Eureka! More Thoughts About Stuff That Happens In The Bathroom Besides Collecting Bath Tissue

December 5, 2009

There’s a recognized phenomenon called “shower thoughts.“ Many of us have discovered this phenomenon on our own. We’re showering, brushing our teeth or our hair, shaving, or putting on makeup, and suddenly, an idea that’s been circling our brain lands on target and begins to connect with other thoughts. Eureka! The October 2003 issue of Inc. Magazine includes a brief article, “Cleaning Up,“ that is prefaced by a question: “Why do the best ideas always arrive in the shower?“ Joshua Coleman, a clinical psychologist quoted in the article, says that “[c]reativity requires an attitude that is a paradoxical blend of attention and relaxation.“ Focusing too diligently on an intellectual problem can lead to brain constipation. Relaxing can unblock the brain. How metaphorically appropriate that this sometimes happens in the “necessary.”

I often have blogthoughts while I’m getting ready for work. Many times, things I’ve been working on become clearer while the water is pounding down on me, and when I’m drying my hair, it can sometimes feel like insights are being blown into my brain. They’re hard to keep up with, piling up on one another, and I absolutely have to write them down immediately. Otherwise, they’re like dreams, disappearing when I try to return to them later. I always keep pens in the bathroom and I usually have 3×5 cards there too, but I’ll write on anything that’s available when I run out of cards.

I’ve written notes on the paper from a dry cleaner’s hanger, on receipts, on the wrapping from a Bandaid®, on the inside of a box that held a bar of soap, and even on toilet paper, although this is truly a desperation move since it’s hard to write much without destroying the paper. I know that if I leave the room to hunt for more appropriate idea-capturing paper, I‘ll forget what I want to write down. I have a lot of experience with forgetting. Sometimes I remember things I haven’t formally captured; sometimes I don’t, and I hate feeling that I’ve lost something that might be important. Consider formalizing a way to capture your ideas. I recommend some kind of notekeeping system: a journal, lists on your phone, 3×5 cards (a personal favorite since they’re cheap, easily categorized once they’re written on, and can be stashed everywhere so they’ll be handy when you need them), or whatever works for you.

This definitely relates to success as a student. When you’re in school, it’s crucial to pay attention to the seemingly random thoughts you have related to your coursework. Of course, this assumes that you’re paying attention to your courses. If you aren’t, it’s not likely that you’ll have related thoughts. This seems obvious, but you can attend every class session and even read the textbook and do the work and still not be paying attention to the content or thinking about it. You can pass classes without really learning anything. It’s as though the information is only renting space in your brain without even signing a lease. The information rental contract is good only until the class is passed. Students who aren’t really paying attention haven’t bought the house and committed themselves to making improvements on the intellectual property.

Yesterday as I was brushing my teeth after posting, I realized that the difficulty I have defining my students with selected boxes of words on electronic references is related to my challenges with various kinds of tests that promise to tell someone what kind of learner—or person—s/he is. I often feel that these tests are about as useful as relying on the daily horoscope to plan your day. Certainly, reading in your horoscope that “today you might encounter a friend for life“ may cause you to look more closely at the people you encounter and that may lead to a friendship, but there’s no real correlation between the horoscope and predicting some inevitable reality.

In the same way, taking a test about your abilities or learning preferences is only a starting point for understanding who you are or what you prefer. The results may even provide information that conflicts with what you already know about yourself. I like these activities for this very reason. Their real value lies in the thinking that accompanies the activity, just as a course requires personal connection with what the content means to the individual learner before it becomes truly meaningful, and before the learner can have related thoughts, in or out of the shower.

Where and when do your best ideas come to you?

If I want to be alone someplace I can write, I can read, I can pray, I can cry, I can do whatever I want—I go to the bathroom.
• Alicia Keys


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