Caffeine can help enhance thinking and creativity for many people, but there are cautions about using such a potent stimulant.
In an article, Maria Konnikova notes one artist who went way beyond a cup or two of caffeine to boost his creativity: writer Honoré de Balzac [1799–1850] “is said to have consumed the equivalent of fifty cups of coffee a day at his peak. He did not drink coffee, though—he pulverized coffee beans into a fine dust and ingested the dry powder on an empty stomach. He described the approach as ‘horrible, rather brutal,’ to be tried only by men of ‘excessive vigor.’
“He documented the effects of the process in his 1839 essay ‘Traité des Excitants Modernes’ (“Treatise on Modern Stimulants”): ‘Sparks shoot all the way up to the brain’ while ‘ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages.’”
Konnikova notes “Balzac’s novels and plays endure, but modern science is challenging his view of caffeine causing ideas to ‘quick-march into motion.’ While caffeine has numerous benefits, it appears that the drug may undermine creativity more than it stimulates it.”
She goes on to detail some research studies that link caffeine to “diminished sleep quality and efficiency, along with an increase in the number of times people wake during the night and how tired they feel in the morning.”
She adds, “It may be possible to reap the positive effects of caffeine without the creativity-diminishing side effects. According to a recent review of some hundred studies, caffeine has a number of distinct benefits. Chief among them are that it boosts energy and decreases fatigue; enhances physical, cognitive, and motor performance; and aids short-term memory, problem solving, decision making, and concentration.”
But, she continues, “all of that comes at a cost. Science is only beginning to unravel the full complexity behind different forms of creative accomplishment; creativity is notoriously difficult to study in a laboratory setting, and the choice of one approach over another limits the way that creativity can be measured.
“Still, we do know that 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.”
From article How Caffeine Can Cramp Creativity by Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker, June 17, 2013.
[Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.]
High sensitivity and caffeine
Are you an HSP / highly sensitive person? If so, you may be especially reactive to caffeine. That has been true for me: I used to drink several cups of coffee a day, but based on the advice of a couple of physicians, and a nutritionist over the past few years, I have reduced my caffeine intake to a small cup of green tea a day (plus a quarter bottle of a popular energy supplement some days) – and I feel a bit less “revved up” but also less anxious, jittery and irritable.
In her self-test Are You Highly Sensitive? psychologist Elaine Aron [author of The highly sensitive person] includes the item: “I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine.” – See a link to the “Self-Test by Elaine Aron” on my site Highly Sensitive and Creative.
Sensations that caffeine may induce – such as a rapid heart rate, shallow breathing or racing thoughts – can be confused with anxiety, and may just be a form of arousal, or excitement. Or too much caffeine. From my post Our High Sensitivity: Both A Gift and Vulnerability to Anxiety.
Overloading on busywork
Personal development author Steve Pavlina says he “used to drink several cups of coffee a day, but I kicked the habit a long time ago because I found that caffeine made me too jittery and unfocused.”
He notes on his site, “When I drink coffee, my activity level soars — I barrel through tasks in rapid succession. But at the end of the day, I have to admit I didn’t accomplish anything of major value. Caffeine causes me to overload on busywork like email, web surfing, socializing, and other unproductive tasks.”
From my post Caffeine and anxiety and productivity.
How caffeine works
In his article Caffeine: For the More Creative Mind James Hamblin (The Atlantic, Jun 24 2013) writes, “Some say Sherlock Holmes‘ regular use of cocaine was Doyle’s vehicle to illustrate the character’s moral weakness. It likely began more simply as a window into the culture of the time, when hard stimulants weren’t the taboo they are today.
“W.H. Auden apparently did believe his own dependence on the stimulant Benzedrine to be a sign of weak character, but he still took it every working morning and endorsed its creative influences effusively. Jack Kerouac and Jean-Paul Sartre offer similar testaments. Sir Elton John sang ‘Bennie and the Jets’ … which may be in praise of Benzedrine, but is open to interpretation…”
Hamblin continues, “The basic science of caffeine goes something like this. Cyclic AMP gives your body energy. Phosphodiesterase is an enzyme that breaks down cyclic AMP. Caffeine blocks phosphodiesterase. So cyclic AMP stays around longer when you have caffeine in your blood, and you have more energy. It comes from the natural substances that your body produces and always give you energy; they just last longer.
He adds, “Caffeine also blocks adenosine receptors in your brain. Stephen Braun, author of Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine, once explained it as an ‘indirect stimulant, as opposed to, say, amphetamine which liberates dopamine, a directly stimulating neurotransmitter.
“By blocking adenosine receptors, caffeine allows the brain’s own stimulating neurotransmitters (i.e. glutamate and dopamine) to do their thing with greater gusto and less restraint.’”
The image “How Caffeine Works” is from post: Caffeine by Carl R. Sword, Psychoanalyst. Click to view larger.
Another informative post: How caffeine affects your creativity by Tanner Christensen: “In a nutshell: caffeine blocks the chemical receptors in your body (known as adenosine receptors) that tell it to rest or sleep. With those receptors blocked other chemicals – the kind that stimulate neurological activity – can work overtime. There are plenty of pros and cons for creatives when it comes to consuming caffeine…”
What is your own experience with caffeine and creativity?