Stimulating Creativity

Every so often, our collective unconscious seems to get oddly aligned on a particular topic, without there being any particularly evident indication of why this should be the case. As an example, in the last few weeks I have managed to come across several unrelated—and at times contradictory—articles, exploring the intersection of caffeine, coffee shops and creativity. Why this is the case is a little baffling, but in the last week people have clearly been a little obsessed with java.

This stream-of-caffeinated-consciousness began with an article in Slate, discussing creativity in general and the extensive role that coffee played in the lives of such geniuses as Balzac, Beethoven and Baum. As the article points out, coffee is not the source of the ideas; but it is, for many, the fuel that fires the creative process. As Balzac wrote: “Coffee glides into one’s stomach and sets all of one’s mental processes in motion.” According to NPR, coffee does even more than that: it has shaped our history and our culture.

An article in the New Yorker seemingly too exception to this, advancing the argument that caffeine is an inhibitor of creativity. The presumption is that the alertness and focus of caffeine prevents our brain from wandering, and from getting sufficient sleep, to promote the creative association of ideas. The article also suggests that consumption of caffeine can be replicated by the placebo effect; no ingestion of your morning quad venti Americano required. While I recognize what she is saying, it sounds less fun that life WITH a quad venti Americano.

Not that this is the last word on the subject, not by any means. A counter to the New Yorker just appeared in the Atlantic, and directly takes to task the assertions made in the original article. Of particular note is the fact that caffeine isn’t a direct stimulant, like Benzedrine or Adderall; it works by disabling depressants that otherwise regulate natural cognitive stimulants in our brain. In other words, it frees our mind to channel all of the stimulation it naturally wants to put out. And, as the Atlantic points out, moderation in all things is useful.

The Atlantic article navigates a slightly different pathway in exploring how caffeine influences creativity. It suggests that many of the inhibitors of creativity are initiative, commitment and self doubt, and that caffeine “…helps with all three of those.” In other words, just like caffeine removes inhibitors to neurological stimulation in our brains, it also removes inhibitors to creativity in our minds. At least, in moderation. Too much (think Balzac here) can be a bad thing, particularly judging by the exponentially rising ER visits associated with excessive consumption of energy drinks.

Another perspective on the relationship between coffee and creativity looks at environment. Specifically, research demonstrating that the environments of coffee shops are conducive to creativity. The argument here isn’t proximity to yet another grande low-foam no-whip skinny chai latte (convenient thought that might be), so much as it is about the actual physical environment. Specifically, moderate levels of noise, exposure to some colours, and large-and-airy rooms all contribute to improved creativity. So much so that a group of developers created a web site to simulate the environment of a coffee shop in your cubicle. Yes, really.

Even with all of that, we’re still not done. German research reported in Salon suggests that isn’t your local coffee isn’t the optimal environment for creativity; it’s a dimly lit room. Participants of the study were able to solve more creative problems in a dimly lit room than a brightly lit one. They also felt freer and less inhibited, which reinforces what most nightclub owners have known for a long time. One can already imagine the articles advocating for improving workplace creativity by hanging out in cocktail bars, martini lounges and speakeasies.

If all of this sounds like we’re not really sure what causes creativity, then I think you are on the right track. An article in the New York Times Magazine highlighted numerous benefits of consuming coffee, including the potential to reduce the risk of diabetes, several cancers, dementia and dying in general. All of which I think we can agree are really, really good things. But the bottom line is that there is still a great deal that we don’t know about how caffeine actually works and how it helps us.

To drink caffeine, or not to drink? To do so in a coffee shop, or a dimly lit room? It would appear, once again, that science is giving us support for whichever answer we might like. I’m just not sure whether to fire up my creative juices with a martini or an espresso…


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