Uncork the Muse!

Uncork the Muse! Is creativity sparked by altered cognitive states brought on by insanity, sleep state, mood, or substance use? Alcohol, in particular, has been credited with inspiring creative geniuses from Socrates to Beethoven, Poe, Hemingway, Coleridge, and Pollock. In contrast to analytical problem solving, which requires high attention span and working memory capacity, creative problem solving involves flashes of intuition. A recent study tested the effect of moderate alcohol consumption on creative thinking.

The Experiment: Male social drinkers were administered alcohol to a blood alcohol level of 0.07 (just below the drinking limit for driving) then given the RAT (Remote Associates Test). For example, participants were given three target words such as PEACH, ARM, and TAR, and were tasked with finding a fourth word, such as PIT, that forms a good two-word phrase with each of the target words. This type of word association involves out of the box, creative thinking. They were also asked if they came by the association intuitively (as in an Aha! moment).

The Results: As seen in the figure, intoxicated participants reported significantly more insightful solutions than sober participants. Even better, they solved significantly more RAT problems (M = .58, SD = .13) than their sober counterparts (M = .42,SD = .16). They also solved them faster (M = 11.54 s, SD = 3.75) compared to sober controls (M = 15.24 s, SD = 5.57). The study concluded that moderate alcohol consumption improved creative memory tasks. Cheers!

Extra Credit: How was the alcohol administered? Why did they choose men and not women? What did the men do while they consumed their drinks?

Source: Uncorking the muse: Alcohol intoxication facilitates creative problem solving. Andrew F. Jarosz, Gregory J.H. Colflesh ,and Jennifer Wiley. Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at Chicago


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87 Responses to Uncork the Muse!

  1. I find that my creativity peaks at about two and a half drinks, though my ability to execute declines.

  2. Makes sense – substances help lower much of our more logical processes, as well as our inhibitions (which can include things we think about, or even HOW we think).

  3. Marian Wirth says:

    After yesterday’s “chocolate makes you slim”palooza, no wonder today booze pops up again. (My execution skills collapse at 0.5 drinks, creativity peak N/A.)

  4. Rajini Rao says:

    From the article: superior executive functioning, such as increased attentional control, may in fact be detrimental to reaching creative solutions. Increased attentional control implies that one is better able to screen out peripheral information, which, while useful during analytical problem solving, would be disadvantageous in a situation where the assimilation of information outside of the perceived problem space may be useful.

  5. Jim Douglas says:

    For normal day-to-day analytical tasks, caffeine is still the drug of choice: https://www.google.com/search?q=caffeine+effect+on+task+performance

  6. So far my toddler-induced sleep deprivation hasn’t made me more creative – but maybe I’m just too tired to notice.

  7. Rajini Rao says:

    Russ Abbott , LOL on the Inebriati and Knights Tippler, thanks! Amy Knepper and Jim Douglas : I think caffeine and yoga would improve cognitive skills that require high levels of executive function, working memory and analytical skills…which are precisely the qualities decreased by moderate alcohol. On the other hand, creative or intuitive thinking benefits from this impairment.

  8. Gary Jones says:

    I’ve found arguments that claim that creativity is a combination of divergent and convergent thinking to be compelling. The divergent part increases the number of candidate solutions, the convergent part throws out the duds. A little altered state thinking might fit that pattern so long as one is still sober enough to do the winnowing.

  9. Rajini Rao says:

    Gary Jones , the challenge is to titrate the alteration to the point where creativity peaks before it, inevitably, declines 🙂

  10. Jim Douglas says:

    In all seriousness, I wonder if there have been controlled studies with LSD that might confirm or refute what Steve Jobs claimed.

  11. Rajini Rao says:

    Jim Douglas , the studies have been done (quick search on Google Scholar)..however, I don’t know what the consensus is 🙂

  12. Rajini Rao I’d have to doubt any results, though, given how very, very differenyl people’s brains/creative impulses work, and how they respond to varying substances and mental states 🙂

    And how different starting mental states are, too!

  13. Mark Hogan says:

    I always found that my pool playing skills peaked at two pints, honest.

  14. ..ah ha!

    THAT’S why I feel smarter after a couple of beers..

  15. Georg Plaz says:

    David Andrews no, that’s not why.

