What do Woody Allen, Nikola Tesla, Mozart and Stephen King have in common? They all pursued very different creative endeavours – at different times and in different parts of the world. But these creative geniuses have something in common – all four realise their best ideas and work most effectively while in a state of relaxation, even while in the shower!
Actor and Director Woody Allen encourages his own creativity through long showers, and believes insights and ideas can come into consciousness much more freely - “I’ll stand there with steaming hot water coming down for thirty minutes, forty-five minutes, just thinking out ideas and working on plot,”he says.
Similarly, one of Nikola Tesla's best ideas came to him far from the workplace. He stumbled upon the idea of alternating electric currents while on a leisurely stroll, and used his walking stick to draw the idea to his friend.
Austrian Composer Wolfgang Mozart found creative inspiration through solitude, especially at night - "When I am … completely myself, entirely alone … or during the night when I cannot sleep, it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly."
Novelist Stephen King also works best in private, and regularly engages in ‘constructive daydreaming’ to enhance his creativity and free his mind from everyday rational thinking. He sees a parallel between creative writing and daydreaming – “Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream,” he says.
But why do we seem more creative when we're relaxed, and what does neuroscience have to say about it?
Neuroscience demonstrates that reduced cognitive control or purposely ‘letting your mind wander’ is important for creativity. When we are idle, relaxed or engaging in leisure, our brains are at their most active.
When we deliberately focus on a problem, we usually focus outward toward the problem. But when our minds are relaxed, they tend to focus inward, which can lead to greater insight and clarity. We make connections and explore ideas and solutions otherwise hidden from us.
Relaxation doesn't mean putting your feet up at the end of a long day. It involves performing mentally engaging tasks that offer a break from the routine or mundane, and it can mean different things to different people. For many, long walks or being in nature is relaxing and restorative, as is holidaying or engaging in leisure or play.
There’s a reason why Google offers free gym memberships, pool tables and Lego stations to its employees – it is during these sorts of activities we are most likely to have creative insight. Google fosters a workplace culture of creativity, which leads to happier, more motivated employees.
Creative people tend to have greater volumes of gray matter in the brain, in regions associated with consciousness and self-awareness. And research has shown our brains are more creative when we are in a positive mood. Higher levels of dopamine in the brain lead to greater levels of creativity, which is why relaxing activities like showering can increase creativity. Relaxing activities provide us with a break and give us a fresh perspective, especially when we are fixated on a certain issue or ineffective solution.
Conversely, when we are stressed, our amygdala - the region of the brain responsible for emotions, emotional behaviour and motivation - will shut down certain parts of the brain to prepare our bodies for survival. Stress and uncertainty lead to conventional choices, causing us to overlook creative solutions and avoid taking risks.
In his book ‘Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind’, Scott Kaufman argues that to unleash creativity, it is important to free ourselves occasionally from rigid structure and routine, and to always be open to experience.
The choices we make enable or block creativity. Openness leads to exploration and mental wandering, hence why the shower and other relaxing activities can act as an incubator for ideas and creativity. The shower is free of distractions and stimulation, and insulates us against the outside world. In those moments of relaxation, we can daydream, analyse, remember and make connections.
In the words of Woody Allen - “In the shower, with the hot water coming down, you've left the real world behind, and very frequently things open up for you…”