How That Cup Of Coffee Could Be Inhibiting Your Creativity

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We often think of artists and writers as fueling their creative process with endless cups of coffee (as well as other substances). But, writes Maria Konnikova on the New Yorker‘s “Elements” blog, all that caffeine may actually inhibit creativity:

“While caffeine has numerous benefits, it appears that the drug may undermine creativity more than it stimulates it. When we drink a caffeinated beverage, the caffeine quickly crosses the blood-brain barrier—an interface of sorts between the brain and the body’s circulatory system, designed to protect the central nervous system from chemicals in the blood that might harm it—and proceeds to block the activity of a substance called adenosine.

Normally, a central function of adenosine is to inhibit the release of various chemicals into the brain, lowering energy levels and promoting sleep, among other regulatory bodily functions. When it’s blocked, we’re less likely to fall asleep on our desks or feel our focus drifting. According to a recent review of some hundred studies, caffeine has a number of distinct benefits. Chief among them are that it boosts energy and decreases fatigue; enhances physical, cognitive, and motor performance; and aids short-term memory, problem solving, decision making, and concentration.

But all of that comes at a cost. Science is only beginning to unravel the full complexity behind different forms of creative accomplishment; creativity is notoriously difficult to study in a laboratory setting, and the choice of one approach over another limits the way that creativity can be measured. Still, we do know that much of what we associate with creativity—whether writing a sonnet or a mathematical proof—has to do with the ability to link ideas, entities, and concepts in novel ways. This ability depends in part on the very thing that caffeine seeks to prevent: a wandering, unfocussed mind.

Creative insights and imaginative solutions often occur when we stop working on a particular problem and let our mind move on to something unrelated. In one recent study, participants showed marked improvements on a task requiring creative thought—thinking of alternative uses for a common object, such as a newspaper—after they had engaged in a different, undemanding task that facilitated mind wandering. The more their mind wandered when they stepped away, the better they fared at being creative. In fact, the benefit was not seen at all when the subjects engaged in an unrelated but demanding task.

In other words, a break in intense concentration may increase unconscious associative processing. That, in turn, allows us to perceive connections that we would otherwise miss. Letting our minds wander may also increase communication between the brain’s default mode network—the parts of our brain that are more active when we’re at rest—and its executive areas, which are used in so-called higher reasoning and decision-making functions. These two regions become activated right before we solve problems of insight. Caffeine prevents our focus from becoming too diffuse; it instead hones our attention in a hyper-vigilant fashion.

Caffeine also inhibits another mental process that’s necessary for creative thinking: sleep. A 2009 study showed that people who experienced REM sleep performed better on two tests of creative thinking than those who simply rested or napped without entering the REM cycle. During REM, their brains were able to integrate unassociated information so that, upon waking up, they were more adept at solving problems they had been primed with earlier. Without sound sleep, the effect dissipated. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to negative effects on other elements associated with creativity and thought clarity: it diminishes emotional intelligence, constructive thinking, and the ability to cope with stress.” (Read more here.)

Fascinating: so caffeine increases focus and prevents sleepiness—which is exactly why we use it—but these very features of the drug may also impede creativity. Perhaps we should think about how to use caffeine strategically—drinking coffee when we need to mentally home in on a task, and skipping it when we need our thoughts to be more expansive and diffuse.

Is caffeine a part of your creative process? (I’m a tea addict myself.)

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3 Responses to “How That Cup Of Coffee Could Be Inhibiting Your Creativity”

  1. Steve Croft says:

    Having read Maria Konnikova’s book “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes,” I know you can always rely on her to produce interesting, innovative ideas. Does she drink coffee?

    • Oyellomon says:

      That’s the beauty of science and scientists. These people always contradict themselves. One time they’ll tell you to drink a cup of coffee a day–it’s good for you!–and another time they’ll contradict that finding.

  2. Annie says:

    This is a great article! It’s fascinating to think of all the ways coffee can boost us… perhaps drinking coffee everyday is a must-do!

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