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Coffee and Creativity

Marcel Duchamp, "Nude Descending a Staircase"

Those who are creative -- whether they be writers, painters, dancers, photographers, or designers -- know that their muses are fickle creatures by nature. The ideas flow like water... until they don't. Or hours spent staring at a blank page or canvas can be replaced by an almost manic flood of inspiration, where the ideas build up to a near-logjam that's so enormous we have more projects in the works than we know what to do with. We can work ourselves practically to the point of exhaustion, especially when we've reached a state of flow, that optimum mindframe where time practically stands still and all that remains is the object of our attention.

Sometimes we simply wish there was a happy medium, though if you've tried to create nearly anything, you know exactly how rare that is. The creative life seesaws between feast and famine, confidence and despair, between crushing fatigue and a nagging insomnia that just won't go. How, then, does one go about finding a happy medium?

Many turn to coffee. In The New Yorker, author Maria Konnikova notes the example of Honoré de Balzac, who was in the habit of consuming the equivalent of upward of fifty cups of coffee per day just to fuel his prodigious creativity (though, it should be noted, he wasn't a coffee drinker; he was in the habit of ingesting dry coffee beans that'd been reduced to a fine powder). He characterized the stuff as "horrible," but noted that it focused him and spurred creativity.

As with so much else, the science tells a somewhat different story. Balzac was correct in at least one respect: coffee does improve problem-solving, probably due in no small part to its effect on alertness, energy, and focus, thanks to its caffeine content. The part that he got wrong was the connection between alertness and creativity.

Honoré de Balzac (Presumably before his coffee)

We may feel more creative when we're awake (or wired). But as it turns out, that wakeful and sharply attentive state isn't always when we get our best ideas. You may have noticed this already. You're working on a problem or a creative dilemma, and all your work is getting you nowhere; take a break, however -- a nap, some time to wash the dishes, a nice hot shower -- and, almost unbidden, the solution presents itself. In other words, creativity requires a certain degree of absentmindedness that allows our unconscious mind to mull over the problem. Not unlike a computer performing background tasks that might be unrelated to the spreadsheet you're working on, or the instance of Photoshop you've got open, your brain runs background tasks in sleep or at times when your more attentive "processing power" is focused elsewhere.

The solution? There are a few, luckily. One is to ease up on the coffee before bed, since a full night's sleep -- and not just any sleep, but full, restful REM sleep, which caffeine consumption late in the day can interfere with -- can be even more helpful than having just one more latte. Research also suggests that a placebo effect can be gotten from decaffeinated coffee, giving the drinker the feeling of alertness and concentration without the creativity-sapping properties of the caffeine itself.

That isn't to say that coffee doesn't have its place. After all, Balzac consumed his fair share (and probably someone else's) over his lifetime, and his work is still with us. And once the ideas are there, the added alertness and energy can be a big help in actually switching from the ideation phase of something to actually getting that thing done. As with so much else, the keys here are moderation (don't overdo it), and a good sense of timing -- especially knowing when to let the tiredness set in so that your brain can change gears and start giving you solutions that your conscious mind might not have thought of. That sense of balance will help both your creativity and your sanity.

Psssssst: Need a pick-me-up? Try our Wall Street Dark Roast Pods for Nespresso.