  16. Rajini Rao says:

    aimee whitcroft , that’s the point of a scientific study isn’t it? It is not based on anecdotal evidence but on statistical analysis of a sufficient number of participants who are all different as individuals. A properly controlled study, such as this one, asks if the difference between the conditions being tested rises above the random individual differences between people. The methods section describes in tedious detail how the participants were not allowed to drink coffee and other stimulants before the test, how their weights were taken into consideration so that final blood alcohol level was the same in all of them, etc. That’s the beauty of the scientific method!

  17. Now, I am confused as to whether I am creative or even able to think — since, I do not consume alcohol. I wonder what it is I do do.

  18. Jim Douglas says:

    Rajini Rao I only skimmed results from https://www.google.com/search?q=lsd+effects+on+cognitive+abilities; in a quick glance, I was seeing off-topic results (MDMA), and less-than-controlled studies (discussions with drug users about their personal usage in uncontrolled situations). Are there legal restrictions on performing human tests with illegal drugs? (I guess even animal testing would be problematic if it’s not legal to work with the drug.)

  19. Rajini Rao says:

    Well, La Vergne Lestermeringolo Thatch , notice that there is a choice of mind altering options, such as insanity for example. 🙂

  20. Rajini Rao says:

    Jim Douglas , I searched lsd + creativity + studies. No, it’s not a problem working with “illegal” drugs if the proper paperwork and safeguards are in place. They have to be kept under lock and key with a meticulous log sheet of use (not much different from using radioactivity in lab). I have colleagues who work with cocaine and other drugs.

  21. Rajini Rao Well, I have been called crazy on many occasions. Are crazy and insane congruent or similar?

  22. Rajini Rao says:

    LOL, La Vergne Lestermeringolo Thatch ..you’re the math expert here. I’d say all crazy people are not insane but all insane people are crazy. Is there a geometric term to describe that? 🙂

  23. Rajini Rao Lol, we could create a Venn diagram to display – One circle for crazy, one for insane, the overlap would be highly creative people and everyone outside we must ask, “So, what is your contribution?”

  24. Rajini Rao I understand how scientific studies are done, no need to shout 🙂 Could you link to said paper? My point was simply that I’d still be skeptical given the huge differences between people, but of course I’d like to read the paper before criticising it (or agreeing with it!) in particular 🙂

  25. Rajini Rao says:

    Exactly, Venn diagrams rule! 🙂

  26. Rajini Rao says:

    The link is in the post, filed neatly as Source. BTW, shouting on line is typically indicated by Bold or CAPS. Emphasis is indicated by italics. There is a difference, no? 🙂

  27. Matt Kuenzel says:

    Rajini Rao You are really insightful to have posted this study!

  28. Rajini Rao says:

    Matt Kuenzel , thanks 🙂

  29. Matt Kuenzel says:

    My experience agrees with the trend here … my creativity peaks around 2-3 drinks.

  30. Rajini Rao says:

    If anyone wants to glance through the paper (it’s an easy read) and bypass the paywall..click on the link in my post. Then click on View within the Article link within Figure 1. You get taken to a page where you are asked to pay. Ignore, but click on View Abstract link just next to the author line. Voila! 🙂

  31. Jim Douglas says:

    This book looks like it might be relevant: http://www.amazon.com/LSD-Spirituality-Creative-Process-Groundbreaking/dp/0892819731

    Steve Jobs was convinced that LSD was formative for him, but he had other questionable beliefs, so he’s not a completely reliable witness. (It’s very difficult to comprehend being told by a doctor that you hit the jackpot and your particular form of pancreatic cancer is highly treatable with surgery, and then spend several months messing around with herbal remedies.)

  32. Rajini Rao says:

    Agreed, re. Steve Jobs Jim Douglas . Also, his decision to have a liver transplant and go on prolonged immunosuppressants is widely believed by to have hastened his end.

  33. Now, I am see where a Venn Diagram may be too limiting. We may need to apply some logic, if …them – Reason – Proof

  34. Logic:

    Given: 1) All crazy people are not insane. (T or F) 2) All insane people are crazy. (T or F)

  35. Let c = crazy and i = insane ….why I am thinking about this? What are the conditional statements? Can this be proven?

