How Sauna and Cold Plunge Can Unlock Creativity
There's no shortage of studies, articles, and Instagram Reels about how sauna and cold therapy help with stress relief, anxiety, and relaxation. But what about other mental benefits, like creativity?
At Sauna House, we get lots of artists, musicians, intellectuals, and creatives who regularly come to enjoy the bathhouse. When folks tell us about their visit afterward, one of the buzzwords we hear often is that their Hot-Cold-Relax experience brought “clarity”. We wanted to explore these brain-boosting benefits and answer the question: can sauna and cold plunge help unleash our inner creative?
- Cold therapy for creativity >
- Heat therapy for creativity >
- The original “Shower Thought" >
- Tips for getting your creative juices flowing with contrast therapy >
The Brain-Body Effect
To understand the science behind creativity, we have to take a peak at the chemistry going on inside our brains. Researchers have found that in order to kickstart creative work, we need high serotonin, dopamine, and endorphin levels, and low cortisol levels . This manifests as a sense of calm yet energetic focus. It's the sweet spot where tranquility meets heightened cognitive abilities – a fertile ground for creative thinking.
Both hot and cold therapy have been documented to support this neurochemical cocktail of creativity, relieving stress and pain while improving mood. When we use tactics like sauna, cold plunge, journaling, daydreaming, and more to create an ideal inner environment that nourishes our bodies and brains alike, we greatly increase our chances of experiencing a flash of creative insight!
Cold for Creativity: Vasoconstriction
When we step into the cold plunge or turn the shower handle to “C”, our bodies immediately enter a vasoconstriction response. This means that blood vessels constrict to reduce heat loss from the body's surface and protect core body temperature . This results in blood being redirected from our periphery (like limbs) toward our core, which includes major organs like the heart and brain. It’s our body’s natural reflex to ensure that the brain receives adequate oxygenation and nutrient supply even in extreme temperatures.
The redirection of blood to our core, or central vascular space, means that there's potentially more oxygen-rich blood available for the brain. Our brains consume about 20% of our body's oxygen, and increased blood flow could lead to enhanced oxygenation and removal of waste products, facilitating optimal brain function. Aka improved cognitive processes, clearer thinking, and enhanced creative abilities.
Cold Shock Therapy & Endorphin Release
Endorphins are a group of neuropeptides produced naturally and stored in the pituitary gland of the brain. They block the perception of pain and increase feelings of wellbeing and euphoria, producing effects similar to the drug morphine. Endorphins also play a vital role in various physiological functions, including mood regulation, response to stress, and reward systems.
A 2019 study exploring the physiological effects of winter swimming found an increase in plasma endorphin levels among participants . This increase in endorphins can be attributed to our body’s natural response to cold exposure, acting as a mechanism to mitigate the potential discomfort and stress induced by the frigid temperature. Beyond the immediate wellbeing benefits, an upsurge in endorphins has been attributed to helping unlock creativity! Endorphins’ pivotal role in mood regulation can help foster an environment conducive to creative thought. The neural pathways stimulated by endorphin release can enhance neural connectivity, which may bring mental clarity and create a state of mind that is more receptive to innovative ideas and creative solutions.
Heat for Creativity: The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The warmth of the sauna feels good for a reason – as our core temperature rises, the parasympathetic nervous system is induced. This allows our bodies to move out of flight-flight-freeze response (hello, sympathetic nervous system) and into a state of relaxation. Chemically, this effect on our autonomic nervous system includes the release of serotonin and dopamine, as well as the suppression of the stress hormone, cortisol .
These brain-boosting effects of sauna create the ideal brain chemistry for creative work. It’s hard to think outside of the box if our nervous systems are stuck in a heightened state of arousal. By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, we can bring our bodies and minds out of survival mode so we can sink into rest, play, creativity, and imagination.
The Original “Shower Thought”: Archimedes’ Principle of Buoyancy
In case you’re not already familiar with the shower thought phenomenon, it’s when an idea or minor epiphany comes to you while you’re going about your normal business taking a shower. There’s a couple reasons that the shower is a prime spot for creative problem solving: allowing our minds to wander, the total comfort, the relaxation of taking care of our bodies and minds. And even though it’s been talked about heavily on the internet, the shower thought phenomenon is super old – we’re talking 3rd century BC old.
In the ancient city of Syracuse, situated on the eastern coast of Sicily, one of history's greatest mathematicians and engineers, Archimedes, made profound discoveries that continue to influence science today. Among his numerous contributions, Archimedes was the first to document the sudden inspiration and creativity of a “shower thought”.
The story goes like this: King Hiero II of Syracuse, suspecting that a goldsmith had cheated him by substituting some of the gold in a commissioned crown with silver, turned to Archimedes to solve the puzzle without damaging the precious artifact. The challenge weighed heavily on Archimedes' mind, as he grappled with a method to determine the crown's purity without cracking it open. Then, as he lowered himself into a bath, he noticed the water level rising, reflecting the displacement caused by his body. In a flash of insight, Archimedes realized he could apply this principle of displacement to determine the volume, and consequently the density, of the crown. Overwhelmed with excitement, he reportedly leapt from the bath and rushed through the streets of Syracuse, forgetting even to dress.
This episode from Archimedes' life captures the serendipity of the creative process. It’s a testament to moments of relaxation, such as bathing, providing the mental reprieve needed to approach problems from fresh angles.
Tips for getting your creative juices flowing at the bathhouse
Now that we know hot and cold therapy can serve as a catalyst for creative insights, here’s some tips for making the most out of your bathhouse visit to get the creative juices flowing:
1. Quiet You Mind and Your Tech: When you step into the sauna, leave distractions behind. Sauna House is a tech-free space, so you can disconnect from the constant notifications and embrace the reflective quiet. Give your brain the time and space it needs to think, dream, and create without any external interruptions and indulge in some good old-fashioned daydreaming. Let your mind wander and see where it takes you.
2. Mix It Up: Routine can lead to creative stagnation, so shake things up! Experiment with different times for your sauna session or different types of sauna – for example, a private infrared sauna cabin might do the trick. Try incorporating a new practice like breathwork or meditation to really spice things up.
3. The Early Bird Boost: Serotonin, one of the key happiness-inducing neurotransmitters, tends to be naturally higher in the mornings. To amplify your brain's natural rhythms, consider an early morning sauna and cold plunge session. Capture any flashes of inspiration by journaling immediately afterward.
Citing our sources:
- Underwood, R. (2023, August 2). Using neuroscience to boost your creativity | inc.com. Inc.com. https://www.inc.com/magazine/201402/ryan-underwood/creativity-boosters-neuroscience.html
- Rintamäki, H., & Vallerand, A. L. (2006). "Human responses to cold." In Aviation, space, and environmental medicine, 77(11), 1138-1144
- Stocks JM, Taylor NA, Tipton MJ, Greenleaf JE. (2004) “Human physiological responses to cold exposure.” In Aviation Space Environ Med. 444-57. PMID: 15152898.
- Kunbootsri, Narupon & Janyacharoen, Taweesak & Arayawichanon, Preeda & Chainansamit, Seksun & Kanpittaya, Jaturat & Auvichayapat, Paradee & Sawanyawisuth, Kittisak. (2013). The effect of six-weeks of sauna on treatment autonomic nervous system, peak nasal inspiratory flow and lung functions of allergic rhinitis Thai patients. Asian Pacific journal of allergy and immunology / launched by the Allergy and Immunology Society of Thailand. 31. 142-7. 10.12932/AP02220.127.116.113.