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Creativity & Beer

One of the unspoken benefits of beer is that it’s a very useful relaxation tool. After a hard, stressful day of work, a tasty beer is just the thing to calm one’s nerves. It would be nearly impossible to quantify, but I have to wonder how much better off many people are because of the relaxation afforded them through the simple act of drinking a beer. How many didn’t do something that they might later regret had they remained tense, stressed and on edge. It’s worth considering, especially as the neo-prohibitionists increasingly insist that beer has no health benefits. But the mental health benefits that most of us get from a calming glass of beer can’t be ignored.

But there’s apparently one more mental health benefit to a beer, as reported recently in the Wall Street Journal (and thanks to Jeff B. for sending me the link). The essay, by Jonah Lehrer, is How To Be Creative, and the teaser subtitle give a nutshell account of what’s to come. “The image of the ‘creative type’ is a myth. Jonah Lehrer on why anyone can innovate—and why a hot shower, a cold beer or a trip to your colleague’s desk might be the key to your next big idea.” The fascinating story is about where creativity and innovation come from, something science has only very recently even tried to explain. The essay discusses several theories and gives examples of different ways that creativity is sparked and influenced. One of those, of course, is through drinking a glass of beer.

Interestingly, Mr. Beeman and his colleagues have found that certain factors make people much more likely to have an insight, better able to detect the answers generated by the aSTG [superior anterior temporal gyrus]. For instance, exposing subjects to a short, humorous video—the scientists use a clip of Robin Williams doing stand-up—boosts the average success rate by about 20%.

Alcohol also works. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago compared performance on insight puzzles between sober and intoxicated students. The scientists gave the subjects a battery of word problems known as remote associates, in which people have to find one additional word that goes with a triad of words. Here’s a sample problem:

Pine Crab Sauce

In this case, the answer is “apple.” (The compound words are pineapple, crab apple and apple sauce.) Drunk students solved nearly 30% more of these word problems than their sober peers.

What explains the creative benefits of relaxation and booze? The answer involves the surprising advantage of not paying attention. Although we live in an age that worships focus — we are always forcing ourselves to concentrate, chugging caffeine — this approach can inhibit the imagination. We might be focused, but we’re probably focused on the wrong answer.

And this is why relaxation helps: It isn’t until we’re soothed in the shower or distracted by the stand-up comic that we’re able to turn the spotlight of attention inward, eavesdropping on all those random associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain’s right hemisphere. When we need an insight, those associations are often the source of the answer.

So if you’re having trouble with your latest creative project, stuck somewhere with no solution in sight? Relax, don’t worry, have a beer. That may prove to be just the thing to free your mind and in the process unlock the creativity necessary to solve your problem. Liquid gold indeed.

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