What’s Better For Creativity: Alcohol vs. Coffee

I read somewhere that creativity is our ability to think of something original from connections made between pre-existing ideas in our brain. These connections are controlled by chemicals called neurotransmitters.

One of these neurotransmitters is adenosine, which alerts your brain when you’re running out of energy. When this happens, it reacts by slowing down the connections made between neurons.

Adenosine is kind of like your brain’s battery status monitor. Once your energy levels get low, adenosine starts to slow your brain functioning down. This is why after a few hours of intense work you begin to feel tired.

The only way to recharge it is to take a break. Unless of course you’ve got a secret weapon handy…..

Your brain on coffee

Every coffee drinker is familiar with the euphoric feelings after drinking a fresh cup of java. I know after I’ve had a coffee, I feel more focused. When you’re focused, you create effortlessly + your inspiration is on hyper-drive.

This happens because caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, preventing adenosine from slowing down your brain functioning. Coffee tricks your brain into thinking you have lots of energy, and this all happens within just 5 minutes of drinking it!

When adenosine receptors are blocked, chemicals that increase the performance of your neural activity like glucose, dopamine + glutamate, are allowed to work overtime. So while you may feel that coffee is giving you more energy, it’s simply telling your body that your energy reserves are good to go even when they’re long gone.

The peak effect of caffeine on your body happens between 15 minutes and 2 hours after you consume it. When caffeine from your coffee enters your bloodstream, you become more alert from an increase in the production of the hormones adrenaline + cortisol.

Problem? What Problem?

The problem is, if this over-stimulation of adrenaline + cortisol occurs too regularly, your adrenal glands (which absorb adrenaline to help make you feel energized) gradually begin to require more adrenaline to give you the same ‘pick-me-up’ feeling as before.

When researchers at Johns Hopkins University looked at low to moderate coffee drinkers (as little as one mug per day), they found that even this little amount of coffee can cause your body to develop a tolerance to caffeine + require more of it to get the same stimulation. Because of this, the good feelings associated with coffee are short-lived. Pretty soon you need another hit to feel good again.

Why there are lots of famous drunk artists, but no famous drunk accountants

While caffeine pulls a number on your brain to make you feel like you have more energy, alcohol has it’s own way of influencing your creativity.

After you’ve had a couple of drinks, drinking makes you less focused because it decreases your working memory. You begin to care less about what’s happening around you. But as researchers at the University of Chicago discovered, this can be a good thing for creativity’s sake.

The research showed that a blood alcohol level of 0.07 (about 2 drinks) makes people better at creative problem-solving tasks but not necessarily working memory tasks where they have to pay attention to things happening in their surroundings (like driving a car). By reducing your ability to pay attention to the world around you, alcohol frees up your brain to think more creatively.

It looks like author Ernest Hemingway was on to something when he said:

When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?

Alcohol produces better ideas

In an interesting study on the topic of alcohol + its effects on creativity, author Dave Birss brought together a group of 18 advertising creative directors + split them into two teams based on their amount of career experience. One team was allowed to drink as much alcohol as they wanted while the other team had to stay sober.

The groups were given a brief + had to come up with as many ideas as they could in three hours. These ideas were then graded by a collection of top creative directors. The result? The team of drinkers not only produced the most ideas but also came up with four of the top five best ideas.

While alcohol may not be the drink of choice when you need to be alert or focused on what’s going on around you, it seems that a couple of drinks can be helpful when you need to come up with new ideas.

Beer for the idea

The best time to have a beer (or two) would be when you’re searching for an initial idea. Because alcohol helps decrease your working memory (making you feel relaxed + less worried about what’s going on around you), you’ll have more brain power dedicated to making deeper connections.

Neuroscientists have studied the “eureka moment”. They’ve found that in order to produce moments of insight, you need to feel relaxed so front brain thinking (obvious connections) can move to the back of the brain (where unique, lateral connections are made) + activate the anterior superior temporal gyrus. This is a small spot above your right ear responsible for moments of insight.

Researchers found that about 5 seconds before you have a ‘eureka moment’, there’s a large increase in alpha waves that activate the anterior superior temporal gyrus. These alpha waves are associated with relaxation which explains why you often get ideas while you’re going for a walk, in the shower, or on the toilet.

Alcohol is a substance that relaxes you so it produces a similar effect on alpha waves and helping us reach creative insights.

Coffee, meanwhile, doesn’t necessarily help you access more creative parts of your brain like a couple pints of beer.

Coffee for the execution

If you’ve already got an idea or an outline of where you want to go with your project, a cup of coffee would do wonders compared to having a beer to execute on your idea.

The general consensus across caffeine studies is that it can increase quality + performance if the task you’re doing seems easy to you + doesn’t require too much abstract thinking.

In other words, after you have an initial idea or a plan laid out, a cup of coffee can help you execute and follow through on your concept faster without compromising quality.

Quick tip: If you drink coffee, do so before noon so it doesn’t effect your sleep. On average, it will take between 5-10 hours for the caffeine from a cup of coffee to be removed from your system. Messing up your sleep cycle can have a negative impact on your creative output for days to come.

Always in moderation

If you decide to drink coffee or beer while you’re working, you should stick to no more than 2 cups of coffee or a couple of beers per sitting. And you should only try to do this once or twice per week. Coffee + beer shouldn’t be thought of as magic bullets for creativity. They are ways to create chemical changes that occur naturally in your brain with a healthy lifestyle. Quality sleep patterns and allowing yourself to take breaks by splitting your day into sprints will do the same trick.

But if you do have to choose between coffee or beer, think about what type of task you are about to do + make sure you don’t over-drink!

Too much of either and you’ll lose the benefits of both.

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