Problem Solving, Shaving, and Sheldon Cooper
Have you ever been so stuck on solving a problem that no matter how much brain power you could muster the solution continued to elude you, frustrate you, and even drive you crazy? Or you are searching for a new idea, and the more time spent on it the further it drifts away? It seems like the quintessential rock and a hard place. Let’s see how tv’s brilliant yet awkward physicist Dr. Sheldon Cooper (he’s not crazy, his mother had him tested) overcame this exact scenario with a little help from Albert Einstein, and then I’ll share what works for me.
The scene: Sheldon Cooper has been up all night trying to solve a problem. When we first see his struggle, he is attempting to engage the superior colliculus of his brain (I’ve done similar so-called brain strategies in times of desperation – they don’t work). Three days and no sleep later he is still stuck when he has a breakthrough that will ultimately lead him to his solution.
Sheldon realizes that Einstein discovered Relativity while working in a Patent office, so he finds a similar job that occupies him with a routine task while freeing his prefrontal cortex to work quietly in the background on his problem. He takes a break from physics and volunteers as a busboy at the Cheesecake Factory. As you can guess, his epiphany soon follows.
Pushing the ‘Pause’ Button
Likewise, when I put my brain to work on a task involving focus but not problem-solving skills, it opens up my mind to work without me getting in the way. Thoughts, ideas, and solutions appear to spring out of nowhere! Upon investigation, many people report this happens when taking a shower. It is due to something called creative pause. Creative pause is when you “shift from being fully engaged in a creative activity to being passively engaged, or being disengaged altogether.” This phenomenon usually precedes the coveted “a-ha!” moment (most notable – Archimedes discovering the principle of buoyancy in the bathtub and subsequent streaking through Athens while shouting Eureka!).
For creative pause to occur, three things seem to be common across the board:
- Distractions are minimized – including noise and technology.
- Your body is engaged in repetitive activity requiring minimal mental engagement. This frees your mind to think laterally.
- Change of scenery or environment.
Is it any wonder these moments happen in the bathroom? Where else are all three criteria met on a daily basis?
Shaving as a ritual
I am not a shower thinker, but I have many creative insights while shaving. It didn’t begin until a couple years ago when I switched to shaving with a safety razor (like the one your grandfather used) and a badger brush. I found that the ritual of the experience gets me “in the zone,” and while I’m staring in the mirror using just enough mental power to keep my skin intact, new ideas and solutions have the opportunity to make themselves known – and frequently do. I used to think of shaving as a chore, but now I enjoy and even look forward to this part of the morning.
What About You?
How do you achieve creative pause?
Any Eureka! moments you would like to share? What preceded those moments?
Do you think in the bathroom? Where else have you found it easy to have breakthroughs?
Continue the discussion in the comments, I’m looking forward to seeing your creative strategies.
About Cole Bradburn
I'm a writer and doctor in lifelong pursuit of health, happiness, and adventure. I currently live in Raleigh, NC with the love of my life and our amazing boys.