Most legal professionals prefer a flat white over a Steinlager when heading to work in the morning – or so we’d hope – but Ernest Hemmingway’s famous advice to “write drunk, edit sober”, might just hold some validity.
We certainly aren’t suggesting that lawyers should start imbibing on the job. However, the scientific processes behind why both alcohol and caffeine can affect your work performance for the better might just give that added incentive to join your colleagues for after-work drinks.
In a nutshell, alcohol enhances creative thinking whilst caffeine, as we all know, boosts energy.
Creativity is scientifically described as the brain’s ability to think of something original from connections made between pre-existing concepts in your brain. These ideas are controlled by neurotransmitters like adenosine, which tells your brain when you’re running out of energy.
Adenosine is kind of like your brain’s battery status monitor. Once your energy levels get low, adenosine alerts your brain and starts to slow down brain functioning.
This is why, after a few hours of intense work, you begin to feel tired, like your brain has run out of juice.
Your brain on coffee
Every coffee drinker is familiar with the feelings associated with caffeine ingestion: increased energy levels, improved mood, general increased feelings of goodwill towards your fellow human beings, etc.
This happens because caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, preventing adenosine from binding to its receptors and tricking your brain into thinking you have lots of energy – and the effect happens within just five minutes of drinking your coffee.
When adenosine receptors are blocked, chemicals that increase the performance of your neural activity, like glucose, dopamine, and glutamate, are allowed to work overtime.
So, while you may feel that coffee is giving you more energy, it’s simply telling your body that your energy reserves are good to go even after they’re long gone.
The peak effect of caffeine on your body happens between 15 minutes and two hours after you consume it.
When caffeine from your coffee enters your bloodstream, you become more alert from an increase in the production of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
The problem is, if this over-stimulation of adrenaline and cortisol occurs too regularly, your adrenal glands, which absorb adrenaline to help make you feel energized, gradually begin to require more adrenaline to give you the same ‘pick-me-up’ feeling as before.
Why there are lots of famous drunk artists, but no famous drunk accountants
While caffeine pulls a number on your brain to make you feel like you have more energy, alcohol has its own way of influencing your creativity.
After you’ve had a couple beers, drinking makes you less focused because it decreases your working memory and you begin to care less about what’s happening around you. But as researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago discovered, this can be a good thing for creativity’s sake.
The researchers devised a game where 40 men were given three words and told to come up with a fourth that could make a two-word combination with all three words.
For example, the word “pit” works with “arm”, “peach”, and “tar”:
Half of the men drank two pints of beer before playing the game while the other half drank nothing. The results showed that men who drank solved 40% more of the problems than sober men.
It was concluded that a blood alcohol level of 0.07 (about 2 drinks) made the participants better at creative problem-solving tasks but not necessarily working memory tasks where they had to pay attention to things happening in their surroundings (like driving a car).
By reducing your ability to pay attention to the world around you, alcohol frees up your brain to think more creatively.
Alcohol produces better ideas
In an interesting study on the topic of alcohol and its effects on creativity, author Dave Birss brought together a group of 18 advertising creative directors and split them into two teams.
One team was allowed to drink as much alcohol as they wanted while the other team had to stay sober.
The groups were given a brief and had to come up with as many ideas as they could in three hours. These ideas were then graded by a collection of top creative directors.
The result? The team of drinkers not only produced the most ideas but also came up with four of the top five best ideas.
While alcohol may not be the drink of choice when you need to be alert and focused on what’s going on around you, it seems that a couple drinks can be helpful when you need to come up with new ideas.
A creative prescription: The optimal way to drink coffee and beer
Both coffee and beer (in moderation) have shown to be helpful when you’re working on certain types of tasks, however, you shouldn’t drink either when you need to do detail-oriented or analytical projects.
The increase in adrenaline from caffeine and inhibition of your working memory from alcohol will make you more prone to make mistakes.
The best time to have a beer (or two) would be when you’re searching for an initial idea. Because alcohol helps decrease your working memory (making you feel relaxed and less worried about what’s going on around you), you’ll have more brain power dedicated to making deeper connections.
Coffee, meanwhile, doesn’t necessarily help you access more creative parts of your brain like a couple pints of beer.
If you’ve already got an idea or an outline of where you want to go with your project, a cup of coffee would do wonders compared to having a beer to execute on your idea.
The general consensus across caffeine studies is that it can increase quality and performance if the task you are doing seems easy and doesn’t require too much abstract thinking.
Always in moderation
If you decide to drink coffee or beer while you’re working, stick to no more than two drinks per sitting and try not to do this more than once or twice per week to prevent dependency.
They are ways to create chemical changes that occur naturally in your body with a healthy lifestyle. Quality sleep, a healthy diet, and allowing yourself to take breaks by splitting your day into sprints will do the same trick.
But, if you have to choose between coffee or beer, think about what type of task you are about to do and make sure you don’t over-drink.
Too much of either and you’ll lose the benefits of both.