Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Why Your Best Thinking Is in the Shower (2014) (openculture.com)
173 points by panabee on Jan 27, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 66 comments

I have become addicted to having long thinking session in the shower. I probably shower too much.

I often go in there. Make sure all lights are off. Usually sit or lay in bathtub with just shower on. Close eyes and relax and think(and daydream). It's sorta like a combination massage / isolation chamber effect for me. Spending time doing this daily keeps me centered, focused, clear minded, and lastly reduces any temporary stress I have.

When you learn things, you do so in a focused mode using working memory. Working memory can be thought of as a re-wipeable white/black board. The information,skill,idea is called a CHUNK and is encoded into a weak neural loop . You strengthen loose understanding through practice and repetition.

A chunk has no context. Context is how a chunk fits into the big picture of what you already know. At a neural level, context means neurons are making new connections. Think of a chunk as the WHAT. The context as HOW you use the chunk you are learning.

For a learned chunk to be useful, you need to know HOW a chunk is useful. You need to know the CONTEXT. Context is knowing the HOW and WHEN to use what you have learned. If you change from focused learning to relaxation, you can let your un-focused mind create these connections. [0]

By letting the brain drift into diffuse mode (unfocused attention), you are making connections between chunks, creating context. The brain is doing this at a lower level of conscience by sleeping or relaxing or changing focus. You use a bath, Darwin had his ^thinking path^ for the same reasons. [1],[2]


[0] https://www.brainscape.com/blog/2016/08/better-learning-focu...

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin

[2] "Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects" ~ https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn

Fuck this is relatable. I'm quite a solitary person, I'm constantly in my head contextualizing and overhauling past opinions and bias.

I thought this was mainly computers that taught me to think this way, didn't realise there was documented philosophy behind it.

Is there any science behind Chunks, or is it just a seemingly useful way to model learning?

The science underpinning the idea of learning, memory, recall and is based/described in neuroscience at at cellular level. So you can read papers. The coursework is really at a more abstracted level describing the processes as a model based on cited research. This is a high level course to improve learning, not STEM as such. Still very useful.

Chunking is described in more detail at Week2 https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn/home/we... and books:






And people call me weird for this! It's about the closest thing the average person has in their house to an isolation chamber. I find it very beneficial to retreat to it after I get stuck on a problem and need to approach it differently.

Continuous water heaters are a must though :)

if i didnt have roomates i would put a white board in the shower

You can still put one there -- they'll just be able to use it to.

It's also extremely resource intensive unless you recycle your waste water; nothing wrong with baths!

Google tells me the average bath uses 35-50 gallons of water, while the average shower uses 2 gallons per minute. Which puts the breakeven point at say 15-25 minutes.

Although if you live in the midwest like I do, we have infinite water. Use more water? it goes back to lake Michigan and recycled. The gas to heat the water is the only "waste", but you could offset with a solar panel.

Creating potable drinking water from natural sources requires a little energy. You will probably notice it in your water bill if you start showering twice as long.

I'd expect that showering twice as long would not mean twice the energy required to make that water potable again.

Why wouldn't it mean that? It would be twice the amount of water.

Why wouldn't the energy required be at least linearly correlated with the water amount?

While it's twice the amount of water, the water is not as dirty (when you shower twice as long you may not be twice as dirty and may not be using twice the amount of shampoo).

Is that reasoning unrealistic? I don't know a first thing about water treatment.

For drinking water, we typically process relatively clean sources of water to begin with, not wastewater. It will vary by region. (I don't think anywhere actually starts with wastewater rather than some more convenient and clean local source, outside of fiction like "Dune.")

To take a local example I am familiar with — Seattle gets most of its drinking water from the Cedar River watershed (rainwater). It is a relatively pristine source. Wastewater, including shower output, is treated and released into Puget Sound[0] (the ocean). The only way that ocean water makes it back into the drinking supply is via ordinary evaporation and rain.

So the treatment required on the second quantity of water is exactly the same as on the first, and you get linearly increasing cost.

[0]: http://your.kingcounty.gov/ftp/gis/Web/VMC/utilities/system_...

or you do it like in japan : they have a bathtube filled with water that you reheat when you want to have a bath, but you actually clean yourself before going inside.

That's a hot tub in the US... Which generally stay hot all the time and cost about $30 a month in energy costs.

A nice long bath, laying down with a full length album, or driving in the hills. Those are my daydreaming states.

I have also begun to note a new state that I let go missing, and that is being thoughtless. It is really hard for me to achieve but I can in situations like focusing on music or on the opposite spectrum, motorsport. I always think so much more clearly afterward.

It seems that doing that everyday isn't that good for the skin. I read a good article about that the other day but it's in french. http://health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/cleansing/myths/ho... first google results

I started doing this and then started feeling bad about all the energy and water being used.

I thought about filling the tub with hot water and purchasing a high powered pump to circulate water to produce a shower effect.

I keep telling people I do my best work in the shower, and they always think I'm pulling a lewd joke. I'm fully serious though, most of my good ideas have come to me in the shower, weird as it may sound. I'm glad to read I'm not alone in this!

