Why going to the bathroom is good for innovation

Often you get the best ideas in the bathroom or in the shower. You can dream away without being disturbed, writes innovation expert Simone van Neerven. But to come up with really good ideas, something else is needed: distraction.

'Slide to Unlock' on the first iPhones

Freddy Anzures was part of the Apple design team that worked on the very first designs of the iPhone. Anzures worked on a solution to easily unlock the phone. The challenge was that it should not accidentally happen while the phone was in a pocket or bag. He struggled to find a solution. When he was on a plane to visit his brother in New York, he had to go to the bathroom. While closing the toilet door with the typical sliding lock, he was inspired to use this principle. Back in San Francisco, he designed the famous “Slide to Unlock” feature.

Let new ideas bubble up

He was not the only one at Apple who got inspired at the toilet. In his early days, Steve Jobs liked to go to the office toilet where he would dangle his bare feet in a tub of water while relaxing and thinking quietly. It was one of his ways to let ideas spring to mind.

The Japanese inventor Nakamatsu, with thousands of patents on his name, took it a step further. He had a custom-made ‘calm room’ for thinking built in his house. This room was basically a bathroom, tiled in 24-carat gold, which he believed blocked out broadcast signals that harmed his creativity.

Creativity boost for musicians

For singers, the bathroom also proves to be very inspiring because of the great acoustics, which has a stimulating effect on their creativity. For example, Ed Sheeran revealed that he improved his songwriting skills by writing and singing on the toilet. He regularly goes to the bathroom to create musical magic.

He is not the only singer with this habit. Paul McCartney also liked to use the bathroom for writing Beatles songs. It is not exactly known which songs originated in the small room, but we know for sure that the song ‘Another Girl’ from the album ‘Help’ was written on the toilet during a holiday in Tunisia.

Let your mind wander

But it is not only the good acoustics that musicians like so much about the bathroom. McCartney explained his habit: “The trick is to separate yourself, be alone, and create peace and quiet. Toilets are perfect for that”.

We feel very free in the toilet. You are there on your own, without others nagging you, or any other social pressure. Being away from your normal routine allows for undisturbedly letting your mind wander for a while. Because of that relaxed atmosphere, bathrooms are bubbling with creativity.

Alice Flaherty, one of the most renowned neuroscientists researching creativity, agrees. She indicates that dopamine is crucial for us to be creative. The more dopamine that is released, the more creative we are. When we feel relaxed and great, the flow of dopamine increases. Typical triggers are, for instance, going to the bathroom, taking a warm shower, and exercising where the chances of having great ideas are significantly higher.

But that’s not all there is to it. Dopamine alone, which gets triggered in hundreds of events where we are not very creative, is not the only reason. Another crucial factor is distraction.

Incubation period for ideas

When we are very focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we are trying to solve. While this pattern of attention is necessary to solve problems analytically, it prevents us from detecting the connections that lead to new, innovative insights. 

When our minds are at ease, we are more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward. Only then remote associations and fresh ideas that were created by our subconscious mind will come to the surface. It is therefore extremely important to let things rest for a while after working hard on them. Scientists call this the incubation period of ideas.

So, if you are in a relaxed state of mind, full of dopamine and not too focussed on the topic, your brain is most likely to give you your best, most creative ideas.

This article was originally published in Dutch on MT/Sprout, the most popular business and management platform in the Netherlands.

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