Professor Andrew Jarosz of Mississippi State University and colleagues served vodka-cranberry cocktails to 20 male subjects until their blood alcohol levels neared legal intoxication and then gave each a series of word association problems to solve. Not only did those who imbibed give more correct answers than a sober control group performing the same task, but they also arrived at solutions more quickly. The conclusion: Drunk people are better at creative problem-solving.
Q: Professor Jarosz, defend your research.
A: You often hear of great writers, artists and composers who claim that alcohol enhanced their creativity, or people who say their ideas are better after a few drinks. We wanted to see if we could find evidence to back that up, and though this was a small experiment, we did. We gave participants 15 questions from a creative problem-solving assessment called the Remote Associates Test, or RAT — for example, "What word relates to these three: 'duck,' 'dollar,' 'fold'?"; the answer to which is "bill." We found that the tipsy people solved two to three more problems than folks who stayed sober. They also submitted their answers more quickly within the one-minute-per-question time limit, which is maybe even more surprising.
Q: So alcohol doesn't slow us down mentally after all?
A: It still does, but we think that creative problem-solving is one area in which a key effect of drunkenness — loss of focus — is a good thing. In an exercise like the RAT, it's important not to fixate on your first thought, and alcohol seems to help that seemingly irrelevant stuff slip in. When we asked participants how much they relied on strategic thinking versus sudden insights to solve the problems, the intoxicated people reported solving via insight on 10% more problems than their sober counterparts did. You might come to the word "bill" by methodically going through associates for "duck," but when you get to harder problems like "cry, front and ship," that approach could leave you stuck a little longer on an incorrect word like "baby" before you arrive at the answer, which is "war" or "battle." Of course, in many other areas — from working through a complicated math problem to operating heavy machinery — sober control of attention remains very important.
Q: But our brainstorming sessions should happen in bars, not boardrooms?
A: If you need to think outside the box, a few happy-hour drinks or a martini at lunch could be beneficial. But I wouldn't close the bar out, because if you get your blood alcohol level too much beyond .08, you probably won't be very useful. And you might have trouble screening out terrible ideas.
Q: You brought people up to a blood alcohol level of .075. Is that the magic number?
A: The idea was to push them toward the legal limit. We chose men ages 21 to 30 who reported roughly the same amount of experience drinking, and we asked them to refrain from alcohol or drugs for 24 hours before the study and from food or caffeine for four hours before. When they came in, we gave them a snack — the portion was based on their weight — and then dosed them with vodka in three drinks over a 30-minute period. The ratio of alcohol to juice was always 1-to-3, but heavier people got bigger drinks. We then had them blow into Breathalyzers to make sure they were at the target level. However, in a subsequent study by Mathias Benedek and colleagues last year, subjects who drank until they hit a level of .03 also performed better on the RAT than sober peers.
Q: Does it have to be a Cape Codder? I prefer red wine.
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A: Vodka-cranberry cocktails are used a lot in these studies because you can easily give people different amounts of alcohol, and the juice masks any taste. But in the Benedek study, people drank beer. So it seems any drink will do.
Q: What about drugs?
A: I couldn't comment on that. But studies have shown that people with specific types of brain damage do better on certain creative tests, as do people who've been woken up in the middle of REM sleep. Those findings make sense to me because they go back to the impairment of focus. Even tea drinking has been shown to enhance creativity, possibly because of the relaxation that ritual triggers. Researchers at Peking University found that people who drank hot Lipton built more interesting structures with children's blocks and came up with more innovative noodle shop names than people who drank plain hot water.
Q: Going back to booze: Could it be that the people who got tipsy were just brighter than those who didn't?
A: We actually made a point of balancing the groups on one measure of mental acuity: working memory. At the start, when everyone was sober, we exposed participants to a series of words, interspersed with math problems, on a computer and then asked them to list the words in order. We matched people whose scores were within one point of each other and put them in separate groups, so average scores for the groups were roughly equal. At the end of the experiment we administered the same test and found that while the sober people did better the second time around, the intoxicated people did not.
Q: Your subjects were all young men. Might you get different results with women or older people?
A: That's an area for future research, but I suspect that we'd see similar results for young women. It might be the same for older people, but many different things are going on in the brain as you age.
Q: Why did you decide to study this? An attempt to justify your own drinking habits?
A: I am a craft beer fan, but no, I'm not typically drinking on the job, and my research focus isn't alcohol. I was more interested in investigating the potential for improving problem-solving skills. There's the old tale of Archimedes' "Aha!" moment in the bath, and I've always wondered what causes people to have sudden flashes of insight. One day I was talking to my co-authors, Gregory Colflesh, who does study alcohol, and Jennifer Wiley, and thought maybe this avenue was one we should explore.
Q: Have scientists found that alcohol yields any other mental benefits?
A: One paper, "Lost in the Sauce," by Michael Sayette at the University of Pittsburgh and co-authors, reported that people under the influence are more susceptible to mind wandering, which could be helpful in some scenarios but harmful in others. My co-author Gregory has done some interesting work on change detection, asking subjects to spot the differences between two pictures and finding some improvements in performance when people consume alcohol. The mechanism seems similar to the one we found: Instead of going through each pixel on the screen, the intoxicated people are just sitting back and seeing what pops out at them. And I recently came across new research showing that people speak with more fluency in a foreign language when they've been drinking, which is a bit more counterintuitive, since speaking in a nonnative tongue obviously requires focus.
Q: I might ascribe those foreign-language results to lower inhibitions and greater confidence, though. Could that help explain why drinkers aced the RAT tests, too?
A: Possibly. Studies do show that alcohol can have both those effects. But in this experiment we didn't collect data on those metrics. What we do know is that our intoxicated participants felt they had more "Aha!" moments than their sober peers.
Q: And those moments led to better, faster performance?
A: In this case, yes. Instead of doing a very focused, goal-directed search for the answer, they engaged in what neuroscientists call "spreading activation." If you looked at an fMRI of their brains, you might see different areas lighting up, indicating that they were subconsciously activating all the recesses of their memories for the right words.
Q: So maybe all people in creative jobs should be drinking more?
A: Very few professions require you to be 100% thinking outside the box or 100% focused, so I think it's going to depend on the task you're doing. You know the old saying "Write drunk, edit sober"? Well, there's a reason the "edit" part is in there.
Q: Then maybe I'll write this up over wine tonight and edit it in the morning.
A: That sounds like an excellent plan.