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Alcohol and Creativity: Does Alcohol Really Enhance the Creative Process?
It's a question we've all wondered about, does alcohol enhance our creativity? It's a romantic notion that writers, artists, and actors all derive a great deal of creativity out of drinking alcohol; and it often leads to the romantic ideal of the tortured soul. The artist or writer that is reliant on the sauce as a means of getting their true creative ideas out. But, does this concept actually have any merit? Does alcohol do anything to our creativity?
To best dive into this topic, we'll first look at what alcohol is, and how it affects the body when consumed. Anyone who has had a couple of drinks knows that alcohol seems to loosen them up. Drinking tends to make you more social, you're more likely to try new things, and you just generally feel more relaxed. But, what is really acting on the body, and scientifically speaking, how is alcohol producing these well-known effects?
Do You Believe Alcohol Enhances Your Creativity?
Alcohol and the Body
Alcoholic beverages as we know them contain ethyl alcohol, which is a form of alcohol easily absorbed by the body (Comer, 2005). Around 20% of alcohol consumed is absorbed through the stomach, while the remaining 80% is absorbed through the small intestine (Freudenrich, 2011). Absorption through either of these two methods leads to alcohol passing into the bloodstream, which is how medical professionals and law enforcement professionals measure toxicity. Once in the blood, alcohol begins acting on the spinal cord and brain, essential parts of the body's central nervous system (Comer, 2005).
Alcohol is a depressant in that it serves to depress the central nervous system. The first effect of alcohol is to slow brain function related to judgment and inhibition (Comer, 2005), which brings on the aforementioned increase in social behavior, and the lack of inhibitions, making individuals more likely to act in ways they may not act when sober. It also tends to bring on a relaxed, satisfied feeling, which many people enjoy right after work. This relaxed, stress-free sense of self is often induced as a way to let go of the troubles of the day. An increase in alcohol consumption, bringing the blood alcohol level (BAC) up to 0.09 blood, tends to lead to trouble with fine motor skills, although these troubles are generally nothing too serious (Freudenrich, 2011).
Higher alcohol levels, up to around 0.18 BAC, leads to a more sleepy state (Freudenrich, 2011). In this stage, drinkers experience even slower reaction times; more extreme trouble performing typical motor skills, often causing clumsiness, and an inability to walk straight (Comer, 2005). The alcohol consumed is now acting strongly on the central nervous system, and it also begins to affect vision, as well as other sensations in the body, making the real world seem unreal or far away.
Freudenrich (2011) notes from this point on (generally upward of 0.18 BAC) alcohol causes a stage he titles "Confusion," in which individuals experience dizziness, staggering, confusion over where they are or what they were doing only seconds before; vision is highly impaired, and often times double vision, or the complete inability to focus, occurs. Furthermore, continued action on the central nervous system continues to affect the brain by creating a more emotional individual. The increased emotions range from an individual being unexplainably angry or violent, to being overly happy or affectionate, to withdrawing completely to be entirely unsocial (Freudenrich, 2011). This level of intoxication is considered rather dangerous. This is because injuries that may occur as a result of impaired motor and visual function generally don't seem as serious as they may be because sensory nerves and messenger nerves in the brain are also drunk, as it were. This impairment creates a situation in which the nerves aren't communicating in the same way as they would in a sober (an unimpaired) brain. As such, pain sensations are significantly decreased. An individual who injures themselves when drunk is highly unlikely to realize the seriousness until they have sobered up sometime later.
This is the point at which many drinkers stop consuming alcohol, however, a BAC upward of 0.25 brings on a dangerous state in which motion is nearly completely hindered. Individuals this drunk cannot stand, walk, or complete other simple motor functions. This is the stage at which people generally vomit, which can be deadly if done in their sleep; or when they lose consciousness (Freudenrich, 2011). Essentially, the body is beginning s shut down to stop the individual from consuming any more alcohol.
Consuming additional alcohol, causing an excess of 0.35 BAC can result in coma and death. According to Freudenrich (2011), the coma stage results in depressed natural reflexes (i.e "pupils do not respond appropriately to changes in light"), as well as significantly slowed breathing and heart rate. This can result in death if the body is not able to keep functioning at a sustainable rate. The risk of even getting to the coma stage, is that, alcohol generally works through the bloodstream beyond when drinking stops. If an individual is in excess of 0.35 BAC when alcohol consumption ceases, it is likely alcohol will continue to work through the blood and out of the system, raising BAC levels to an excess of 0.50, which is enough to result in death. Alcohol levels this high nearly entirely diminish the body's ability to sustain breathing and a decent heart rate (Comer, 2005).