Maybe it is just me being "arty" as a person, but this stuff seems like second nature. If I'm going to paint and draw surrealist or otherwise unique artwork, I gotta have ideas... or start painting portraits and landscapes from pictures. I find it quite interesting to find out why.

There is a link in the article to some words from John Cleese where he talk about creativity being a "mood" - and I find this to be true. [1] The hardest part, I think, is probably finding the activities that really do it for you. And that is really just practicing a bit of mindfulness while doing things.

For me, showers and baths bring a different sort of creativity than walking a well-walked path, doing a repetitive task (even if it is part of another creative endeavor), or simply listening to music. Combining music to the other things seems to help as well.

[1] http://www.openculture.com/2013/09/john-cleeses-philosophy-o...

> Renowned neuroscientist Alice Flaherty theorizes that the key biological ingredient in incubation is dopamine, the neurotransmitter released when we’re relaxed and comfortable.

There are a lot of things attributed to dopamine these days, and it feels like it can't possibly be that simple. If it were, dopamine injections would be a great thing. It's kinda like brainwaves. Maybe it serves as a pretty good indicator (dopamine for 'pleasure', brainwaves for how relaxed you are) but it is simply small-minded to assume that dopamine alone is responsible for everything. Just like brainwaves aren't the end-all of psychology.

Everyday I shower I realize how lucky I am to have my own hot shower, bath and tub. I am the 1%. 99% of the global population isn't as lucky as I am.

Does anyone else forget if they washed their hair of not while having an epiphany?

Also, I feel weird telling anyone it came to me while I was in the shower. Like I'm putting the image of me in the shower in their head.

I also forget. Thankfully hair-washing is an idempotent operation for guys :) .

"Hygienic idempotency and creative reverie: Yet another male privilege?" is going to be my Gender Studies dissertation.

If you use shampoo, it's not idempotent. Over-shampooing hair dries out your scalp. A nontrivial number of guys with dandruff could benefit from shampooing less often.

I've been wondering about this. I have a bit of dandruff.

I really like the fluffy hair feeling i get when i wash most/all the grease out.

But sometimes i can wash my hair 4-5 times and it's still greasy!

Not if you have long hair like I do!

>Does anyone else forget if they washed their hair of not while having an epiphany?

I'm more likely to mindlessly apply body soap to my hair or shampoo to my body when solving problems in the shower. I'm always amused when my autopilot makes this mistake.

I'm solving olympiad programming problems almost everyday since October 2015 (mainly on CodeForces, also occasionally on HackerRank, Project Euler, TopCoder, Acm Timus, Uva etc). In total, I spend 15-20 hours per week on solving these problems.

Solving these problems is really hard and energy consuming process.

So every week, for more than a year, I'm experiencing getting stuck and being really frustrated, having insights on morning shower etc.

I read this article and I don't find it practically useful except may be it's a nice reading about dopamine or other stuff like that.

I've noticed that to have an insight in morning shower you have to think really hard (and probably being frustrated of getting stuck) a day before. You have to be involved in the problem. Only then, your brain start thinking about it in the background. If you are not involved in the problem, you won't have insight in morning shower. I even suspect that being frustrated day before could be one of key factors why your brain prioritize task of solving a problem in the background.

Unfortunately, I don't see that this article mention that.

I think in general your brain could have two modes of solving problem - deterministic thinking, random-walk thinking.

When you are actively solving problem, your brain works in deterministic mode. When you have insight on morning shower, your brain works in random-walk mode.

So probably, to get unstuck, you have to switch from deterministic mode to random-walk mode. In random-walk mode, you can randomly jump from one branch (dead-end branch) in decision tree to another branch which could be correct one.

Solving olympiad problems is NP-complete (or NP-hard, I don't know). It means that there is no way to solve them deterministically in reasonable amount of time. Probably, our brains evolved in such a way that it uses heuristics with random elements to tackle NP-complete problems in real life.

"It means that there is no way to solve them deterministically in reasonable amount of time."

On the contrary, the systematic method to hack these seems to be pattern matching and shoehorning into similar problems rather than reasoning from first principles. I'm going through a similar battle, mainly because programming interviews have annoyingly become competitive challenges lately and before adopting a strategy it was an extremely soulsucking process.

Can you describe an np complete problem that you have solved?

I said solving olympiad problems is NP-complete task. Not problems themselves. See the difference?

Let's say there is a relatively simple olympiad puzzle. Also, let's say there is a imaginary robot which should solve this olympiad puzzle. What I said there is no fast universal algorithm for the robot which allows to solve any such olympiad puzzle. The only thing robot can do to solve many (but not all) problems is heuristics with random elements.

I don't think your argument holds water.

The Robot has to check n p-complex approaches to m problems.

This has complexity n.m.p'max I think that's in p.

All the problems that are known to be p are in n and m.

Along these lines, I'd recommend Rich Hickey's presentation on "Hammock Driven Development."


I've been using dive slates in the shower for years:


Wow, brilliant! Thanks! I have great ideas and forget almost everything.

I meditate everyday for 20 to 60 minutes. The first ten minutes are usually relaxation and the rest is planning over today's job and, occasionally, my life in general.

