After staring at the blinking cursor of a blank Word document for two hours (obviously not two hours straight, because Facebook exists), I was starting to feel very concerned about life in general. A deadline was fast approaching and my idea tank was running on empty, leaving a lot of room for anxiety to show up and make fun of me. Enter the giant cup of coffee: two sugars, no milk, and extra promises of a working mind on overdrive. The consumption of caffeine in creative and business circles alike has become a ritual in the religious-like pursuit of productivity. Coffee, or any other of the various forms your caffeine habit may take, has a reputation of acting as liquid creativity. It’s an assumption we all make; yet as coffee shops become packed houses of laptops and jitter-y scribbling, the effects of caffeine on creativity are only hazily understood.
Caffeine mimics a chemical in our brains called adenosine. Adenosine builds up throughout the day to tell our bodies when to rest or sleep. Through this disguise, caffeine attaches to adenosine receptors without activating them, causing a blockade that keeps the body alert well after its expiration date. Without the signal to slow down neural activity, dopamine and glutamate, two chemicals that encourage connections between nerve cells, are granted overtime.
Effects on the Brain
With our neural activity on hyper-drive, we begin to see the familiar effects of caffeine take place. A sharper attention span, an enhanced ability to multitask, and an acute sense of alertness are some of the results of caffeine that positively influence our productivity. Most caffeine studies show a general increase in work output for straightforward and routine tasks. In other words, caffeine is proven to increase efficiency, opening up the potential for creativity to thrive.
Unfortunately, the increase in productivity is short-lived. Caffeine’s block on adenosine receptors eventually dissolves, issuing exaggerated feelings of sluggishness and exhaustion, also known as “crashing.” Too much caffeine can cause a reduction in the control of fine motor movements and an increase in blood pressure, while moderate users are vulnerable to higher risks of anxiety.
The Bottom Line
So does caffeine directly stimulate creativity? No, but it can send out the invitation and hope for at least a “maybe.” While it does its job of keeping us awake and encouraging some baseline performance, it hasn’t proven its ability to magically awaken our inner genius at a moment’s notice. And without that, what’s the point?