  36. Rajini Rao awesome, thanks 🙂 I had misunderstood, and thought you were referring to another study.

  37. Rajini Rao says:

    Drew Sowersby , Figure 1 shows that both sober and intoxicated (defined as within the legal limit for driving) participants could solve RAT problems associated with creative thinking. Both sober and intoxicated participants reported greater cases of intuitive rather than non-insightful solutions. It’s just that there is a statistical increase in intuitive thinking, times of solution and number of creative problems solved in the “intoxicated” bunch. Note that the study was careful not to use habitually drunk subjects (hence the term “social drinkers”) or go beyond what our commentators term 2-3 drinks at which point all cognitive ability will decline sharply. It’s an interesting case of “taking off the edge” so as to enhance lateral thinking (and not higher executive functions). Hope this makes sense.

  38. Rajini Rao says:

    You’re welcome, aimee whitcroft . Honestly, I found this study to be funny, hence the post. I hope people notice that the differences between the two groups are small! Of course, I’m not advocating any form of substance use 😉 Right, Amy Knepper ?

  39. Wayne S says:

    I’ll drink to that 🙂

  40. Matt Kuenzel says:

    Also interesting is the differential effect of alcohol on System 1 as opposed to System 2 (using Daniel Kahneman’s terms: System 1 is the fast, intuitive and System 2 is the slow, logical)

  41. Rajini Rao says:

    Gnotic Pasta , there was a landmark study on psilocybin (magic mushrooms) conducted by neuroscientists at my institution a few years back. Noteworthy that a world famous scientist, after whom the department is named, describes his personal experimentation with its mystical effects. Other commentators of the study included a Dean, a Director of NIDA (Natl. Inst. Drug Abuse) and a Vice Director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy. In conclusion, the editors noted, “It is time for psychopharmacologists to open their minds and their laboratories to the full domain of human drug experience. We would do well to be wary of our own preconceptions and prejudgments, and to be prepared to consider the entire scope of human experience and behavior as legitimate targets for systematic and ethical scientific investigation. Griffiths et al. set an excellent example for such a venture.” See: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/Press_releases/2006/GriffithsCommentaries.pdf

    I thought you may be interested 🙂 I don’t know about current research though, as this is far from my own field.

  42. Rajini Rao says:

    Matt Kuenzel , do you recommend his book? How come he has a Nobel in Economics but writes about Psychology? 🙂

  43. Matt Kuenzel says:

    Rajini Rao Yes, I thought Kahneman’s book was great. Much of the experimental data that he cites is stuff that I had read or heard about but he builds a framework that makes sense of it all. It’s very thought-provoking.

    Regarding the study you mention, I tend to agree with the sentiment. Many of us use alcohol. caffeine, nicotine to influence the operation of our brains. It seems reasonable to explore the best ways to do that.

  44. I do like to open a bottle of wine when I’m about to brainstorm, OR focus for other things. It helps slow my mind down a bit so I can focus on one thing and not be ADD everywhere with irrelevant data.

  45. I’ve found that not getting enough sleep works for me!

  46. hahaha, this is great! I’ve always known there to be this level between sober and three sheets to the wind where I’m just better at things in general. The inebriati nailed it!

  47. Ha Ha another gr8 reason to start drinking…

  48. Rajini Rao says:

    Sudhanshu Pathania , as long as you know when to stop 🙂 The window of creativity may be very narrow.

  49. yup I’ll definitely stop after loosing all my senses and ultimately falling down…LOL 😉

  50. Rajini Rao says:

    Now I have to look up entheogens, Gnotic Pasta 😛

  51. Chad Haney says:

    Amy Knepper it depends what type of meditation, I suppose. Samatha (concentration) meditation might help one focus but not be creative. Vipassana (insight) meditation might help you depending on the problem under study.

    Regarding research on psychotropic drugs, I saw an interesting bit on PBS about a researcher in Israel studying THC for PTSD. It turns out that a little weed is a friend indeed, when it comes to forgetting traumatic experiences. One might think that forgetting in general is bad and that we don’t need help forgetting things. Imagine if you couldn’t control short-term memory. In the PBS bit, they said imagine if you remembered every face you saw today. THC helps the part of the brain that normally allows you to forget what you don’t need, i.e., everyone’s face you saw today. That part of the brain is claimed to be affected by PTSD. I’ll try to look for a link after I decide if I need one more cerveza.

  52. Chad Haney says:

    The best I could come up with while titrating my BAL.


