health | June 23, 2013

Can Coffee Stunt Creativity? Maria Konnikova In The New Yorker

Maria Konnikova's recent New Yorker article may have some avid coffee-drinkers switching to decaf. Studies show that consuming caffeine certainly has benefits, including: Increased alertness, decreased fatigue, enhanced short-term memory, problem solving, decision making, and concentration. However, Konnikova, author of Mastermind, says these benefits come at a cost. In fact, too much coffee could actually hamper your ability to think creatively.

"Creative insights and imaginative solutions often occur when we stop working on a particular problem and let our mind move on to something unrelated," Konnikova explains. The ability think creatively "depends in part on the very thing that caffeine seeks to prevent: a wandering, unfocussed mind." So althought coffee keeps us from falling asleep at our desks, it may actually cause us to focus too intently. "Caffeine prevents our focus from becoming too diffuse," she continues, "it instead hones our attention in a hyper-vigilant fashion." While it's sometimes beneficial to be extremely focused on a task, it's more difficult to complete higher reasoning and decision-making functions after consuming caffeine.

"It may be possible to reap the positive effects of caffeine without the creativity-diminishing side effects, however," she notes. This is thanks to the placebo effect. A 2011 study at the University of East London showed improvement in accuracy and speed in those who had consumed decaffeinated coffee while believing they had consumed caffeinated coffee. If we think the caffeine has a certain effect on us, we may be able to attain those benefits even if the caffeine itself isn't causing them. In her compelling talk, Konnikova shows us how to think like Sherlock Holmes. Creative and deductive thinking are teachable, she asserts—we just have to train our brains to work that way. When it comes to coffee and creativity, Konnikova concludes that "an extremely caffeinated approach may be productive, as long as the mind is allowed to wander every now and again."