Are we more creative in the pub?

We’ve all had ‘Black Pencil’ ideas, pints in hand, outside a sunny Soho pub. Maybe we just never sobered up quick enough to write them down. Now scientists at the University of Illinois, Chicago, have suggested that alcohol can help with creative problem solving by freeing up the mind to wander and connect more disparate ideas.

Before we quickly revert to a nostalgic tumbler of whisky in the hand culture the study refers to men who are ‘tipsy’. The tests detailed in Consciousness and Cognition involved 20 men who drank enough vodka cranberry to reach a 0.075% level of intoxication – that’s just below the legal cut-off point for legal intoxication in the US. They were tested alongside 20 men who were sober.

The men in both groups were given a creative problem-solving task. For example they were given three words – peach, arm and tar – and had to think of a fourth word that forms a phrase with each of them, such as pit. On average, participants at peak intoxication solved about nine out of fifteen problems correctly, versus six for the sober crowd. It took an average of 11.5 seconds for intoxicated men to generate a correct solution, compared with 15.2 seconds for their sober counterparts.

Both groups had performed comparably on the test before the study began.

Sudden, intuitive insights into tricky word-association problems occurred more frequently when the men were intoxicated but not ‘legally drunk’ according to one of the authors of the research, Andrew Jarosz of the University of Illinois.

Psychologist J. Scott Saults of the University of Missouri in Columbia seems to have come to similar conclusions, commenting that intoxication may aid verbal creativity partly by lowering the ability to control one’s thoughts. He and his colleagues have found that alcohol reduces recall of sequences of sounds and images but leaves working memory unaffected.

Saults’ team has also reported that intoxicated individuals become less afraid to make mistakes, another possible creativity booster. They have also reported that intoxicated people are less afraid of making mistakes, which may also help their creativity.

So outside our sunny Soho pub we can rest assured that science has confirmed what we always suspected. And should we need further evidence we only need turn to the Ancient Greeks, themselves never short of a few civilization-changing ideas. Dionysus, their god of wine was also worshipped as a god of epiphany or sudden insight.

David Harris is Executive Creative Director at Wunderman UK

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