Alcohol abuse by gifted individuals often ends in tragedy, as in the case of the late Amy Winehouse. But there’s also anecdotal evidence through history that alcohol can enhance creativity. Many of our most talented musicians (e.g. Beethoven) and writers (e.g. Poe) are known to have used alcohol, sometimes along with other substances, which some have associated with their achievements. Until now, however, researchers haven’t tested the creative benefits of alcohol intoxication in a lab situation.
Andrew Jarosz and his team recruited 40 male social drinkers aged 21 to 30. All were required to abstain from alcohol and drugs for 24 hours prior to the experiment and to avoid food and caffeine for 4 hours prior. Half the participants were allocated to the alcohol condition and they consumed enough vodka to achieve a blood alcohol concentration of .07 (approximately this equates to an average-sized man drinking two pints of beer). The other participants acted as controls and consumed no alcohol.
Next, all the participants completed the “Remote Associates Test”, a popular test of insightful thinking in which three words are presented on each round (e.g. coin, quick, spoon) and the aim is to identify the one word that best fits these three (e.g. silver). Relevant past research has shown, paradoxically, that people with higher working memory capacity often perform worse at this task because they persist with pursuing lines of thought triggered by misleading words.
The key finding of the new research is that the intoxicated participants solved more items on the Remote Associates Test compared with the control participants (they solved 58 per cent of 15 items on average vs. 42 per cent average success achieved by controls), and they tended to solve the items more quickly (11.54 seconds per item vs. 15.24 seconds). Moreover, the intoxicated participants tended to rate their experience of problem solving as more insightful, like an Aha! moment, and less analytic. They also performed worse on a working memory test, as you might expect.
Jarosz and his team said that mild intoxication may have these benefits for tasks like the Remote Associates Test because being mildly drunk facilitates a divergent, diffuse mode of thought, which is useful for such tasks where the answer requires thinking on a tangent. The new finding complements a study covered on the Digest earlier this year that found participants performed better on a creative problem-solving task during their least favoured time of day – again, presumably because their state of grogginess encouraged a divergent thinking style.
There’s even research showing superior performance on matchstick arithmetic problems (in which equations written in matchsticks must be corrected by moving a single matchstick) by participants with frontal brain damage vs. controls, again the suggestion being that having impaired attentional control can sometimes be advantageous.
Jarosz and his colleagues concluded: “Though only a first step, the current research represents the first empirical demonstration of alcohol’s effects on creative problem solving, while also providing suggestions of the critical underlying mechanisms that allow for this benefit in problem solving performance.”
The Digest asked co-author Jenny Wiley if there was a risk this research could encourage alcohol abuse. “We tested what happens when people are tipsy — not when people drank to extreme,” she told us. “There could be no argument from these findings that drinking excessively would have the same effects.”
She stressed the research was part of a wider line of enquiry showing how different mind-sets can affect creative problem solving – other research by her lab and elsewhere has shown that being in a positive mood is also beneficial; as is telling people to go with their gut feelings; so too having early bilingual experience, probably because it allows people to flip between different ways of looking at a problem.
“So the bottom line,” Wiley said, “is that we think being too focused can blind you to novel possibilities, and a broader, more diffuse or more flexible attentional state may be needed for creative solutions to emerge. Some folks may choose a pint of ale as their muse, others can choose one of these other contexts … “.
Jarosz, A., Colflesh, G., and Wiley, J. (2012). Uncorking the muse: Alcohol intoxication facilitates creative problem solving. Consciousness and Cognition, 21 (1), 487-493 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2012.01.002
Previously on the Digest: Would the jazz greats have been so great without the drugs?