Does Coffee Make You More Creative?
Coffee is central to creative culture and we often assume drinking coffee makes us more creative. But, what does coffee do to us and does it really boost our creativity?
Coffee seems inextricably connected to creativity. Whether we think of designers in New York, intellectuals in Paris, entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley or in countless other locations, from cafes to co-working spaces, the cup of coffee seems to be an essential accessory of creative life.
But does coffee really make us more creative?
What Do Coffee and Caffeine Do To Us?
We all know coffee contains caffeine and caffeine is a stimulant, whether we consume it in coffee, tea, or some other kind of drink like Coca Cola or Red Bull. We drink it to help us feel more awake in the morning and know that too much can make it hard to fall asleep at night.
But what is caffeine doing to our bodies?
Caffeine works by blocking adenosine in our brains. During the day, adenosine builds up in our brain and it causes us to feel tired, it’s the message that tells us to rest. Blocking it feels like we’ve had a burst of energy, but what’s actually happening is the process that tells us we’re tired gets turned off. We also get a little hit of dopamine, which also boosts awareness and partly explains why caffeine is addictive.
So then we feel more alert and have faster reaction times.
That’s probably why caffeine (and nicotine) consumption is associated with writers trying to blast out as many words as they can. It’s said Voltaire and de Balzac both had a 50-cup-a-day habit! When you’re onto an idea, you’re also faced with the hard slog of turning the idea into words on a page, and the faster you can type, the less the chance of losing the flow.
Being Productive Is Not The Same Thing As Being Creative
Caffeine increases our focus and helps us fight tiredness and fatigue, at least in the short term. If the task is well defined, this helps us grind through it. If you’ve got a list of things to do and you need to prioritise them and then start acting on them, caffeine is your drug.
But, what if you have to come up with the list in the first place?
A lot of what we call creativity is divergent thinking, pulling things together that were not obviously connected, rather than following the obvious, logical path. We might’ve once called this the subconscious speaking to the conscious mind, but in modern cognitive terms its the resting (or default) state of the mind taking over a task for a while from the higher thinking part of the brain, then spitting out a different and unexpected answer, making a novel connection or giving us an interesting perspective, or deeper insight.
Which is why sleeping on it, going for walk, or staring at the clouds for a little while can be such a powerful source of fresh ideas. These physical actions help shape our creativity and they’re the opposite of just banging furiously away at our keyboard in a caffeine-fuelled frenzy.
Caffeine is Focus Fuel
Which kind of room makes you feel more creative? A brightly lit one, like a harshly bright office, or a dimly space, like a wood-panelled cafe or recording studio?
The first will certainly make most of us feel alert, but as one study confirmed, the latter will make us more creative. In fact, just describing what it feels like to be in a dimly lit space may be enough to boost creativity.
Now let’s consider something else for a moment. What happens when we drink too much coffee? That heart-pounding tightness, with just a hint of added anxiety we’ve felt when we drink too many coffees in one day, is the result of adrenaline being released into our system. It’s the fight or flight mode kicking in, a powerful, and at times life-saving, part of human nature.
This isn’t the place creativity comes from.
A Few Thoughts About Creative Rituals
One idea that’s gaining popularity is the coffee nap, which basically means drinking a cup of coffee just before you take a daytime sleep (or siesta). The rest might only be for 20-45 minutes, during the afternoon when our energy levels naturally sag, and you wake as the effects of the caffeine start to kick in. Studies suggest this can help improve memory, and while there’s no direct link to creativity here, the creative process does involve us making connections using our memory, so there may at least be some indirect benefits.
One reason I love making coffee is because it’s a slow process. It doesn’t take forever, but it does take a few minutes ñ waiting for the coffee to boil, then the ritual of preparing the filter paper, rinsing it, measuring out the coffee, pouring the bloom, waiting, then carefully pouring out the rest of the extraction.
If I’m working from home all day, that’s twice I’ll stop what I’m doing and enjoy this slow ritual. Mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Alone, at the kitchen window, staring at the tree in the courtyard, or looking up to catch a glimpse of the sky.
It’s a chance to daydream and it’s increasingly clear that daydreaming and allowing our minds to wander free are helpful for creative thinking.
What About Tea?
The inevitable question of course is, ìWhat about tea?î. I’ve written this post partly because I’m a coffee drinker myself and because coffee feels so essential to creative culture.
But, there’s a growing trend towards tea and its possible health benefits, especially from green and matcha tea. It also seems that an extra chemical in tea, theanine, moderates and maybe even changes the effect caffeine has on us, possibly leading to less blocking of divergent thought and maybe even a softer landing as the caffeine wears off.
Coffee and the Creative Self-Image
Part of coffee’s mystique comes from the cafe experience. A lot of people feel working in a cafe switches them on, puts them in a higher gear, making them more productive, and possibly even more creative as well.
I’ve sometimes wondered whether the cafe experience is a bit of a placebo. What if you went to the cafe and just drank decaf? Or what if the walk to the cafe was doing more to get your creative juices flowing than the caffeine ever did?
Or what if the real buzz doesn’t come from the coffee but from the environment? One study suggests the noise level of most cafes is just about perfect for concentrating on work. Too much noise is distracting, but too little noise can be as well, making it hard to block out the thoughts and worries that can stop us from working.
Also, the presence of other people, especially people who look focused and productive, can inspire us to work too. “Mental effort is contagious” according to one study. We are social creatures after all, and whether it’s writing or working out, it seems we try harder around people who are also trying hard.
Perhaps the biggest inspiration might lie deep in the psychology of creativity. One blogpost listing reasons why creative people work in cafes made a wonderfully honest point:
“It brings out the artist and poet in you.”
Creative hubs have been places of coffee consumption. This isn’t just a third wave thing associated with places like Brooklyn or San Francisco. It was the case back when the coffeehouses of Vienna and Paris became fashionable a hundred or so years ago.
It turns out de Balzac didn’t really drink 50 cups a day after all, as Maria Konnikova wrote in The New Yorker:
“…he pulverised coffee beans into a fine dust and ingested the dry powder on an empty stomach. He described the approach as ‘horrible, rather brutal, to be tried only by men of excessive vigor.’ He documented the effects of the process in his 1839 essay Traité des Excitants Modernes (Treatise on Modern Stimulants): ‘Sparks shoot all the way up to the brain while ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages.’”
Coffee, in moderate amounts, probably helps us focus and makes us more productive. Maybe an extra cup, when pushing to meet a deadline, can help. But for most people the benefits peak at two cups a day. Too much will cause us problems in the long run, and whatever benefits caffeine might have will be washed away by the long-term erosion caused by bad sleep routines.
However, there’s nothing wrong with letting coffee be part of our self-image if that helps us believe more in our creative prowess. If it helps you believe in your creativity then great. If working in a cafe increases your focus then go for it. It’s not about having an either/or mindset towards coffee (or tea). We need to look at the life we live holistically and consume in ways that help us be creative and productive.
So enjoy your coffee. But remember, creativity comes from within you, not from within the cup.