Caffeine is the most widely used psychotropic drug in the world, with numerous studies demonstrating its effects on alertness, vigilance, mood, concentration, and attentional focus. Caffeine’s effects on creative thinking, on the other hand, are unknown.
Caffeine improves focus and problem solving, but according to a new study by a University of Arkansas researcher, it does not stimulate creativity. While a coffee break may appear to be exactly what you need when you’re feeling uninspired at work, a new study suggests it may not be the best strategy for creative thinking.
Caffeine affects our ability to do two cognitive tasks: problem-solving and brainstorming, according to researchers from the University of Arkansas. Caffeine consumption “significantly enhanced” problem-solving abilities, meaning they solved problems faster and more accurately but had no effect on people’s ability to generate new ideas, according to the researchers.
Caffeine increases the ability to focus and problem solve, but a new study by a University of Arkansas researcher indicates it doesn’t stimulate creativity.
“In Western cultures, caffeine is stereotypically associated with creative occupations and lifestyles, from writers and their coffee to programmers and their energy drinks, and there’s more than a kernel of truth to these stereotypes,” wrote Darya Zabelina, assistant professor of psychology and the study’s first author.
While the cognitive benefits of caffeine are well established – increased alertness, improved vigilance, improved focus, and improved motor performance – the stimulant’s effect on creativity is less well understood, she claims.
In the paper, Zabelina distinguishes between “convergent” and “divergent” thinking. The former is defined as looking for a specific solution to a problem, such as the “right” answer. The latter is distinguished by the generation of ideas in situations where a large number of appropriate, novel, or interesting responses would be appropriate. In the study, caffeine was shown to improve convergent thinking while having no effect on divergent thinking.
In the study, 80 volunteers were randomly assigned to receive either a 200mg caffeine pill (equivalent to one strong cup of coffee) or a placebo. They were then tested on standard convergent and divergent thinking, working memory, and mood measures. Aside from the results on creativity, caffeine had no effect on working memory, but test subjects who took it reported feeling less sad.
“The 200mg significantly improved problem-solving but had no effect on creative thinking,” Zabelina explained. “It also didn’t make it worse, so keep drinking your coffee; it won’t impair these abilities.”
According to the study’s authors, 200 mg of caffeine may not be enough to affect people’s ability to generate ideas. Most people can safely consume 400 mg of caffeine per day, which is roughly equivalent to two strong cups of coffee. Caffeine overdose can result in shakiness, headaches, anxiety, sleep problems, dehydration, and a rapid heartbeat.
Caffeine also has other advantages: it has been shown to improve mood, which could be useful if you’re about to embark on a brainstorming session or working on a creative project.
However, there are a plethora of other scientifically supported ways to boost your creativity. Going for a walk in nature has been shown in studies to “open up the free flow of ideas.” Even taking a nap has been shown to improve memory and focus more than caffeine.