How to Get Showers of Ideas

Last Updated Mar 13, 2008 11:43 PM EDT

I lunched today with a well-known quantum physicist, who mentioned that about half his ideas, and most of his best ones, happen in the shower. I asked him whether he knew why.

Being a physicist, he has developed a model to explain why. It goes, loosely, as follows:

1) There is an unconscious part of the mind that processes things without our knowing it, and in fact while our conscious mind is doing its thing.

2) Ideas are either algorithmic, like working through a differential equation, or non-algorithmic, which means they get worked out more or less randomly.

So why does one get ideas in the morning? He cautions that he's not a biologist, but he guesses that during the day, we need to concentrate on doing what we need to do to not get eaten by lions. So we have evolved strong biological systems to keep our unconscious mind from distracting us, so that we can't run away from the lion. In short, our conscious minds are insulated from the unconscious part of our mind, perhaps by some kind of gatekeeper in the brain.

We need a certain amount of sleep, and the unconscious mind must also be kept away during that time, as well. But in the morning, in the nice, warm, safe shower, the brain's gatekeeper says, 'okay, now's a good time to toss out those ideas you've been working on.'
I looked around for some other theories on getting ideas in the shower.

I found a few posts on tools to use to catch those great ideas when they come showering down on you.
Finally, for an in-depth look on the psychology of creativity, and particularly the unconscious mind's role in it, here's a primer (it's from 1992 and some concepts may have been superceded)
The Art of Creativity Drop a few of your own methods for getting ideas in the comments. But, of course, keep them clean...
  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.