Coffee and beer both affect our brains in distinctive ways, for better or for worse. Which is best for creative thinking?
Many rely on caffeine or alcohol consumption to get their gears moving in a particular direction.
Caffeine, the most commonly consumed psychoactive substance worldwide, is reliable for combatting sleepiness and effecting an individual’s alertness, attention, and cognitive thinking.
Alcohol, the most commonly consumed drug worldwide, has a slightly worse reputation: in excess, it is much more likely to reduce an individual’s accuracy of perception and memory than enhance it.
Why, then, did of the first seven American-born writers to win Nobel Prizes for Literature (Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck) all have alcohol related problems, in spite of their creative genius?
The stereotype of boozy authors and artists runs deep even in modern day times. So it makes sense for some clarification on alcohol’s effect on the brain’s creative thinking after several beers, as opposed to multiple shots of espresso.
Your brain on coffee
Coffee is a stimulant. When we feel fatigued, it’s because there are molecules called adenosine in our brain, which have a remarkably similar chemical construction to caffeine, according to an article from the Journal of Young Investigators.
Caffeine speeds up neurons rather than slowing them down, settling on the neurons where adenosine is meant to sit, causing your brain to believe itself in a constant state of emergency.
To deal with this panic, epinephrine (adrenaline) is released, giving us that familiar kick we often need to get our days going. As a result, our brains are on high alert, meaning even if we aren’t necessarily more creative, we are more productive until an eventual crash — after which our bodies will demand more caffeine.
The brain on beer
Alcohol is a depressant, which, according slows down the operation of the brain, causing reduced social inhibitions, slower reflexes, impaired judgment and concentration, impaired vision and coordination, mumbled or incoherent speech, as well as strong emotional swings.
Alcohol targets a chemical called GABA, the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter within the brain, disrupting the efficiency of cell membranes throughout the body.
This altered state of perception is obviously unfavorable for operating machinery and innumerable other tasks, though one study suggest thats a deficit in executive functioning can provide benefits in creative tasks among men.
A test group of subjects under the influence outperformed their sober match in creative word games, causing researchers to believe that while sober participants often second guessed solutions, alcohol put solutions in their mouths before they were in their heads.
And what of those boozy authors, you ask?
It seems that not only does alcohol affect the brain, but has social implications that can affect thought — confidence in lifestyle, for instance, and expectation.
A study published in The American Journal of Psychology measured creativity by allowing two groups to arrange pictures of wildflowers. Individuals put together more creative combinations when the subjects believed they had consumed alcohol, but no differences when they hadn’t.
It may also be the seclusive and “tortured” lives of artists are more suited for alcoholism, a trait only culturally associated with creative results.
Most likely, creativity is more related to the individual than their substance intake. Though it seems coffee is more likely to boost brain activity than beer, alcohol, by causing you to think less rationally, can be responsible for wild ideas, both bad and good.
Because alcohol seems to imply impulse socially and creatively, however, it’s important to remember not all results are necessarily pharmaceutical.
Perhaps beer is best for an evening of brainstorming, and coffee for execution the following morning — in moderation, anyway. Or maybe you have creative solutions in your head already, with or without the extra help.