Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw’s®
Life Extension NewsTM
Volume 15 No. 3 • June/July 2012


Improved Creative Problem Solving in Humans
By Alcohol Intoxication to Nearly the Legally Drunk Level

Here’s a fun way to increase your creativity! But don’t make it a disaster by driving or operating hazardous machinery while you’re doing this.

A paper1 was published in which researchers tested the hypothesis that getting slightly zonked on alcohol is a way to increase creative problem solving. As the authors say in their introduction: “A popular belief is that altered cognitive processing, whether due to insanity, sleep state, mood, or substance use, may spark creativity among artists, composers, writers, and problem solvers.” But, they go on to say, there has actually been little in the way of scientific investigation to demonstrate the connection empirically.

So, they decided that the time had come to investigate the empirical connection. They describe a possible mechanism for such an alcohol-creativity relationship by suggesting that the reduced ability to control one’s attention (part of executive function) may have a positive effect on certain cognitive tasks by releasing the brain to operate more fluidly to use associational or discontinuous problem solving processes. “One interesting prediction is that superior executive functioning, such as increased attentional control, may in fact be detrimental to reaching creative solutions. Increased attentional control implies that one is better able to screen out peripheral information which, while useful during analytical problem solving, would be disadvantageous in a situation where the assimilation of information outside of the perceived problem space may be useful.”1

The authors describe previous research on the effects of alcohol on problem solving. In one study they describe, for example, intoxicated individuals had particularly poor memory for sequentially presented items, while their memory for simultaneous lists was relatively unimpaired as compared to sober participants. The researchers used a test of moderate alcohol intoxication (.07 blood alcohol concentration, which is in fact just slightly below the usual blood level (.08) considered legally drunk) and a creative problem solving task called RAT, Remote Associates Test. (Ha! Betcha they named it while intoxicated!) For each item on the test, participants are given three target words such as PEACH, ARM, and TAR and are supposed to find a fourth word, such as PIT that forms a good two-word phrase with each of the target words. They suggest that when the initial ideas for the fourth word turn out not to work, it would require divergent thinking and the ability to overcome fixation from earlier guesses in order to “solve” the problem. Thus, participants in the intoxicated condition should solve more RAT items than those in the sober condition or solve them more quickly.

Another way to detect a changed way to solve problems from the sober condition is to notice “flashes” of insight that would suddenly produce a solution as compared to the step-by-step analytical process. The results supported the hypothesis: “intoxicated individuals solved more RAT items, in less time, and were more likely to perceive their solutions as the result of a sudden insight.”1

The authors claim that the results of the current study “begs for continued research using conceptually related measures, such as classical insight problems, and other measures of executive control to generalize these findings.” Go to it!!

Reference

  1. Jarosz et al. Uncorking the muse: alcohol intoxication facilitates creative problem solving. Conscious Cogn 21:487-93 (2012).

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