Alcohol Can Enhance Some Kinds of Creativity

On Wednesday, I wrote about research into the psychology of beer tasting. Today, we’re going to stick with the theme and look at a study on how a little alcohol can make people more creative – sometimes.

As we all know, alcohol and peak cognitive performance tend not to go together. But what about creativity? It could be that loosening up your thoughts a little helps with creative insight – in other words, that when the booze flows, so do the original ideas.

That’s the hypothesis that a group of researchers from Austria tested in a study titled Creativity on Tap? Effects of Alcohol Intoxication on Creative Cognition.

In the study, participants consumed either alcoholic beer or a nonalcoholic placebo beer. Those who consumed alcoholic beer consumed enough to target a BAC of 0.03 – high enough to feel a difference, but low enough to be able to drive legally here in the United States.

The participants then completed several tests of cognition.

Two of the tests were specifically designed to assess creative thinking. In the first, the Remote Associates Test (RAT), participants were given three seemingly unrelated words and asked to find a word that linked them. The example that the researchers gave in their paper was the words cottage, blue and cake. In this case, the linking word is cheese (cottage cheese, blue cheese, cheesecake).

The other test of creativity the participants did was a test of divergent thinking. In this task, people were asked to think of as many original uses for a given object (for example, an umbrella) as possible.

Finally, in addition to the tests of creativity, the participants also completed a test of cognitive control.

As you might expect, even a little alcohol impaired people’s performance on the test of cognitive control. And on the divergent thinking test, the drinkers and non-drinkers performed about the same.

On the test that involved linking words in surprising ways, though, the group that had consumed alcoholic beer actually performed better. Not only did mild drinking not impair people’s performance on this task – overall, it in fact helped!

The results show that drinking doesn’t impair all cognitive functions equally. Some abilities, like creativity, may be not deteriorate as quickly, and up to a point, specific kinds of creativity might even be enhanced. (Of course, past that point, alcohol is going to hurt creativity too.)

More generally, these findings show that higher levels of cognitive control don’t necessarily mean better performance on all kinds of cognitive tasks. At least with some kinds of creativity, a little less cognitive control may even be helpful.

Image: Flickr/Let Ideas Compete