Before, I used to go for a walk to do that. I also had ideas under the shower. I have found meditation to be more efficient in term of focus.

I have the same experience. I find taking a shower or a walk easier than meditating, but meditating seems to have a stronger effect. That said, all three help tremendously with the more intuitive leaps that I often need to solve particular problems (in work or life), as well as with maintaining a more peaceful state.

Forcing myself to do these things has been one of the biggest improvements in my life, in particular in dealing with my anxiety and stress issues.

You should read Margaret Boden's The Creative Mind, which analyses all the ingredients necessary for the human mind to generate creative ideas. Like with everything, it's a skill you can learn and practice, once you know how the creative process works in your brain.

Jacques Hadamard's "The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field" 1945 is a very good essay on the deep preparation, rest, and then inspiration pattern (and possibly how to cultivate it).

This is why I keep a notebook next to my bedside - I have my best ideas just before sleep or upon waking.

In a previous job, I sometimes ran into programming problems that I spent all day trying to figure out - without success. But quite often, when I went home, unwound, went to bed, just the moment before falling asleep, the solution would become obvious.

And nearly every programmer I told about this had experienced the same thing. ;-)

Indeed. The feeling of solving a problem in 5 mins the morning after an entire day of banging my head against the wall is both one of my favorite and least favorite sensations.

I would sometimes get a brilliant idea at three o'clock in the morning. The next day I could remember having an idea but not exactly what it was :(

just be careful not to train your body that a bed isnt sleep time, but notebook time

Shower thoughts are really cool. They are more creative than what you would normally think of, because it actually broadens the range of inputs you are using to synthesize new ideas, which is what creativity is. Your environment greatly affects the creative output of your mind, because your mind is basically trying to pre-calculate routines that might appear so that it’s responsively faster if those routines occur.

It’s part of what déjà vu is. Your brain already pre-calculated a thing that might happen a long time ago when you weren’t noticing, then it actually happened and you're like - Hey wait a sec, I kind of recognize this shit. Shower thoughts are broader, because the range that we use for our creativity is actually limited by our surroundings. For instance, if we're in a social setting around a lot of people, our brains would try to optimize the relations between people, the environment, the posture. There are so many social things that go on in a social setting that occupy your mind, like trying to understand what other people are saying, trying to educate them, tell them things etc.

It’s very consuming to the mind, so when you are in the shower you probably don’t have music, you probably don’t have to think where to go next, or people you are trying to impress. It allows you to free your mind to create and synthesize new ideas using a broad range of inputs that can be a lot more random. This is because they’re not being refined or restricted to the same content matter that exists during the rest of the day, whether we are being influenced by work, or school or by a lover or any other type of social setting.

Personally Ive always thought it's because it's devoid of external sensory inputs other than white noise. The mind is able to think for itself rather than respond to the world.

If this is true, them pursuit of mindfulness (training your mind to suppress spontaneous thoughts) while a powerful tool to enhance productivity has a negative side. It suppresses spontaneous creative thinking. Or does it produce a clear mental space into which creative thoughts can intrude and not be lost due to distractions? I feel like I'm in a mental squirrel cage going round and round and getting nowhere.

I understand exactly what you mean. But expert practitioners say that this is only the initial and the hardest phase and that it can be overcome with practice. What lies beyond is another question, but I want to trust that I will be able to get there and experience it first hand.

Here's what David Lynch, an avid practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, has to say about it:


I also get the same effect when I am driving to work and from work and when I'm laying in bed before I fall asleep. I think there is something to be said for perspective. Some times we focus so hard and constant that we can't see the forest for the trees. There is a lot more to solving software problems than LOC/hour.

While through many ways mind and body (physicality) are viewed as 2 entities they are one. Relaxing your body relaxes your mind. To take it further, physical exercise also makes you think better. It creates all kind off cocktails. Things like staying motivated with an idea, having energy, and not set back by feelings of failure. I also went through depression, and when I got to a better state off mind after therapy I was faster, sharper, more focused and more perceptive. It all needs to balance well together. Like a computer your as good as the weakest link.

Another highly recommended activity if you're fishing for the epiphany moment: walking a longish course you have walked many times before.

This what I do when it is socially unacceptable to hop in the shower for the third time in the day.

Yes, it has to be a familiar route so that you are relaxed and undistracted by navigation, e.g. Darwin's Sandwalk:


Despite the deluge of advice from the Innovation-thumpers of the many virtues of personal washing, I have yet to invent a flying car while standing in the shower thinking. (great song though).

That's because 'you' don't do it. The guy who runs your brain when you're not using it does it. :)

Pro tip: Meditation will do this on-demand.

My first guess would be because it usually happens in the morning and a lot of peoples' brains work best then.

i'm an evening shower-er and frequently have shower epiphanies.

maybe relevant to your theory: http://content.time.com/time/covers/20060116/pdf/Day_Night.p...

That is why I have a bath... and I have tablet with stylus (in case). Always get crazy ideas.

walking helps too

So this means that low flow EPA rated showerheads are driving innovation in this country by making my normal 4 min shower takes 25+?

This comment exhibits how far the propaganda of energy efficiency has gone

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact