Why Your Best Ideas Come in the Shower

The end of summer is marked by the turning of Facebook statuses. Gone is the wave of posts that read like love letters to the sea. "After two weeks of looking at the ocean, just as I realize where I actually am, and what I might honestly feel, and what the world could actually look like, I have to leave and start racing again," wrote one friend. When I read his post in August I had just returned from a week of staring at the Bay of Fundy. The waves massaged my brain and I had been able to write easily for an hour each day.

I haven't picked up that notebook since I boarded the flight home. It's not just because I'm busy. I'm also not inspired. While the ocean expands your mind, technology forces it to focus. Though that's good news for the people who email you, a constricted noggin is antithetical to big ideas.

There's a reason you feel like Einstein while sitting on a dock or Edgar Allen Poe while staring out an airplane window: a relaxed head is fertile ground for insights. When a task requires concentration, your mind follows a straight path. When a task requires minimal attention -- taking a shower or going for a walk -- your mind is free to wander. It plucks disparate thoughts like flowers and puts them together in the same basket. The minute you walk away from your computer, that passage by Virginia Woolf suddenly relates to that scene in the Godfather and - bam! - you've formed a master's thesis on mortality. Legend has it Sir Isaac Newton came up with the law of universal gravity when he was sitting in an apple orchard, not in the lab. According to some accounts, Descartes invented coordinate geometry while staring at a fly on his ceiling. Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein in a dream.

A study by psychologists at the University of California found that when students were given a 12-minute break during a creative test, the ones who spent it doing an activity that made their minds wander outperformed the others by 41 per cent. The message is clear: you have permission to daydream. But instead, we let technology act as a straightjacket on our thoughts.

McGill neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin and his research partner Vinod Menon found the part of our brain that acts like a switch between focus and day-dream mode (called the insula) becomes less effective the more we multi-task. When you're toggling between Gchats, Facebook and Pinterest, "it's like there's a bunch of shiny objects in a dark room," says Levitin, author of The Organized Mind, "and (behind you) there's this beautiful view of the ocean and sailboats that you can't see because you don't even think of turning around."

Those of us who could benefit the most from staring out a window have the least access to our inner daydreamers. When I come home from a stressful day at work, I don't want to explore my mind's back alleys; I want to numb it with booze and bad T.V.

To make the insula more nimble, we have to become the masters of technology. That's hard. A recent study in the journal Science Express found that we receive five times the amount of information as we did in 1986. There are 6,000 hours of new video posted to YouTube every 60 minutes. But rather than being slaves to multiple tabs (I'm currently shackled to 35) we should control our online habits like parents who monitor their children's T.V. time.

Levitin says you should designate time periods for checking email and social media accounts. You can't be faithful to a task if you're constantly being seduced by Facebook likes (I've made a rule not to check before 10 a.m. Sometimes I cheat). Use technology to facilitate mind wandering: set an alarm and nap for 20 minutes during the day. Listen to music on your phone instead of swiping through Instagram. The fewer tasks you force your brain to focus on, the more easily it will flip to relaxation mode.

And really, relaxation is a misnomer. Start thinking of mind wandering as a game of connect-the-dots. Thoughts that are detached in your work brain will form a clear picture when you daydream. "I checked my 500th e-mail and discovered the cure for..." is the start of nobody's "Eureka" moment.

*This blog originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.

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