A sober look at drinking and creativity

In one of my prior lives, I was a researcher in a Russian academic lab. A colleague of mine was studying the effects of ethanol alcohol on yeast cells. Every time she presented project updates to the rest of the lab, an atmosphere of joy would fill the meeting room. Regardless of the results, folks would smile, giggle, and drop witty notes, which in turn triggered a new round of smiling and giggling. At the end of each presentation, another colleague would always ask the same question: “Did you try brandy instead?” A burst of laughter would follow.

I suspect that my previous posts addressing the connection between alcohol and human creativity resulted in the same smiling and giggling, however muffled by the restraints of the social media channels. And I almost heard a sound of suppressed laugh by Alison Beard, a senior editor of HBR, when she interviewed, in 2018, with Prof. Andrew Jarosz of Mississippi State University who led a study of the effects of alcohol consumption on creativity.

Compare this frivolous attitude with a stern academic tone of another HBR article, published in 2017, that studied the effects on creativity of 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation. The authors concluded their article by providing a 10-step, “do-it-yourself” guidance to conducting mindfulness meditation sessions. Can one imagine an article on the effects of alcohol on creativity that would conclude with providing a step-by-step instruction to fixing a drink?

I also suspect that such a humorous perception of the topic is a reason of a discernible pause in the academic research on chemically induced ways to influence human creativity. For example, a 2017 study attempted to systematically review all published (by that time) articles that focused on the relationship between psychoactive substances and creativity/creative artistic process. A total of only 19(!) studies were identified that met inclusion criteria. Little surprise that the results were difficult to summarize because of different study designs, diverse methods used, and various substances examined. A conclusion of the review, nevertheless, was that an association between creativity and substance use did exist.

As I argued before, alcohol represents a convenient experimental model to study chemically induced ways to affect human creativity. As opposed to many narcotics or drugs, ethyl alcohol is a simple chemical molecule, whose behavior in the body is reasonably well studied. Using this model, researchers may start identifying specific neurochemical reactions in the brain that are responsible for creativity.

My preliminary review of the corresponding academic literature allows to make two basic conclusions. First, moderate doses of alcohol (resulting in a blood alcohol content of approximately .075, i.e., just below the U.S. legal limit) did improve creating problem solving in affected individuals. Second, alcohol did not influence performance on measures unrelated to creative problem solving, suggesting that alcohol influenced specifically creative performance.  

One article attracted my attention. It is widely accepted that the creative process goes through four distinct stages:

  • Preparation. At this stage, your brain is gathering information.
  • Incubation. It is at this stage that you let your mind wander around.
  • Illumination. This is “eureka!” moment. Connections in your brain collide, and you realize that you got an idea.
  • Verification. Your critical thinking skills return at this stage, and you start “packaging” your newly born idea in a consumable way.

Back in 2011, Torsten Norlander of Karlstad University in Sweden showed that alcohol consumption specifically stimulated the incubation and illumination stages of the creative process but inhibited its preparation and verification stages. This seems to be exactly what Prof. Jarosz’s team observed a year later: intoxicated individuals who solved more creative problems in less time that the control (sober) group perceived their solutions as the result of a sudden insight. Eureka, in other words.

Taken together, the data aligns with Prof. Jarosz’s hypothesis that people under the influence are more susceptible to so-called mind wandering, which results in losing some focus but gaining instead the ability to see a “bigger picture.” This effect, of course, can be harmful in many situations requiring concentration but it might be helpful in others where the ability to connect the proverbial dots is more important than the ability to collect them.

One can further hypothesize that creativity improves when an individual is capable of engaging additional, dormant before parts of the brain in the creative process. It is tempting to take one more step and speculate that the outcome of the creative process can be dramatically improved by the engagement of not just additional parts of a single brain but of additional brains of multiple, previously unengaged individuals. This is what happens when we use crowdsourcing: engaging multiple brains instead of one.

I will return to this idea in my following posts.

Check out my eBook, “We the People of the Crowd…,” a collection of stories about crowdsourcing reflecting my personal experience in working with corporate and nonprofit clients.

Image credit: https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/drunk-absinthe/

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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