Caffeine drinks might be associated with creative types (fashion editors, artists, graphic designers, you name it). But that cup of Joe isn’t actually responsible for making you any more creative, a new study has found.
While research has linked caffeine with increased alertness, improved vigilance, enhanced focus and better motor performance, not much has been said about how it impacts our ability to be creative.
Darya Zabelina, assistant professor of psychology at University of Arkansas, was interested in how caffeine was stereotypically associated with creative occupations and lifestyles in Western culture.
When she looked into whether there’s an element of truth in this, she found evidence to suggest caffeine didn’t stimulate creativity at all – 80 volunteers were randomly given either a 200mg caffeine pill, equivalent to one strong cup of coffee, or a placebo. They were then tested on standard measures of convergent and divergent thinking, working memory and mood.
Convergent thinking is defined as seeking a specific solution to a problem, for example, the “correct” answer, while divergent thinking is characterised by idea generation – or creativity.
Zabelina swiftly discovered that caffeine was shown to improve convergent thinking in the study (which is something at least), but had no significant impact on divergent thinking.
That said, it didn’t make creativity any worse. “So keep drinking your coffee; it won’t interfere with these abilities,” said Zabelina, whose study is published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.
While caffeine is not the answer to your creative woes, then, you might want to have a cup of tea because warm beverages have been proven to help.
Researchers at China’s Peking University gave one group of study participants a glass of water and another group a cup of hot black tea. The group who drank the hot tea performed significantly better than the other group on two separate creativity tests, which were each 20 minutes long. Researchers said the caffeine wouldn’t have kicked in by this point and said it might actually be because of the mental state a warm brew puts you in.
Yes, the hug in a mug is real.
And speaking of mental states, boredom might also be a key factor. In her new book, Spark – subtitled ‘how to free your brain from technology to ignite your creativity’ – Manoush Zomorodi suggests we should all try taking a step back from our smartphones and finding time to be bored.
Her theory might explain why your best ideas always come to you in the shower – and it’s backed up by research. A study published last year in the journal Academy of Management Discoveries showed people who completed the rather mind-numbing task of sorting a bowl of beans by colour later performed better on an idea-generating task than peers who’d completed a craft activity.
But full-time creativity might not be everyone’s bag. A 2017 study identified that the brains of people who were more creative might actually be wired differently to non-creatives – researchers found this group had a “high-creative” network in their brain, a set of connections highly relevant to generating original ideas.
In these people, there was a strong connection between three specific brain systems: the default network (a region of the brain which activates when people are daydreaming or imagining); the executive control network (related to focus and controlling thought processes), and the salience network (which acts as a switching mechanism between the default and executive networks).
The study found that in the creative brain, these three areas work in tandem with each other, as opposed to the brains of those deemed less creative, where the networks tend to work separately.