Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D, addresses the idea that drinking alcohol can make you smarter.
In May of this year the New York Daily News published an article titled Beer Makes Men Smarter, which got a lot of attention (http://nydn.us/ILyO15). It was only one of many publications that ran similar stories.
Is it true? Can drinking really make men smarter? Let’s take a closer look.
The Experiment That Started the Buzz
The March 2012 online edition of the journal Consciousness and Cognition included an article co-authored by Jennifer Wiley, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, along with two graduate students, titled Uncorking the Muse: Alcohol Intoxication Facilitates Creative Problem Solving. Here is what these researchers did:
Starting with a group of 40 men, none of whom were identified as alcoholics or problem drinkers, half were given a mix of vodka and cranberry juice – enough to bring their blood alcohol level to 0.75, or just shy of the legal limit of .08. The other half did not drink anything. Both groups were then given two tests, one that involves memorizing words and one involving “word association” that asks people to think of a word that “goes with” a series of words, such as “apple, banana, _________.”
What did they find? They found that the intoxicated group did better on the word association test, but worse on the memory test. So, does that prove that drinking makes men smarter? Well, that depends in part of what your idea of “smarter” is. For example, what role does memory play in intelligence (and creativity)? And how exactly does word association relate to creative success?
The relative performance of these two groups was measured in a highly controlled setting. In other words, we have no way of knowing what the results would have been if the researchers had compared a group of four-beers-a-day men to a group of men who drank four beers a week.
In commenting on the implications of her research for creativity, Dr. Wiley was fairly modest, saying “Sometimes the really creative stuff comes when you’re having a glass of wine over dinner, or when you’re taking a shower.” But the writer of the Daily News piece (and others) went much further, stating of the results, “It may help to explain why raving drunks like Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, and Charles Bukowski were able to write their books.”
Creative Success and Drinking: A Reality Check
Could it be true that famous authors, such as Ernest Hemingway, may have been successful in part to the fact that they were notoriously heavy drinkers? Let’s look at a few examples:
- Both Ernest Hemingway and a famous contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, produced their best work early in their careers, before they became alcoholics.
- Fitzgerald died in his early 40s of a heart condition caused by his alcoholism. Sadly, in his later years Fitzgerald referred to alcohol as a “stimulant,” whereas it is actually a depressant. He struggled with his writing as he aged, and his later works are generally considered inferior to books such as The Great Gatsby.
- Hemingway committed suicide after succumbing to flagrant alcoholism. It is widely recognized that, like Fitzgerald, he hit his literary prime early, not later. He wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls when he was 40; he shot himself at the age of 62.
- Then there is Truman Capote. He also became an alcoholic and died an early death, at age 59, in 1984. Capote also produced his best work prior to being ravaged by alcoholism. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was published in 1958, In Cold Blood appeared in 1966.
So it would appear that drinking may not facilitate creativity after all, at least not in the long run, as much as we might be tempted to believe so. The above authors all drank to excess, but not to facilitate their creativity; rather, they likely drank to quell their personal demons, whatever they may have been.
Writing a book, like any other creative endeavor, requires complex cognitive skills. These include not only the ability to think conceptually but also the ability to organize and articulate one’s thoughts. It also helps to be able to remember what you wrote two chapters ago. In other words, it’s a long stretch from “apple, banana, _______” to any of the above literary masterpieces.
Sharing a beer or two with friends on occasion can be an enjoyable experience. However, I pity the man who is struggling with writing (or any other creative activity) who concludes that drinking is the pathway to creative success and who seeks a solution through drinking. Those creative men I have spoken to (including some who have ventured into the “almost alcoholic” zone depicted in the diagram below, have told me that their creativity suffered while they remained in that zone, although a few had (for a time) convinced themselves otherwise.
About the author:
Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., is a co-author of Almost Alcoholic: Is My (or My Loved One’s) Drinking a Problem? (Hazelden, April 2012). Nowinski is a clinical psychologist and was assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California—San Francisco and associate adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut. For more information, please visit www.TheAlmostEffect.com.
Photo — Declan Merriman