Getting a buzz from booze may boost creativity. Men who drank themselves tipsy solved more problems demanding verbal resourcefulness in less time than sober guys did, a new study finds.
Sudden, intuitive insights into tricky word-association problems occurred more frequently when men were intoxicated but not legally drunk, say psychology graduate student Andrew Jarosz of the University of Illinois at Chicago and his colleagues. Sober men took a more deliberative approach to this task.
A moderate alcoholic high loosens a person’s focus of attention, making it easier to find connections among remotely related ideas, the scientists propose online January 28 in Consciousness and Cognition.
In the study, 20 social drinkers watched an animated movie while eating a snack. Volunteers then drank enough of a vodka cranberry drink to reach an average peak blood alcohol level of 0.075 percent, just below the current 0.08 percent cutoff for legal intoxication in the United States. Another 20 social drinkers watched the same movie without eating or drinking.
Men in both groups then completed a creative problem-solving task. For each of 15 items, volunteers saw three words — say, 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 problems correctly, versus approximately six winners 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 sober men.
Both groups performed comparably on the test before the study began.
Jarosz and University of Illinois psychologist Jennifer Wiley, a study coauthor, suspect their finding applies to musical and artistic inspiration. “A composer or artist fixated on previous work may indeed find creative benefits from intoxication,” they say.
Other preliminary evidence – some from the Chicago team — finds a creative bump from additional approaches to broadening attention’s scope, such as watching a mood-enhancing movie or using biofeedback to reach a relaxed mental state.
Jarosz’s team offers an intriguing glimpse at how an alcoholic buzz prompts intuitive insights into problems that require searching pre-existing knowledge, says psychologist Mark Beeman of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Further studies with intoxicated volunteers should employ complex problems that require information gathering and recognition of novel patterns, key features of many real-life problems, Beeman suggests.
Intoxication may aid verbal creativity partly by lowering the ability to control one’s thoughts, comments psychologist J. Scott Saults of the University of Missouri in Columbia. 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.