Certain things are best done in the shower. Getting clean tops the list, of course. And, for some people, singing. For me, spontaneous thought.
Indeed, although I have a fully furnished office and research space dedicated to inquiry and innovation, a surprising number of my better ideas emerge somewhere between shampoo lather and rinsing off the soap.
Could the aroma of my generic hair product have a mysterious brain-boosting effect? Probably not.
Research suggests instead that my insightful showers likely have more to do with a mind allowed to wander than the impact of a steamy fragrance. Compared to other daily activities, the shower is one of the few times in which there are few external demands and little need to exert a high degree of concentration on any aspect of the task at hand. Jogging, doing the dishes and riding the bus to work are other examples.
The results of neuroimaging studies indicate that these types of situations allow the outermost regions of the prefrontal cortex - those areas of the brain that help exert cognitive control - to loosen the reins and allow thought processes and neural activity not strictly related to the primary task.
In this state of defocused attention, one idea can trigger the next across a relatively unconstrained range of concepts and associations that might otherwise be viewed as completely unrelated. The resulting novel connections may explain how a broad focus can significantly facilitate creative thought and inventive problem-solving.
It may also explain how wandering thoughts about a thistle burr, a hymn-book marker and a falling apple could have inspired developments as useful as Velcro, Post-it notes and a theory of gravity.
Long despised as a craft of the lazy and unproductive, spontaneous thought (including nostalgic trips down memory lane and fantasizing about the future) is now viewed by brain scientists as a critical aspect of healthy functioning. This is reassuring in light of reports that more than 95 per cent of the population experience daily periods of mind wandering. Otherwise we might all be viewed as lazy and unproductive.
Instead, there is growing consensus among cognitive neuroscientists that the brain is a pro-active system that is continually at work helping us solve problems and prepare for future demands. This view stands in stark contrast to the common misconception that the brain only "lights up" when an external stimulus or task causes it to leap into action.
In fact, so much of the brain becomes highly active when the need for cognitive control is reduced, such as during periods of rest, that whole sections of interconnected grey matter have been termed the "default network." Brain scans suggest that activity in this network - located largely along the midline of the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes - are responsible for the highly associative processes that make my morning showers so productive.
The current emphasis on innovation, creativity and insightful problem-solving in today's knowledge-driven economy underscores the importance of learning about the default network's contribution to spontaneous thought. But we can't run to the shower every time we need some inspiration. So what else can we do to encourage our brains to work in this way?
Sometimes a slight distraction is all it takes. A bit of background music can prevent one from focusing too narrowly on irrelevant details of a problem and thereby enhance performance. Hearing a joke or otherwise improving your mood has also been shown to broaden focus and aid creative thought. It seems a dose of happiness can be truly inspirational.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Mark Fenske, co-author of The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success, is an associate professor at the University of Guelph