly making up stories in their head, the way I do. I thought daydreaming and creating stories were synonymous until I made one of those off-hand comments about it to someone and they gave me the look, you know that look people give you when they have no idea what you’re talking about and they are suddenly wondering if you’re a little bit crazy. It was just like the time, at my book club meeting, when I mentioned that really sweet foods tickle my tongue. I met with blank stares followed by raucous laughter and I was left wondering, am I the only one?

I have since done some light investigating about how people daydream and although I don’t believe I am the only one, I have yet to find somebody else who entertained themselves on those miserable childhood afternoons spent being dragged around department stores by making up stories about all of the mannequins, or someone who has a long cast of characters living imaginary lives in their daydream world. I know there are others out there like me but from what I can tell, most people daydream about real life or create fantasy lives about themselves. So, thank you Mom, for turning me into an indentured servant every Saturday morning and forcing me to clean the downstairs bathroom because I believe that’s where the stories began. I transformed my childhood angst into creativity and I guess it just never stopped.

Jackie Andrade said:

The exciting thing is that people actually got better while doing two things at once. Doodling is not as bad a thing as we might think.

And neither is daydreaming.

Feel free to let me know if you also daydream in stories, practice The Shower Principle in your life or your tongue gets tickled when you eat really sweet things (I’m a bit worried about that one, I’m really beginning to think I am the only one that happens to) because I would be interested to know. Maybe I should do my own study.

[The boy listening to Paul Simon (his request) and taking self-portraits.]


My friend Emily mentioned that I haven’t blogged in a while. It’s nice to know that at least one person missed me. Never fear my faithful readers, I haven’t given up on blogging I have just been preoccupied with my writing. I’ve been having some amazing success with my manuscript the last couple of weeks and I couldn’t tear myself away from it. The last goal I set for myself was to be done with my second draft by April 1st and if you will kindly look at the calendar, you will notice that was yesterday. But, that goal was to mark the anniversary of the beginning of my 5-year-manuscript-project which, I discovered while perusing old emails this past week, I actually began writing in February 2007. The 5-year ship has sailed. The new plan is to be done by May 31st and in the meantime I’ll try to blog more regularly, for those of you who missed me. If I don’t, just know it’s because incredible things are happening on this very computer I’m typing on and you’re one day closer to actually being able to read my story.