The image of the drunk artist or author is a common one, and many creative people struggle with alcohol and drug problems during their lives; in some cases in spite of tremendous financial and popular success. As a society we’ve often wrestled to comprehend the tragedy of such talented young people like Amy Winehouse or Jimi Hendrix that die sudden deaths at a young age from intoxication problems. It doesn’t seem to make sense.

Now, new scientific research is showing that, in fact, it makes perfect sense. An article published in Consciousness and Cognition explains that test subjects intoxicated at a blood alcohol level of 0.075, which is the equivalent of two pints of beer, performed better under tests designed to examine their creativity.

Psychologists at the University of Illinois set 40 young men a series of brain teasers known as RAT tests (Remote Associates Test). The tests are similar to those used on TV shows such as Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune.

Compared to the sober group, the men solved their problems faster and were more likely to have sudden insights. The subject’s performance was assessed from a point of view of attentional control, which refers to individuals’ ability to select what they pay attention to and what they ignore.

Researchers say that it is likely the alcohol makes a person more relaxed and therefore, their brain is able to take in the bigger picture faster. Although, when it comes to physically reacting, as we know from tests on car drivers, the process is slowed down. It may well explain the confidence that drunk drivers feel. While their mind is processing the visual input faster, and they are in fact more in touch with their environment, their brain’s connection with the physical process of operating a moving vehicle has been disrupted.

In all, the drinking group solved nearly 40% more problems than the others and took an average of 12 seconds per question, compared to the 15.5 seconds needed by the sober subjects and the research is a world first in terms of showing alcohol’s effect on creative problem solving.

Co-author Jennifer Wiley commented :

“We tested what happens when people are slightly merry … not when people drink to extremes … The bottom line is that we think being too focused can blind you to novel possibilities, and a broader, more flexible state of attention is needed for creative solutions to emerge.”

It’s probably not worth rushing out to the liquor store right away, independent experts commented that a good night’s sleep ought to have the same effect; although judging by the way most people seem to feel at 8am in the morning, its hard to agree with that.

Written by Rupert Shepherd