  53. kiran kumar says:

    love the bit about magic mushrooms, one of my friends concurs on the findings :)……I think the reference to a muse is the reason for choosing men (maybe??)

  54. Wish there was a similar study on changes in intuitive thinking ability after say 30 minutes of engagingly observing your own breath..or listening to music.. In my own experience, I have reached a similar state of mind by doing all three – Observing breath, 3-4 drinks & listening to a particular kind of music…I keep on experimenting with these & next on the list is Hashish 🙂 But we need empirical evidence (and some more research) to really understand how it works..

    For those who are interested in the connection, this is a good read:


  55. Rahul Joshi says:

    For me, creativity is closely associated with lucid dreaming, which could be natural or even better – grass induced.

    All alcohol ever sparked for me was RAGE (and swollen eyeballs next morning) 0_o

  56. Interesting! Definitely diminishing returns somewhere along the way on this one though…i.e. a glass or two might open up the creativity but more…we’ve seen some good examples of tweeting after too many!

  57. Rajini Rao says:

    Drew Sowersby , the study under discussion does not question the physiological, philosophical or moral issues relating to alcohol or for that matter, any mind altering substance. It seeks to address the question whether creative thinking, defined (very) narrowly by performance on remote associates test, is affected by moderate alcohol consumption. I doubt that the authors (and certainly myself) are promoting alcohol consumption as a way to enhance creativity. Whatever one’s views on the topic, the data speak for themselves. Note also, that the BAC of the subjects was inside the legal limit, although a more interesting study would have been to look at the effect of BAC levels on the RAT scores.

    If there is a flaw in the experimental design or analysis, that would be worth discussing. Otherwise, one must accept the findings of a controlled study, however narrowly applicable. This does not mean that taking a drink or two will inspire output of Shakespearean proportions; in fact, that would be near impossible to test. My view is that it is the job of a scientist is to design an experiment to test a hypothesis without judgement of the morality of the issue, since we know quite well that morals are highly subjective.

  58. Chad Haney says:

    Without reading the article carefully, I suspect they chose alcohol for two reasons 1) it’s readily available and legal and 2) you can get consistent product. If you were to get something from the street, you would have to do a fair amount of analytical chemistry to document what you actually are using in the study. Alternatively, you can isolate the active ingredient, e.g., THC from marijuana, but that is a substantial amount of additional work.

    As Rajini Rao stated, you need a well controlled study, absent of bias, for proper scientific research.

  59. Rajini Rao says:

    On a lighter note, nobody offered answers to my “extra credit” questions 😦 So, here is the answer to “What were the subjects doing while consuming alcohol”? They were watching Ratatouille. Which leads to the following pertinent questions: why the choice of this movie? And more importantly, why divulge this information at all? 😀

  60. J Stasko says:

    Rajini Rao Yes, a dose-response curve is important to discern biology from the psychologic affect (hey, I’m drunk, now I can relax.)

  61. Rajini Rao says:

    J Stasko , agree. Also, is there a threshold effect? And, at which point does the trend reverse (as no doubt, it would). kiran kumar , the reason they chose men was because of complications in getting human subject approval for women subjects; specifically, in case they were in an early stage of pregnancy and did not know it at the time of the study.

  62. Rajini Rao says:

    Haha, Gnotic Pasta , the study design took that into account: “Participants in the sober comparison condition engaged in the same tasks as the intoxication condition including watching Ratatouille, but they did not complete the intoxication procedures (e.g., they did not eat the snack and did not drink a beverage). As participants do not find a BAC of .07 to be credible in placebo studies, a placebo design was not employed.” 🙂

  63. Rajini Rao says:

    No, that’s why I LOL’ed at the Methods section. P.S. they also chose to tell us that the drink was vodka cranberry. Why not just a dilution of 99% pure lab grade ethanol?

  64. kiran kumar says:

    Rajini Rao placebo studies, non-alcoholic whiskey, thats a brilliant idea – http://www.neatorama.com/2011/11/08/the-worlds-first-non-alcoholic-whiskey/ but would you not realize the non-drunkenness with the placebo?

  65. Chad Haney says:

    Rajini Rao and Gnotic Pasta most likely the answers to your questions are that the study was done in Chicago. ;~). I don’t know anyone in the pysch dept otherwise I’d ask them.

