Advertising has and forever will be one of the most creative industries out there. In the 1960s, Volkswagen’s “Lemon” advertisement for the beetle, which showed the word big and bold, ushered in the so-called “creative revolution” throughout advertising agencies. Rather than cliché ads, which only showed the product and the reason for its use — a hammer hitting a head for headache medicine — the word “Lemon” captured people’s attention, and then told them something about the product that was completely unrelated to lemons. If you watch Mad Men, then you know how much drinking is portrayed during that time period. But it was very much the same in reality, and that’s because alcohol certainly does make you more creative.
“When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day, what else can change your ideas and make them run in a different plane like whisky?” Ernest Hemmingway once said, and he wasn’t alone. Famed authors David Foster Wallace, Edgar Allan Poe, and Truman Capote were also heavy drinkers, along with countless musicians and celebrities. Although heavy drinking won’t necessarily get you thinking more creatively, a couple could help you hone your craft if you’re trying to be creative. It probably won’t help for other things though.
What is Creativity?
Although many believe the left hemisphere is responsible for practical, logical and organized thought, and the right is where creativity comes from, it’s much more complex. First, it depends on what someone is trying to create. Once that happens, three different networks in the brain work together: the Executive Attention Network (EAN), the Imagination Network (IN), and the Salience Network (SN).
The EAN activates when a problem requires complete concentration. It depends largely on working memory and complex problem solving, as neural connections between the outer regions of the prefrontal cortex and the back of the parietal lobe are tasked with being efficient and reliable. The IN creates mental simulations about almost anything from possible future experiences to imagining other people’s perspectives, and involves neural connections between the deeper regions of the prefrontal cortex and the temporal lobe. Meanwhile, the SI monitors events occurring outside of the body as well as internal consciousness, and is able to direct attention to whatever is more important at a certain moment in time.
Together these three can either work together for the greater good of being creative, or they may clash, causing creativity to diminish. The researchers who developed this framework, from the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, believe that reducing activation in the EAN by just a little bit can boost the ability of a person’s mind to wander, loosen up, and imagine more creatively, as the energy that went to the EAN gets shifted to the IN and SN. And that’s where booze can help.
Drink Up and Broaden Your Imaginary Horizons
Alcohol worsens our working memory and impedes the brain’s executive processes, causing us also to become unaware of what’s going on around us and unable to concentrate on tasks at hand. That’s why people can’t drink and drive, or operate heavy machinery — they’re just not going to do it right. But what’s lost in our ability to focus is gained in our ability to think creatively. In 2012, researchers from the University of Illinois showed how creative people could be when happily drunk.
Their study, “Uncorking the Muse: Alcohol Intoxication Facilitates Creative Problem Solving,” looked at the ability of 40 men, whose blood alcohol content was 0.075 (just under the legal limit), to solve a creative problem-solving task. Called the Remote Associates Test (RAT), participants were given three words, such as “peach,” “arm,” and “tar,” and asked to come up with another word that could go with each to form a two-word phrase — in this case, the word was “pit.” The test works because the most obvious responses are usually incorrect, forcing participants to think creatively. Indeed, all of the intoxicated participants came up with correct answers, and they were more “insightful,” too.
Another study, called the “Newt/Judge Experiment,” involved 18 advertising creatives who were split into two groups. One group was allowed to drink all the alcohol they wanted, while the other group could only get water. For three hours, each group worked on an ad campaign about binge drinking, and at the end of the brainstorming, a group of top creative directors judged each idea.
As you’d probably expect, the drinkers came out on top, with four out of the five best ideas, as well as the most ideas. These included seats that were only for people drinking water and water bottles as club tickets — the label had the club name and someone would only be allowed in if the bottle was empty. Then, to get a second opinion, the experimenters asked groups of pub goers, ages 18 to 30, which ones they liked. Again, the drinkers’ ideas were chosen as better.
Drink, Relax the Brain, and Aha!
Researcher Mark Beeman, from Northwestern University, conducted two experiments with researchers from Drexel University, which looked at the source of the “Eureka,” or “Aha!” moment. Using brain scans, they found that participants who were concentrating too hard would sometimes block the creative processes necessary for problem solving (i.e. writers' block). But among participants who were relaxed, and not thinking about solving their problems, moments of “Eureka” were preceded by an upsurge of activity — only 1.5 seconds before — in the superior temporal gyrus, an area of the brain directly above the ear.
So, considering that drinking makes you relaxed, there’s a higher chance you’ll have an “Aha!” moment. Pair that with alcohol’s ability to reduce function in executive function, while boosting imagination and inner consciousness, and it looks like drinking will make you more creative. Drink too much, though, and you might end up passing out.