There's A Debate Brewing: Does Coffee Help Or Hinder Creativity?

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"2013's cultural Benzedrines are Adderall (amphetamine salts) and excessive coffee," writes James Hamblin in a story published today on the Atlantic website. See: Caffeine: For the More Creative Mind. He was responding to an article published last week in the New Yorker by science writer Maria Konnikova. See: How Caffeine Can Cramp The Creative Mind. So who are we to believe in this debate, and should we even be thinking this much about our caffeine ingestion? What, when there is breaking Paula Deen news to follow? Here are the basic pro/con arguments about caffeine:

Coffee HELPS creativity:

  • As someone who works with a lot of self-described creatives, my experience is that the most common barriers to people creating are initiative, commitment and self-doubt. Caffeine helps inspire confidence and drive, and spurs initiative.
  • Case studies for caffeine endorsement abound: Simone de Beauvoir, Beethoven, Gustav Mahler and the famous example Honoré de Balzac, who "is said to have" had 50 cups most days. He was plenty creative — penning 91 novels, essays and stories in his Human Comedy series, to name just some of his output — but was also a very strange man with gastric problems who died at 51 of a cardiac issue.
  • Auden's best work came of his Benzedrine period, but few who take hard stimulants become Auden. Adderall and caffeine likewise focus the minds of different people in different ways. A nice thing about caffeine, though, is that you can legally experiment with it on yourself and your friends.
  • Coffee HINDERS creativity:

    • 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. Adenosine lowers energy levels and promotes sleep, among other regulatory bodily functions. Caffeine does the reverse.
  • 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.
  • A break in intense concentration may increase unconscious associative processing. That, in turn, allows us to perceive connections that we would otherwise miss.
  • 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.
  • So, in summary, coffee provides creative types more confidence. It also allows them to focus on tasks for hours on end. On the flip side, prolonged concentration doesn't allow the mind of wander and relax. Also, sleep helps recharge the creative batteries.

    We're not going to dare to take sides, but we'll offer these coffee-related stories to help inspire your take on the matter. Or, help inspire you in general.