Alcohol's Effect on Creativity
Many famous artists and writers were alcoholics, to name a few: Ernest Hemingway and Edgar Allan Poe, which may be a reason why we can easily believe that alcohol spurns creativity. However, after studying how alcohol directly works on the body, it's hard to imagine that the substance could do anything productive for creativity. Well, this is exactly science's standpoint.
While there is a hypothesis that alcohol's disinheriting effects lead to more creativity via the ability to get out what is on one's mind more easily, research seems to refute it, citing depressing effects on the brain (Runco & Pritzker, 1999). Beveridge and Yorston's article "I Drink, Therefore I Am: Alcohol and Creativity," explains the possible reasons why artists, and those who regard alcohol as an enhancement to creativity, might see it as so. Beveridge and Yorston (1999) notes that artists generally view themselves as a separate part of society, as a different class that breaks conventions, and as such these artists turn to means of doing so, which includes alcohol consumption. Another model discussed in Beveridge and Yorston's article is the thought that artists are tortured and sensitive souls that turn to alcohol to dull their overly-sensitive and emotional view of the world, and those around them.
While both these viewpoints may explain why artistic-types tend to drink, it does not provide an answer as to whether alcohol actually makes the creative juices flow more readily. We already have the proof that people like Hemingway drank, but did it spurn on his number of classic novels? Or did it ultimately hinder the creativity? In fact, Beveridge and Yorston (1999) goes on to describe grizzly stories of physical and mental ailments suffered by a number of artists well-known for their boozing. Overall, alcohol consumption, especially in excess has clear consequences. While an artist may derive some sense of pleasure from drinking, it isn't because it drives their creative nature, but due to other personal needs.
Reisenbichler (1995) cited several studies, finding that not only did alcohol not enhance the creative process, but that it threw a ratchet it in by stifling the drinker in the early stages of creativity. One study found that a "moderate dose of alcohol impairs the ability to reason deductively, and reduces the self-imposed time spent on an intellectual task" (Reisenbichler, 1995). Furthermore, while Gustafson and Norlander (1994) found that individuals tend to drink more after creative projects than non-creative projects, the individuals engaging in the creative behavior did little of their actual creative work while drinking or intoxicated.
There is one study of interest to advocates that alcohol aids in creativity. Lowe (1994) performed a study in which individuals were given alcohol and a placebo. The study found that alcohol did not produce any significant changes in individuals who tested high on creativity measures, but it did have a slight affect on more non-creative people, citing lessened inhibitions increased their creative tendencies. On that same note, however, Low (1994) notes "in subjects with creativity scores above the mean under the Placebo condition, alcohol produced significant decrements, whereas in subjects with below-average creativity scores under the Placebo condition, significant increments were observed with alcohol. This would lead to the conclusion that any natural tendency toward creativity is stifled under alcohol." Not looking good for those looking to enhance their creative juices under the influence of alcohol. After all, it is the creative types seeking creative careers, and not the slight benefit of the non-creative individuals that effects the question "Does alcohol spurn creativity?"
It seems that the answer to this question is clear, while alcohol may be a much loved part of the creative individual's life, it does nothing to spurn on creativity. In fact, it may hinder a project getting done, or prolong the process. Additionally, alcohol's depressant effects on the body can make performing fine motor functions like typing, and drawing or painting fine lines more difficult, possibly even nearly impossible, depending on the amount of alcohol consumed.
Comer, R. J. (2005). Fundamentals of Abnormal Psychology. Worth Publishers, New York.
Runco, M.A & Pritzker, S.R. (1999) Encyclopedia of Creativity, Vol. 1. Academic Press, California.
Beveridge, A. & Yorston, G. (1999). I Drink, Therefore I Am: Alcohol and Creativity. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 92(12); 646-648.
Lowe, G. (1994). Group Difference in Alcohol-Creativity Interactions. PsycholRep 75(3 pt 2); 1635-8.
Reisenbichler, L. (1995). Creative Tension: A Crucial Component of Creativity in the Workplace. University of North Texas.