Be Creative! Have a Drink!

March 5, 2012

In a recently published experiment, researchers administered a task to a group of intoxicated participants and a group of sober controls. The task is thought to involve creativity, and the intoxicated participants did better than the controls.

The task was the Remote Associates Test (RAT). Each item in the test consists of three words, e.g., Peach, Arm, and Tar, and the task is to find a fourth word that will make a good two-word phrase with each of the given words. Perhaps the first word immediately suggests something – in this example, perhaps Tree – but that doesn’t make sense with the other two, and one had better look elsewhere. If one finds it difficult to let go of this first thought, it will take longer to find a good answer than if one can be open to further gifts from one’s brain, and let other, less closely (more remotely) associated words appear in one’s consciousness. Sooner, later, or perhaps never, the good candidate, Pit, may arrive. Participants responded as soon as they thought they had a good answer, which they then provided. If they had not responded by the end of 1 minute, they were asked to guess, and were then given the next item.

The intoxicated participants got that way through consuming a vodka and cranberry juice drink, which resulted in an average blood alcohol content of  .075. (The range was from .059 to .091. For comparison, the legal limit for driving in the US is .08.)

On average, the intoxicated group solved more problems than the sober controls. They also reached their solutions faster. Further, for each correct solution, participants were asked to rate the degree to which they had reached their solution by strategically searching, versus by “insight” (an Aha! moment). The intoxicated participants were more likely than the sober controls to attribute their successes to insight.

The researchers offer an explanation of these results. In brief, the account is this. Sobriety is good for maintaining attention, staying focused on goals, remembering where one is in a calculation, keeping track of one’s assumptions, and so on. But what’s needed for high performance on the RAT is the relaxing of attention, easy letting go of ideas that don’t pan out, and openness to letting one’s network of associations work without hindrance. A bit of alcohol helps reduce focused attention, so it helps with being open to letting one’s network operate without inhibition. The authors point out that this explanation is consilient with a number of other studies, including some that examined effects of frontal lobe damage, and others that showed an advantage for those who had an opportunity to sleep between exposure to a problem type and attempts to provide solutions.

Of course, creativity requires the knowledge necessary to recognize a useful idea when it arises. (In our illustration, for example, participants have to be able to recognize that Pit fits with each of the given words.) But this experiment suggests that there is another part in a creative process, a period in which unconscious processes do their work, combining materials that are already present, but have not previously been brought together in just the way that is necessary for creative success.

I think I have often profited from following the advice, “Sleep on it”, so perhaps I should worry about confirmation bias (the tendency to give more weight than one should to evidence that agrees with what one already accepts, and to discount conflicting information). But I’m glad to have this study, identified by the authors as the first empirical demonstration of the effects of alcohol’s effects on creative problem solving.

[Andrew F. Jarosz, Gregory J. H. Colflesh, and Jennifer Wiley (2012) “Uncorking the muse: Alcohol intoxication facilitates creative problem solving”, Consciousness and Cognition 21:487-493. ]