  66. Rajini Rao says:

    kiran kumar , the comments on that link were quite interesting. I don’t think this placebo would fool the control group in this study, but it could have psychological effects in a social situation where no one would know the difference.

  67. Rajini Rao says:

    OMG, Chad Haney , imagine if our colleagues at UIC were to see this exchange..luckily I’m not familiar with the Psych dept there but I sure do know the ones in Biochem and Mol Gen. 🙂

  68. Looks like a reasonable study to me based on the non-pay-walled parts, although failure to use an isocaloric control condition might be a real issue (is this pharmacology or food?). I am generally dissatisfied with “creativity” as a scientific concept, but the RAT is a task I would use too. Regarding psychedelics, Griffiths’ group at Hopkins has a recent paper suggesting that participation in their psilocybin studies may have increased the Openness to Experience factor of personality. Though inconclusive, I think that finding is the best evidence so far of psychedelic-related creativity changes. The old studies of LSD and mescaline and creativity are generally not very convincing — I reviewed them pretty carefully when I was designing an LSD creativity study recently (I had to abandon the study for practical reasons). As with any drug study, I would like to see a dose-response curve. And, as with any potential health/wellness-intervention, I would like to see an active control condition of some sort so I can know how this method compares to the other things one might try (especially those we know to be otherwise healthy, like exercise or socializing).

  69. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks for your insight, Matthew Baggott ! We did discuss the psilocybin Hopkins study above (was it the 2004 paper or a more recent one?), with respect to the commentary on it.

  70. Always happy to add my two-bits to your interesting posts. 🙂 Yes, the personality change paper was a follow-up to the work you were discussing . If anyone is interested, I linked to it and some relevant other stuff here: https://plus.google.com/u/0/101266444458532133630/posts/DQNg6C2wXxj

  71. Chad Haney says:

    Sorry to diverge more from the creativity aspect of this post but here’s a post about using fMRI to study the effect of psilocybin.


  72. Rajini Rao says:

    Apparently, the personality trait of “openness” is enhanced by psilocybin and is linked to “creativity”..checking it out, thanks Chad Haney .

  73. Chad Haney says:

    Drew Sowersby you’ve noticed that Rajini Rao posts are like the creativity study we’re talking about right now. Like alcohol, at first it sparks creativity and engagement. After 90+ comments however, you shake your fist and say Rajini did it again. I have to get some work done! Arrrgh. :~)

    Bad jokes aside, I really enjoy her posts as well.

  74. Rajini Rao says:

    Your engagement adds to the enjoyment and learning experience of these G+ posts, Drew Sowersby , as in the past. You’ve shared your presentations on topics as diverse as single molecule biophysics to now, cognitive mechanisms. Thank you 🙂

  75. Rajini Rao says:

    Chad Haney , get to work! FYI, I’m polishing up the final touches on a manuscript to be submitted today. So I’m feeling particularly virtuous 🙂

  76. Chad Haney says:

    Good luck Rajini Rao although you don’t need it. My manuscript was accepted with minor revision Monday. Yeah.

  77. Rajini Rao says:

    Congrats!!!! I hope your good luck rubs off on ours 🙂

  78. Rajini Rao says:

    I’ll settle for intellectually engaging and entertaining, but I can’t guarantee virtuosity Drew Sowersby !

  79. Chad Haney says:

    I waited and waited. I figured Feisal Kamil would be the 100th comment. Now what do I win? I better play the MegaMilliions today (you know the tax for people that are bad at math).

  80. Burn one, hippy old school followed by a barstar fuelup/shot/chaser. Then it’s pen/cil to paper. Give’r. Ditch the fear of what will come out and you’ll be surprised. I consistently am. The Significator, Searching for meaning.

  81. Rajini Rao says:

    J Stasko , we need at least another 100 comments to discuss that link 🙂 By the way, Chris Mooney is on G+.

  82. John Kellden says:

    Good. Sober at work, a glass of wine among friends. Check. 🙂

  83. Chad Haney says:

    John Kellden That’s what Happy Hour is for; transitioning between the two.

  84. God, I love science and statistics!! Let me know when the next edition covering more hallucinogenic substances is released.

  85. So, in short form, creativity is spurred by the loss of sanity and OCD contributes to analytical problem solving.

    Wow! I have both in spades, some days. 😉

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