This post is also available in Dutch.
After a busy day at work, you take a nice hot shower. As you try to take your mind off work, suddenly the solution to that tricky problem comes to mind! Why is it that you always get the best ideas at times like that? Why not in moments when you are working on them? It probably has to do with a special network of brain areas that is active when you are at rest.
The brain network for good ideas is active at rest
When your mind wanders or when you are doing a task that does not require much thought, such as brushing your teeth, taking a shower, or exercising, the so-called default mode network becomes active. This is a network of different brain regions that is active precisely when you are resting and less active when you are, for example, focused or concentrated on work. So even when you are “at rest,” your brain is busy.
This network is active, for example, when you are daydreaming, consciously and unconsciously recalling memories, or reflecting. At these times, there is room for ideas to emerge. Unsurprisingly, this network is also linked to creativity.
Measuring creativity during brain surgery
There are several studies showing that activation of the default mode network produces creativity. Very striking is an experiment from Israel where patients stayed awake during brain surgery to check if the operation was going well. Researchers then temporarily inhibited the brain regions of the default mode network with electrodes. Meanwhile, they asked patients to think of another function for a familiar object, such as a shoe. They found that during the inhibition of the network, the patients could no longer think of other functions, such as using the shoe as a doorstop, whereas before inhibition, they could. So, they were no longer able to think creatively.
Why not at a more convenient time?
So why don’t you get these ideas at work or when you’re working on the task at hand? This is because when you are using so-called executive functions (i.e., concentrating on a task), the default mode network is precisely not active. There is then less room for the emergence of new creative ideas than when you let your mind wander in the shower or during a vacation.
For new ideas to emerge, it is important that your default mode network is activated, and your executive network is not. Try to let go of the focus during your work and daydream every once in a while. Who knows, maybe that’s where the solution to that one difficult problem lies or a brilliant idea that you just need.