The Mojito Muse

Is there any scientific evidence behind the Creative Alcoholic stereotype?

Writer: Sunny Liu
Editor: Maddie Wigmore-Sykes
Art: Lisa Burna-Asefi


The morning sun shone through my window. Wearily, I forced my eyes open, only to see an unfamiliar… thing. A traffic cone. In my bed. Under the covers. This raised many questions. Where had I gotten it from? Who did it belong to?

After a mild rest, I retraced the remnants of my memory. Last night, after finishing some vodka at a pre-event, I had realized three things on the way to the club:

  1. I’m slurring a little.
  2. I (accidentally?) texted my ex :O
  3. I knew the solution to a question in my calculus problem set.

A monumental discovery of that night was the phenomenon of alcohol-improved problem-solving skills. The next day, I sat down with a beer (and a few more), my favourite traffic cone, and went about my problem set.

Tragically, but unsurprisingly, I only got one question correct. It wasn’t even the vodka-inspired one. Perhaps that’s why I’m not studying maths.

Now, as a student of science, with some G&T, I’m here to provide some evidence of the Mojito Muse – does alcohol inspire creativity?

To examine the effects of alcohol on creativity, we must first define creativity. In psychology, creativity is thought to rely on both controlled and spontaneous cognition. On one hand, mental resources are required to focus our attention on a problem and think of various approaches. On the other, one also needs to balance that focus by “loosening up” and thinking outside-of-the-box, especially when one is fixated on a dead end – an impasse of thought, such as the infamous writer’s block. Creativity can thus be measured by a combination of divergent thinking tasks and the Remote Associates Test (RAT). An example of a divergent thinking task is one in which participants are asked to find creative uses for common objects which are scored by six independent judges. The RAT presents three unrelated words to the participant, who is tasked to find the connection. For instance, “cheese” connects the words “blue, cottage, cake”.

A brain region that is heavily implicated in creativity is the prefrontal cortex. This area is known to be responsible for inhibitory control, executive function, and logical thinking. As expected and controlled cognition is highly associated with prefrontal cortex activation, the lack thereof is associated with spontaneous cognition, the other half in the dichotomy of creativity.

This is where it gets interesting.

Alcoholic beverages, specifically the psychoactive component, ethanol, is known to have a multi-faceted effect on our brain. Aside from its addictive and euphoria-inducing properties, ethanol is known to inhibit prefrontal cortex function. As anyone who’s had one too many drinks and subsequently made questionable (if not regrettable) decisions can attest to, ethanol’s ability to “loosen” one’s inhibitions cannot be doubted. Personally, I think some of these decisions can be rather creative as well, as evident in the number of drunk students I’ve witnessed being stuck in shrubberies.

This may be one of the roots of the urban myth that one becomes much more creative when inebriated. Tying back to neuropsychology, it appears that alcohol may have a mixed effect on creativity – while it is expected to hinder controlled cognition which is vital when approaching a problem, it is hypothesized to enhance spontaneous cognition. This leads us to a paradox – will alcohol therefore enhance or hinder creativity?

A professor in Austria sought answers in what is, undoubtedly, a rather exciting research experiment to participate in. Mathias Benedek and his team from the University of Graz found that alcohol did, in fact, aid creative thinking. Participants who drank moderate amounts of beer had a statistically significant higher creativity score than those who were sober. Despite inhibiting executive control (even at very low amounts), which likely reduced the participants’ ability in controlled cognition, the creativity score was more than compensated by the improvement in measurements of spontaneous thinking. As the authors noted, alcohol may possibly mitigate fixation effects, which is the phenomenon when previous conceptions block the generation of novel ideas, and this is perhaps something to keep in mind the next time you have an essay to write but you’re suffering from a mental block (please note: I am not responsible for your grades). Unfortunately, likely due to ethical reasons, research was conducted only on lower amounts of alcohol – we do not know if there is a dose-dependent effect. I’d like to think that there is. There probably isn’t.

Of course, this may not be the whole picture. Other researches have shown that ethanol makes one perceive his own ideas to be a lot more creative than they are – undoubtedly, one of the factors contributing to the urban legend of the Mojito Muse.

Ultimately, you should understand the effects of alcohol on your own cognition. If you want to drink, do so in moderation – as in everything else. As Mark Twain said, “I never smoke to excess – that is, I smoke in moderation, only one cigar at a time.”

References 

Benedek, M., Panzierer, L., Jauk, E., & Neubauer, A. C. (2017). Creativity on tap? Effects of alcohol intoxication on creative cognition. Consciousness and cognition, 56, 128-134.

Boileau, I., Assaad, J. M., Pihl, R. O., Benkelfat, C., Leyton, M., Diksic, M., Tremblay R. E., & Dagher, A. (2003). Alcohol promotes dopamine release in the human nucleus accumbens. Synapse, 49(4), 226-231.

Grace, A. A. (2000). The tonic/phasic model of dopamine system regulation and its implications for understanding alcohol and psychostimulant craving. Addiction, 95(8s2), 119-128.

Jarosz, A. F., Colflesh, G. J., & Wiley, J. (2012). Uncorking the muse: Alcohol intoxication facilitates creative problem solving. Consciousness and Cognition, 21(1), 487-493.

Lang, A. R., Verret, L. D., & Watt, C. (1984). Drinking and creativity: Objective and subjective effects. Addictive Behaviors, 9(4), 395-399.

Oscar-Berman, M., & Marinković, K. (2007). Alcohol: effects on neurobehavioral functions and the brain. Neuropsychology review, 17(3), 239-257.

Stuber, G. D., Hopf, F. W., Tye, K. M., Chen, B. T., & Bonci, A. (2010). Neuroplastic alterations in the limbic system following cocaine or alcohol exposure. In Behavioral Neuroscience of Drug Addiction (pp. 3-27). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

Yoshimoto, K., McBride, W. J., Lumeng, L., & Li, T. K. (1992). Alcohol stimulates the release of dopamine and serotonin in the nucleus accumbens. Alcohol, 9(1), 17-22.
Zakhari, S. (2006). Overview: how is alcohol metabolized by the body?. Alcohol Research, 29(4), 245.

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