Choke

What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to

Alcohol Benefits the Creative Process

Being moderately intoxicated gets people to think “outside the box.”

Creative thought is something we often aspire to. Whether it’s in terms of artistic products, scientific discoveries, or business innovations, creative accomplishments drive advancement in much of what we do. But what sorts of things enhance creativity?

A popular belief is that altered cognitive processing, whether from sleep, insanity, or alcohol use, sparks creativity among artists, composers, writers, and problem-solvers. Perhaps due to the fact that the rarity of great accomplishments make them hard to study, however, little research has actually shown how creative processes change when people, for example, have a few drinks.

Why might being intoxicated lead to improved creativity? The answer has to do with alcohol’s effect on working memory: the brainpower that helps us keep what we want in mind and what we don’t want out. Research has shown that alcohol tends to reduce people’s ability to focus in on some things and ignore others, which also happens to benefit creative problem solving.

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Think about the flip side of the coin. Having a lot of working memory means that a person is good at screening out peripheral information. This screening can be very useful for solving analytical problems—problems that require the solver to grind out the solution by systematically working towards a goal, incrementally narrowing down the problem search space. However, being good at blocking out extraneous information may actually be a disadvantage in situations where gathering information only loosely related to the problem at hand, or even outside the perceived problem space, is useful. This seems to be even more true the more you know about a given subject.

When people with lots of baseball knowledge, for example, are asked to come up with a word that forms a compound word with “plate,” “broken,” and “shot,” they are pretty bad at this task. Baseball fanatics want to say the word is “Home” (home-plate, broken-home, home-shot ?!?). This isn’t correct. The real answer is “glass” (glass-plate, broken-glass, shot-glass). What’s interesting is that baseball fans who also have a lot of cognitive horsepower relative to their peers—those higher working memory baseball fans—are the ones most likely to dwell on the wrong baseball-related answer. It’s as if these guys (and girls) are too good at focusing their attention on the wrong baseball information. As a result, they have trouble breaking free of their knowledge and coming up with the correct answer that has nothing to do with baseball. Baseball fanatics high in working memory have problems moving beyond what they know.

So, could being intoxicated really help people to think more creatively? In a recent study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, psychologist Jennifer Wiley and her research group at the University of Illinois at Chicago set out to find an answer to this question.

They recruited people (ages 21-30) who drank socially, via Craigslist, to come into their lab and, well, they got some of them drunk. Some people were served a vodka cranberry drink until their blood alcohol level was approximately .075 and others were kept sober. The researchers then had everyone complete a creative problem solving task similar to the baseball example I gave above. People were given a series of three target words such as "peach", "arm", and "tar," and were tasked with finding a fourth word, such as "pit," that forms a good two-word phrase with each of the target words. This puzzle is thought to involve creative problem solving because the most obvious potential response to the problem is often incorrect, and people must look for more remote words in order to reach a solution.

What Wiley and her colleagues found was that intoxicated individuals solved more creative word problems, and in less time, than their sober counterparts. Interestingly, people who drank also felt that their performance was more likely to come as a sudden insight, the answer came all at once, in an “Aha!” moment of illumination.

Research has shown that the more working memory people have at their disposal, the better they perform on all sorts of analytical tasks that pop up at school and at work. But, interestingly, wielding more working memory may hinder performance whenever thinking creatively or “outside the box” is necessary. Simply put, people’s ability to think about information in new and unusual ways can actually be hampered when they wield too much brain power. What Dr. Jennifer Wiley and her team have found is that one way to get around this is to have a couple of drinks.

For more on the link between brain power and performance, check out my book Choke.

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Jarosz, A.F., Colflesh, G.J.H, Wiley, J. (2012). Uncorking the muse: Alcohol intoxication facilitates creative problem solving. Consciousness and Cognition, 21, 487–493.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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