Caffeine: For the More Creative Mind

Does caffeine "cramp creativity"? It shouldn't. More likely the opposite, if you do it right.
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Fear can sometimes be a useful emotion. For instance, let's say you're an astronaut on the moon and you fear that your partner has been turned into Dracula. The next time he goes out for the moon pieces, wham! You just slam the door behind him and blast off. He might call you on the radio and say he's not Dracula, but you just say, "Think again, bat man."
-- Jack Handey

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Some say Sherlock Holmes' regular use of cocaine was Doyle's vehicle to illustrate the character's moral weakness. It likely began more simply as a window into the culture of the time, when hard stimulants weren't the taboo they are today. W.H. Auden apparently did believe his own dependence on the stimulant Benzedrine to be a sign of weak character, but he still took it every working morning and endorsed its creative influences effusively. Jack Kerouac and Jean-Paul Sartre offer similar testaments. Sir Elton John sang "Bennie and the Jets" ... which may be in praise of Benzedrine, but is open to interpretation, depending where you stand on mohair suits.

2013's cultural Benzedrines are Adderall (a brand name for amphetamine) and excessive coffee. Caffeine remains non-prescription legal, and it's still universally considered benignly delightful to make offhand comments about how unproductive we are without it. "I'm a total grump if I don't get my coffee!" Funny, relatable, true. "Get out of my way when I haven't had my coffee -- or I will hurt you." Consider the ice broken. "Seriously I will cut you." Okay, that's enough.

"What is the frequency, Kenneth? Is this your Benzedrine? Kenneth? Kenneth, look at me."

Despite its legality and social acceptance, people dependent on caffeine do occasionally betray a tenor of insecurity about it. There's an element of fear. That may be why we laugh about it. I see it in the retiring eyes of people asking me about their caffeine habits, and in the numbers of people who read and share stories we publish about coffee. A cover article titled "Is Caffeine Killing You?" would, almost regardless of its execution, probably be the most popular thing on this site. Ninety percent of people in the U.S. ingest caffeine on a daily basis, and many of them also fear death.

Meanwhile, for some, a threat to creativity is only slightly less terrifying than a threat to life. Being boring is just a notch above being malicious or genocidal in the hierarchy of human values for generation Millennial. So when, last week, friend-of-The-Atlantic Maria Konnikova wrote an interesting piece for The New Yorker entitled "How Caffeine Can Cramp Creativity," it concerned people like me. That is, people who use caffeine regularly and also sometimes want to create things and be interesting. The article read, "While caffeine has numerous benefits, it appears that the drug may undermine creativity more than it stimulates it." So let's look at caffeine biochemistry for a quick second.

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(picturezealot/flickr)

The basic science of caffeine goes something like this. Cyclic AMP gives your body energy. Phosphodiesterase is an enzyme that breaks down cyclic AMP. Caffeine blocks phosphodiesterase. So cyclic AMP stays around longer when you have caffeine in your blood, and you have more energy. It comes from the natural substances that your body produces and always give you energy; they just last longer.

Caffeine also blocks adenosine receptors in your brain. Stephen Braun, author of Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine, once explained it as an "indirect stimulant, as opposed to, say, amphetamine which liberates dopamine, a directly stimulating neurotransmitter. By blocking adenosine receptors, caffeine allows the brain's own stimulating neurotransmitters (i.e. glutamate and dopamine) to do their thing with greater gusto and less restraint."

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I like the analogy that it turns off the body's brakes. How it affects creativity is mostly conjecture, and will vary from person to person. To say that it cramps creativity is kind of at best an interesting potential notion. It's one that begins with what is a very real and common complaint among creatives who take hard stimulants like Adderall: that it makes them too focused. The medication makes minutiae deeply stimulating, fascinating. People can get hung up for 45 minutes on what pair of pants to wear -- because, have you felt corduroy? -- to the point they're late to work. At least they did get the right pants. 

Prescription stimulants are what enable hyperactive people to spend 12 hours memorizing organic chemistry equations. The brain is getting a natural dose of the stimulation that it might otherwise get from checking Twitter or email or taking a break to eat scones. That stuff doesn't matter anymore. It's the extreme version of what makes meth addicts spend 12 hours digging at an itchy scab on their face. Such an interesting scab, and so important to keep picking at it. It is the state of mind of a worker bee, not an out-of-the-box creative.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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