Have you ever been taking a shower when you suddenly had a breakthrough or a great idea? Or perhaps it came to you while you were cutting vegetables, or maybe taking a walk?
At any rate, the best ideas will often come to us when we're not trying to 'force' them and often when we don't expect them. In fact at IDEO headquarters (a design consultancy), employees are encouraged to scratch out their best ideas on the walls while they sit on the throne…
That's a little out there maybe; but even Einstein has noted this phenomenon, claiming that working at the patent office in Switzerland helped him to come up with his theory of special relativity.
So what's going on?
Why Menial Tasks May Lead to Brilliance
Well apparently, focussing on menial 'every day tasks' such as taking a shower, allows our brain to turn inwards and deal with other things.
When you try and work on a problem, this causes your brain to work specifically towards solving that issue. This prevents your brain from wandering and mulling over other ideas, which is actually the process that may lead to breakthroughs.
Even when you sit down to come up with an idea, you'll actually be forcing your brain to focus on that problem in a particular light, rather than letting it wander through all the interconnected neural networks. This means we struggle with things like 'functional fixedness' – a cognitive bias that prevents us from being able to look at problems from different angles due to our preconceived notions.
But when you give yourself a menial job to do, your mind wanders and as such, you make new connections that you otherwise wouldn't have made – and this leads to creative breakthroughs.
This is only further aided by the fact that relaxation helps us to think more creatively as well. The more we relax, the more our mind wanders and the more we can make those novel connections. Showering, taking long walks, or even going to the toilet all allow our body to relax and our mind to wander while we go through monotonous motions.
The Default Mode Network
More precisely, it is believed that when we take care of a menial job, this leads to our mind turning inwards and engaging the 'default mode network' or DMN. This is a select number of brain regions that become active when we are no longer focussed on the outside world and instead deep in thought. This state can be described as 'wakeful rest' and is when we are most likely to daydream or to think about plans for the future.
It is unsure whether the default mode network exists primarily to facilitate creative ideas, or whether the daydreams are a by-product of 'maintenance' type functions in the brain as may be the case with dreams when we sleep.
The point is though, that engaging in menial tasks while in a relaxed state may be useful as a way to encourage creative thoughts and to trigger new insights. In a world where we are constantly rushing from one task to another and constantly flooring our brains with media through our smartphones and TVs, make sure that you do take the time just to go for a stroll, to have a long shower, or to wash those dishes without Netflix on…