Ernest Hemingway was a notorious drunkard. He’s also considered one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. With so many examples of artists overindulging, no wonder there’s a belief that alcohol plays a role in creative thinking. The matter had little proof until researchers from the University of Illinois published their findings in the latest edition of the journal Consciousness and Cognition.
The researchers plied one group of male participants with vodka cranberries to get them “moderately” intoxicated. A control group received nothing. Each was asked to complete a series of word problems requiring creative thinking. The intoxicated group successfully completed more problems than their sober cohorts. The researchers speculate that alcohol impairs one’s attention span, allowing the mind to wander, which is “exactly the type of dynamic required for success in creative problem-solving.” Divergent thinking, the ability to think freely and come up with many different solutions, is key.
It’s hard to imagine employers allowing workers to booze it up on the job, but the research does raise a question that plagues everyone in business: How do you become more creative?
Fortunately, the brain does not have to be primed with alcohol. Gerard Puccio, chair of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State University, has a few guidelines. Resist the urge to judge ideas immediately; rejecting them too soon is discouraging. Falling in love with ideas too early is equally problematic; the first ideas are usually the least novel. Quantity of ideas is important; it’s only after exhausting the obvious that people start thinking originally.
Creative thinkers also expose themselves to a wide variety of information. “The more information you put into your brain, the more possibilities you have to build on,” Puccio says. Many creative breakthroughs are triggered by something seemingly unrelated. For Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral, a walk in the woods with his dog inspired him to invent Velcro, after he noticed the burrs clinging to his dog’s fur.
But the corporate environment is generally not conducive to creativity. Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, has spent years trying to answer the question of how best to foster creativity in the workplace. In one decade-long study, she and a colleague collected and analyzed roughly 12,000 diary entries recorded by 238 professionals as they worked on creative projects. Amabile’s research wrapped up last year with the publication of a book, The Progress Principle.
Her findings dispel some of the myths around creativity, such as tight deadlines and heavy pressure bring on innovation. Such cases were rare in Amabile’s research. Instead, low to moderate time pressure was better for creative outcomes, because it allows people to truly think.
The biggest surprise for Amabile was learning the most significant factor in inducing creativity is simply being able to make progress on a project. Creative problem-solving doesn’t necessarily entail a single big breakthrough, but a series of small discoveries. The small wins “were a very big deal for the participants psychologically and emotionally.” But when Amabile later asked 700 managers to rank employee motivators in terms of importance, only 5% labelled “progress” as most important.
So if you’re grappling with a creative problem, ask the boss for more time and enjoy the small victories along the way. Or you could try a refreshing vodka cranberry.
THREE NOVEL WAYS TO BOOST CREATIVITY
BRAINSTORM WHEN YOU’RE GROGGY
A study published in the journal Thinking and Reasoning found participants were better at creative problem-solving during their “least optimal” point in the day, usually early morning or late at night. The sleepy brain is prone to meandering, which is beneficial for creativity.
PRETEND YOU’RE A KID
Researchers at North Dakota State University asked 76 undergraduates what they would do if school were cancelled for the day. Half were told to imagine themselves as children when answering the question. This group had more original responses. The researchers speculate that since a child’s mind is less inhibited than an adult’s, just imagining oneself as a kid can spur creativity.
SHIFT YOUR EYES
Participants in an experiment from Richard Stockton College of New Jersey were asked to shift their eyes back-and-forth horizontally for 30 seconds before creating a list of unconventional uses for everyday objects. The eye movements helped them develop more uses for the objects, possibly because the exercise fired up both hemispheres of the brain.