I’m no Archimedes, but I’ve had a disproportionate number of good ideas in the five minutes or so of my day I spend in the shower. I’ve explored a number of possible explanations.
My shower pressure is fairly powerful for a New York apartment and it generally hits me right at the base of the skull, stimulating the blood flow. But it’s only my medulla and my cerebellum lying right beneath and they are almost certainly not the source of the ideas that pop up. I tend to keep my frontal lobes away from the jets, except for the few seconds when I am washing my face or shampooing my few hairs. The only thoughts that cross my mind then relate to conditioner.
The sound of the water drumming on my skin and the acoustics of the tiles are fairly easy to reproduce outside the bathroom. But when I listen to the sound of falling water anywhere else it generally just makes me want to pee.
Maybe the water returns me to some primeval state; I read somewhere that the pattern of our hair growth indicates that humans went through some extended aquatic stage, living entirely in the sea. This hypothesis seems improbable and in any case I doubt that it was a particularly fecund stage of our history. Seals, whales, and mermaids, all live fairly banal sorts of lives and rarely win Nobel Prizes or have gallery openings.
Most of the things I do in the shower are mindless. That’s not entirely accurate: my mind is present but my judgment is suspended. I can hardly see, I can only hear white noise, I am all alone, and while I am doing things — working up lather, washing between each toes, getting as far down my back as I can reach — I’ve done them more than 14,000 times before and they are automatic.
The afternoon is generally when I give myself challenges and problems to solve. I do research, and kick around a few preliminary ideas. I may have taped up some ideas on the wall from the morning and I’ll look them over and try to push further. Half formed notions will rattle around my skull for the rest of the day, getting a polish in the cerebral rock tumbler before bed.
Then at eleven or so, I’ll hit the hay, hopefully for the whole night. (Sometimes ideas will wake me up at four, jolted to the surface by a passing fire or garbage truck. These ideas, while insistent in the dark, tend to look fairly ugly by the light of day, like half cooked pork.) By morning, my brain has been well- marinated and is ready to serve. I tend to take a shower 15 or so minutes after I wake up, and in that calm, consistent, non judgmental environment, the ideas feel safe to poke their heads out of my head and present themselves.
So the trick is not a matter of soap and water. It’s slowing down, clearing the mind, letting go, giving myself a few minutes of nothingness. And yet in that relaxed nothingness, there is bubbling activity. The only other place I’ve found such a paradoxical blend of tranquility and creativity is between the covers of my drawing journal.
Maybe I should get a waterproof pen and start drawing on the tiles.