On April 11, 2012, the New York Daily News published an article titled Beer Makes Men Smarter, which got a lot of attention. Is that really true? Let's take a closer look.
The Experiment That Started The Buzz
The March 2012 online edition of the journal Consciousness and Cognition included an article coauthored by Jennifer Wiley, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, along with two graduate students, titled Uncorking the Muse: Alcohol Intoxication Facilitates Creative Problem Solving ("http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2012.01.002" target="_hplink"). Here is what these researchers actually did:
Beginning with a group of 40 men, none of whom were identified as alcoholics or problem drinkers, half were given a mix of vodka and cranberry juice, enough to bring their blood alcohol level to 0.75, or just shy of the legal limit of .08. The other half did not drink anything. Both groups were then given two tests, one that involves memorizing words and one involving "word association" that asks people to think of a word that "goes with" a series of words, such as "apple, banana, _________."
What did they find? They found that the intoxicated group did better on the word association test, but worse on the memory test. So, does that prove that drinking makes men smarter? Well, that depends in part of what your idea of "smarter" is. For example, what role does memory play in intelligence (and creativity)? And how exactly does word association relate to creative success?
The relative performance of these two groups was measured in a highly-controlled setting. We have no way of knowing what the results would be if we compared, say, a group of four-beers-a-day men to a group of men who drank two beers two or three days a week.
In commenting on the implications of her research on creativity, Dr. Wiley was fairly circumspect, saying "Sometimes the really creative stuff comes when you're having a glass of wine over dinner, or when you're taking a shower." But the writer of the Daily News piece went much further, stating of the results: "It may help to explain why raving drunks like Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, and Charles Bukowski were able to write their books."
Creative Success And Drinking: A Reality Check
Could it be true that famous authors, such as Ernest Hemingway, may have been successful in part to the fact that they were notoriously heavy drinkers? Let's look at a few examples:
• Both Ernest Hemingway and a famous contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, produced their best work early in their careers, before they became alcoholics.
• Fitzgerald died in his early 40s of a heart condition caused by his alcoholism. Sadly, in his later years, as he struggled to write, Fitzgerald mistakenly referred to alcohol as a "stimulant," whereas it is actually a depressant. His struggle continued, and his later works are generally considered inferior to his earlier books such as The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise.
• Hemingway committed suicide after succumbing to flagrant alcoholism. It is widely recognized that, like Fitzgerald, he hit his literary prime early, not later. He wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls when he was 40; he shot himself at the age of 62.
• Then there is Truman Capote. He also became an alcoholic and died an early death, at age 59, in 1984. Capote too produced his best work prior to being ravaged by alcoholism. Breakfast at Tiffany's was published in 1958, In Cold Blood in 1966.
So, does drinking facilitate creativity? I would say no, as much as we might be tempted to believe so. The above authors all drank to excess, but not to facilitate their creativity; rather, they likely drank to quell their inner demons, whatever they may have been.
Writing a book, like any other creative endeavor, requires complex cognitive skills. These include not only the ability to think conceptually but also the ability to organize and articulate one's thoughts. It also helps to be able to remember what you wrote two chapters ago. In other words, it's a long stretch from "apple, banana, _______" to any of the above literary masterpieces.
To be sure, sharing a beer or two with friends can be an enjoyable experience. I have male friends and we enjoy these times together. However, I pity the man who is struggling with writing (or any other creative activity) who concludes that drinking is the pathway to creative success and who seeks a solution through drinking.
(Footnote: As women were not included in this study we do not know if intoxication can facilitate their creativity. That leaves unanswered the question of whether Jane Austen could have done even better had she been an alcoholic!)
For more information visit www.TheAlmostEffect.com
Copyright 2012 by Dr. Joe Nowinski