F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams. Dorothy Parker, Sinclair Lewis, John Cheever. Why are so many of the greatest creative minds in history also the most prolific drinkers? The anecdotal evidence abounds: Many great writers enjoy pounding the booze, and many of the greatest works of art in history have come from minds that were frequently clouded by inebriation.
This seeming conundrum has led researchers from the Psychology Department at the University of Graz in Austria to put the following question to the test: Does drinking actually aid creativity?
Their answer is this: Yes. But wait—in moderation.
In a paper published online last month in the journal Consciousness and Cognition , a group of Austrian researchers explain that drinking a low amount of alcohol actually boosts creative thinking and problem-solving skills.
In the Austrian study, 70 participants were split into two groups. Half were given a beer with 5.2 percent alcohol by volume, and the other half were given a non-alcoholic beer—neither group knew what they were drinking. The participants' executive functioning and creative thinking were tested before and after consumption.
The researchers came to this conclusion mainly because the participants' ability to perform in something called the Remote Associates Test improved. In the RAT test, the subjects were presented with three unrelated words (for example: "cottage," "blue," and "cake") and were asked to come up with a solution word that showed an unexpected connection between the three given words. For those of you who are sober out there, the answer is that all three words can be associated with cheese: cottage cheese, blue cheese, cheesecake. (Get it?) This test is said to examine a type of "insight problem solving," which is thought to be essential to creativity. In fact, the participants who had indulged in the alcoholic beer did better on the RAT test than did their teetotaling counterparts.
But here's the catch: The study found the positive impact on creativity only when the participants had imbibed very, very modest amounts of alcohol. In fact, the researchers point out, their findings should not be "overgeneralized"; in other words, "the more, the better" does not apply here. The participants who were found to be most creative had a blood alcohol concentration of only .03 percent, the equivalent of drinking a small glass of wine or slightly less than a pint of beer for men—and half that amount for women. Plus, with a relatively small group of participants, additional research could be necessary to more clearly establish this connection.
So why are full-blown drunks, like F. Scott Fitzgerald—who died at the age of 44 after years of raging alcoholism—so damn creative?
Probably because they're geniuses. The rest of us had best stick to a glass of wine or a pint of beer (or less) if we want to reap the benefits of alcohol on our own creativity. Now bring me an IPA and my typewriter.