Column: Distractions from distractions

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

People are coming back from their Thanksgiving breaks, eyes locked ahead on the upcoming winter holiday. Oh, and finals are right around the corner. All of that work and information from the past few weeks is culminating in either a large exam or paper. Throw in whatever personal issues the average Aggie goes through on a day-to-day basis and early winter becomes a stressful time. Fortunately, there’s a simple way of finding at least a moment of mental focus and creativity. Step back. Breathe. Take a shower.

Go ahead and laugh incredulously. With the precious seconds ticking away, and the mountain of tasks not shrinking along with them autonomously, it’s easy to start believing that all of one’s attention must go to the job at hand. However, a change of scenery and attitude can often result in seeing the problem from a fresh perspective.

Why would a shower really help with thinking about problems creatively or differently?

The answer lies in how dramatic of a change in setting the shower really represents. Many college students identify themselves as competent multitaskers. It’s a really good euphemism for saying my generation is distracted the vast majority of the time. The sight of a college student with a laptop in their room isn’t a terribly uncommon one, and while it is a great tool for all things productive and academic, it provides 24-hour access to an all-you-can-eat buffet of information, and an even larger source of fun diversions.

The hyperbole “mind-numbing” comes to mind when describing the vast quantity of information available. However, it isn’t entirely inappropriate. The sheer volume of information available, both pertinent and extraneous, provides a very easy outlet for procrastination.

The shower eliminates a lot of the potential for distraction by being a generally unfit environment to bring electronics. But apart from it being impractical to be on Facebook or Reddit while you’re scrubbing, the shower does a number of other great things to put the mind at ease. It provides a moment’s rest from the day-to-day sensory overload we’ve become so accustomed to.

The brain is very receptive to sensory stimulation and has specialized regions for deciphering inputs from the surrounding environment.
The human ear is receptive to changes in the surrounding air pressure caused by sound waves. An incoming wave vibrates the eardrum at a certain frequency. The drum’s movement causes a set of bones to transfer the vibration into the cochlea, where different vibrations would cause different sensory hair cells to detect the change and send nerve impulses to the brain. The above package results in the sensation of sound.

The repetitive noise of the water droplets coming out of the shower head is arrhythmic, irregular, and to the mind’s understanding, inconsequential. It has the same soothing effect as the faint rumblings of a car when one is a passenger in the back seat. The mind wanders comfortably and the rider is often lulled into a deep tranquility. In the case of the shower, instead of having your concentration yanked away by Skrillex, your housemate loudly playing video games or your upstairs neighbors getting into a competition of who can drop the heaviest objects on their floor, your auditory cortex is granted respite by the pitter patter of synthesized rain on the wall.

Another of our senses that is constantly accosted throughout the day is our vision. Flashing colors on computer screens, swerving bikers in the roundabouts, lecture slides, etc.

On the retina, images trigger an arrangement of photosensory cells to send information to the brain via the optic nerve. At our desks, there are all kinds of images being formed and dealt with by the brain. For the most part, the shower is empty (save for bottles of soaps and shampoos, maybe some kind of brush or scrubber). The uniformity of the tiles doesn’t really provide us with the same kind of mental engagement that a bright flashing popup saying “INSTANT WINNER” does.

As a result, in the shower, our brain can tune out much of the input from the occipital lobe for a while and let the mind focus on more important things. The ability to enter an environment in which visual and auditory stimuli can be ignored lets us harness the brain’s massive processing power and re-direct it from external problems towards more abstract internal solutions.

Ultimately, the creative retreat to the shower might not be a major innovation in the cognitive science of productivity. At the very least, however, it serves as a moment’s pause from distraction, during which the mind is free to recuperate in its own private meditation pod.

In addition to all the mental and creative benefits of showering, there are also clear social rewards. Surrounding peers will be incredibly grateful for the reduced olfactory assaults caused by reluctance to bathe.

When not in his white noise pod, the well-groomed ALAN LIN can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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